"Alexander the Great, his name struck fear into hearts of men! Alexander the Great became a legend 'mongst mortal men!" Yeah, Steve Harris isn't exactly a champion lyricist, but hey, I guess such that song reference fits... this discussion of a 1950s sword-and-sandals film starring Richard Burton. Maybe Iron Maiden gels better with Oliver Stone's "Alexander", because it is so over-the-top, and I'll even admit that, even though I'm one of, like, twelve people who actually likes it, or at least the director's cut that Stone was so lucky to obtain. Poor old Robert Rossen was no so lucky, and that big, three-hour epic he was planning on ended up getting producered down by Gordon Griffith (Nice going, son of Tarzan) to a two-hour-and-a-quarter-long bomb of proportions about as colossal as this subject matter. Man, Charlton Heston told them that this film would be easy to make bad, and he was off making "The Ten Commandments" while this was all going on, so he was in a real prophesying kind of mood, and sure enough, some of what few people who actually saw this film would argue that it's not even as good as Oliver Stone's "Alexander", with one of those people being me... that one jerk who thought that "Alexander" was good. Yeah, this film is alright, but it's still not quite the overblown mess of an ultimately pretty good epic that was Stone's effort, and for more than a few reasons.
Robert Rossen's script is hardly a disaster and has its share of aspects worth complimenting, but if nothing else is flawed about this film, it is indeed its script, which has moments of fall-flat dialogue that prove to be rather cheesy, especially when backing histrionics, which were undoubtedly rich during the much more romantic time portrayed here in this film, but are overemphasized in this film to the point of feeling simply disengagingly manufactured. If Rossen's script is tainted with nothing else, it is, of course, conventionalism, something that had to been difficult to avoid at this time in which Hollywood ancient epics were abundant, but is so shamelessly overexplored in this film that final product all but, if not decidedly stands as generic to the point of being trite. Now, the final product's genericism is not harshly grating, but it is exceedingly disconcerting, distancing some investment that would have perhaps been easily recovered if this film took the time to flesh out its intriguing subject matter more. I'm going to tell you right now, if this film's being abridged from three hours or so to just under 140 minutes was as last-minute as they say, then that fact is palpable, as there a couple of times in which this film awkwardly slam-bangs exposition, if it takes time at all to flesh out exposition that is, because as surprisingly well-rounded as this film is in a couple of areas, regardless of its length that is relatively too short when compared to subject matter this sweeping, there's still a lot that feels undercooked, and perhaps could have been firmly meditated upon within this two-hours and a quarter timeframe if this film didn't waste time with moments of slow-down that are brought on by aimless filler. The film's unevenness in pacing is problematic in a subtle fashion, but rest assured that, before too long, you find yourself drifting farther from this character piece that you should by all of the meandering storytelling whose expository depth lapses more often than it should, and it doesn't help that no matter what the pacing is in the story structuring department, the film's atmosphere has a tendency to dry up into blandness that rarely, if ever bores as severely as they say, but certainly dulls things down a bit. A film this flawed could easily collapse into, at best, mediocrity, yet this effort's strengths compensate enough to craft a decent final product, but one whose decency goes challenged by conventionalism, aimlessness, dramatic shortcoming and all around unrealized ambition, thus making the final product kind of forgettable. Still, while I was with the film, I must admit that I found myself enjoying it more often than not, because no matter how flawed the film is, compensation is still there, even in the photographic value.
For 1956, this film looked mighty good, but by now, Robert Krasker's and Theodore J. Pahle's limited photographic tastes aren't what they used to be, and yet, there's no denying the quality of this film's visual style at the time, largely because the film is still quite handsome by today's standards, with a comfortable framing to give you a good feel for this world, and vibrant coloring to, not necessarily stun, but still catch your eye and really pronounce the beauty of a certain aspect that is even greater than the photography. The film could have lazed out and given you a bare-bones representation of the 4th century BC, but an immediate reflection of this project's ambition is the rich quality of its production value, with David Ffolkes designing distinct and stylishly attractive costumes that help in defining the characters who don them, while art director Andrej Andrejew designs a look for this film that not only convinces you of the distinct era, but proves to be handsomely intricate, with a striking flavor that impresses time and again throughout the film's course. If nothing is good about this film, it's its look, because whether it's well-designed or well-shot, the look of this film proves to be consistently attractive, at least on an artistic level, and that might be more than this film deserves. This film has a fine style, though not enough substance, and yet, with that said, it's hard to deny this film's desire to deliver on compelling storytelling, as surely as it's difficult to not understand why this film would be backed by so much ambition, for although this film isn't as meditative upon dramatic possibilities as, well, Oliver Stone's "Alexander" (Please, people, don't get on my back), Alexander the Great's story is still a captivating one with a wealth of political, military and human intrigue that could go into making the layered, sweepingly resonant epic that this film really isn't. Still, no matter how often this film falls short when it comes to storytelling, it would fall out of the decency that it holds so firmly were it not for those fair deal of moments in which Robert Rossen, as both director and writer, gives you a taste of anything from moderate entertainment value to a bit of human characterization, anchored by good acting. The performances in this film aren't killer, with some supporting performances feeling kind of dated, yet there is still charisma throughout this cast that Richard Burton heads as not simply particularly charismatic, but surprisingly effectively layered in his portrayal of the rise of one of the great leaders of legend, who gradually grows from an ambitious and promising young prince into a powerful, if flawed leader whose depths are sold about as much as they can be by Burton. Burton isn't as impressive as he would go on to be in 1963's "Cleopatra", but he is impressive enough to help in carrying this mess of a film, which faces too many shortcomings to come closer to rewarding than collapsing into mediocrity, but nonetheless stands as generally decent on ground that is still a bit shaky.
Bottom line, script flaws present the occasional fall-flat dialogue piece and more than a few histrionic moments, as well as conventionalism that joins uneven pacing and many a dry spell in distancing engagement value and investment enough for the film to fall as underwhelming, yet still retain a reasonable degree of decency through handsome cinematography, excellent production value, high points in storytelling and decent acting, - particularly by leading man Richard Burton - which do enough justice to an intriguing story to make Robert Rossen's "Alexander the Great" a generally enjoyable early cinematic look at the life of one of history's great leaders, even if it is far from as great as its primary focus.
2.5/5 - Fair