A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A look at an earlier film biography of the conqueror from the Golden Age of sword-and-sandal epics
Here's a trivia quiz for movie buffs: what Welsh-born actor portrayed a Roman centurion, a Macedonian king, and Marc Antony? The answer, of course, is the late Richard Burton, appearing in starring roles in The Robe (1953), Alexander the Great (1955), and Cleopatra (1963). Film critic David Thomson wrote that Burton "was all too willing to dress up and indulge in a rather hollow, grand manner of acting." Despite Thomson's mixed review of Burton's performances, I have always found his portrayal of Alexander a compelling interpretation of the Macedonian conqueror's character.
From a strictly technical standpoint this is not a good film. The process shots are primitive, the sets are cheap and historically inaccurate, the editing is choppy, the continuity is erratic, it is replete with historical errors, and it seems to have lost its focus as the moody, enigmatic Alexander picked his way across Asia. This film is not even close to the technical quality found in some other sword-and-sandal epics of the period: Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Silver Chalice, and Spartacus, to mention a few. One wonders what drew the distinguished director, Robert Rossen (whose credits include Body and Soul, All the King's Men, and The Hustler), to this project, unless it was the challenge of commanding the 6,000 soldiers from the Spanish army who served as extras. The shoddiness of the film is most evident in the sequences depicting Alexander's conquests in Asia--a hurried compression of events and battle scenes interspersed with a few standard Alexander stories. As we watched the film again recently my wife remarked, "So tedious. How can conquering the world be so tedious?" The second half of the film can be missed without loss.
But the early part of the film, even while suffering from the same condition of shooting-on-the cheap, is a serious study of Macedonian court intrigue, dominated by the powerful performances of Fredric March as Philip of Macedon, and of Burton in the title role. This part of the story is based squarely on Plutarch's Life of Alexander, and it is a faithful rendering of that ancient biographer not only in spirit but also in many details. It accurately captures the mood of court life during Philip's campaigns in Greece and in the Balkan regions along the Macedonian frontier, during which era Prince Alexander grew into young manhood.
The film emphasizes one of the most complex human stories that we know from antiquity, the ambivalent relationship that existed between the warrior-chief Philip and his talented and ambitious son. There were good reasons for the king to be wary of Alexander and his close relationship with his mother Olympias, now cast aside by Philip. Yet Alexander demonstrated enormous military talent and charismatic leadership, traits that not only threatened Philip but also made him confident that he had fostered a competent comrade and successor. Few kings in history have been so fortunate in their sons. To the extent that we know anything about Philip and Alexander's feelings about one another, March and Burton provide a memorable account of it. Given the talents of the director and his major actors one wonders what some expert historical/technical advice and a more generous budget might have yielded.
Eugene N. Borza is professor emeritus of ancient history at Pennsylvania State University.