Inside Alexander, Colin Farrell’s swords and sandals howler
The past year has been a glorious one for Colin Farrell, acclaimed in everything from The Batman to survival drama Thirteen Lives, and now, in perhaps his greatest performance to date: Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin. Having won a Golden Globe and the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival, he is currently favourite to win Best Actor at the Oscars.
And yet, one particular career misfire continues to dog him, almost two decades on. When participating in a roundtable interview to discuss Banshees, Farrell discussed the failure of Oliver Stone’s ancient world epic Alexander, about Alexander the Great, with a mixture of wit and ruefulness.
It was a film of staggering ambition, and should have established the then-28 year old actor as Hollywood’s premier leading man, while consolidating Stone’s already legendary career. “As grand as it was, as global as it was, as political as it was, as thrilling as it was, as violent as it was, and as sensual as it was, it was really personal – to Oliver and to me”, reminisced Farrell. Instead, it was a notorious flop, and a subject of mockery. What went so wrong?
At the beginning of the millennium, the so-called “sword and sandals” genre – once hugely popular thanks to such films as Spartacus and Ben Hur – had fallen into abeyance. Pictures of that nature were seen as too violent, too old-fashioned and too male to attract a wide audience, as well as intrinsically camp.
When the captain asks his young passenger “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?” in Airplane!, the joke acknowledged that those kind of films were both outmoded and unintentionally funny. This changed dramatically with the success of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000, which combined breath-taking spectacle and cutting-edge special effects with newfound psychological depth, to acclaimed effect. Not only did it win multiple Oscars, including Best Film and Best Actor for its star Russell Crowe, but it made half a billion dollars at the box office. Studios sat up and took notice: the ancient world was big business once again.
While the success of Gladiator was to encourage directors such as Wolfgang Petersen to plunder classical literature for such films as Troy, Oliver Stone had different ideas. Stone was then one of Hollywood’s premier directors of such politically-driven dramas as JFK and Nixon, as well as a peerless (and Oscar-winning) chronicler of the Vietnam experience, having famously excelled with such pictures as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.
He understood everything from the dynamics of battle to powerful men faced with intolerable personal pressure, and he was fascinated by the saga of the ancient Greek ruler Alexander the Great, a man who had conquered the known world, only to die at 32. Stone had grown up idolising both Alexander and Fifties historical epics. As he said of his youthful experiences going to the cinema to watch them, “It would take three or four hours. You would go with your parents on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon…it was special and very meaningful to us.”
As Stone’s career proceeded, and he attracted ever-greater acclaim as both a director and screenwriter, he refused to abandon his dream project. He wrote a script as early as the mid-Eighties, around the time he made Platoon, and the film seemed to be on the verge of production numerous times during the Eighties and Nineties, only to be dashed at the last moment. When it was announced that Baz Luhrmann would be making his own film about Alexander the Great, to star Leonardo DiCaprio as Alexander and Nicole Kidman as his mother Queen Olympias – and, it was confirmed recently, Mel Gibson as Alexander’s insane father Philip of Macedon – Stone’s project appeared to be dead in the water.
Yet Luhrmann’s famously protracted production process meant that there was an opportunity for a rival Alexander project to be made, if it could be done quickly and at the right budget. Stone had a meeting with the producer Moritz Borman, who ran the independent German company Intermedia: Borman had previously worked on everything from Terminator 3 to The Quiet American, and wanted to make a profitable, award-winning film with a director he revered. Nonetheless, when they first met to discuss the project, Borman could already see the possibility for danger. “I had wanted to work with Oliver badly. And so I met with him and asked him, ‘What would you like to do?’ I was hoping he’d come back and say something small with just three people in a room. Panic Room 2! He said, ‘You know what? I want to get back into Alexander.’”
Borman was impressed by Stone’s obvious passion for the subject, not to mention his clear identification with the central character: a brilliant, arrogant man who achieved things believed impossible by the more cautious, even as he frequently flew close to the sun. The producer agreed to finance the film’s $155 million budget, along with a range of production partners, and it began filming in early 2003, in locations including Thailand, Morocco, Malta and Britain.
Along with a cast composed of both British character actors and young up-and-coming Americans – including Jared Leto as Alexander’s confidante and lover Hephaestion and Rosario Dawson as Alexander’s wife Roxana – Stone reunited with his Doors star Val Kilmer, as Philip, and his Nixon leading man Anthony Hopkins, who played Ptolemy as well as serving as the film’s narrator. Yet for Alexander, he needed a young, brilliant actor who was possessed of limitless charisma, and could convince as both a leader of men and a near-godlike figure. Who could he cast?
When Stone first met Farrell, he was drawn to him because of his unguarded nature and outspoken ways: “I like to f___ girls and I like to drink beer”, Stone recalled Farrell saying. Although rumours had been circulating about Farrell’s heavy drinking and drug use since his rise to fame a few years before, he was also an actor of immense charisma and range, and so the director believed that he would be the perfect fit for his Alexander. However, in what would be a much-ridiculed choice, Stone also decided that Farrell’s dark hair should be dyed bleach-blonde: while this was historically accurate, it also had the unfortunate side effect of making the most powerful man in the ancient world look like a Beach Boy.
When filming began, there was barely constrained chaos throughout. Stone has always been a director whose fiercely iconoclastic style cannot be tempered by such dull considerations as health and safety, and, at one point, he was filming a battle scene in which Farrell’s Alexander charges on horseback towards a war elephant.
In the film, it’s a hallucinatory, arresting moment, indicating how far Alexander has descended into unchecked mania. On set, Stone wished to film the moment for real, without CGI. Farrell’s horse was unsurprisingly terrified by the elephant before it and threw its rider off, meaning that the star was lying on the ground in a puddle of his own blood. The director took in the situation, and responded briskly. “Will he be okay? Okay, then. Let’s keep going.”
As production continued, the film had to contend with what Entertainment Weekly briskly described as “minor drug use, wild rumours of on-set sexual merry-go-rounds, brushes with total financial catastrophe, travel from Marrakech to London to Thailand, and some very, very bad blond hair.” Yet had the finished picture been a success, none of this would have mattered.
Gladiator, after all, had begun filming without a finished script, and its star Crowe had famously refused to utter its iconic speech about how “I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next”, on the grounds that it was “s___…but I'm the greatest actor in the world and I can make even s___ sound good.” Crowe was vindicated. With Farrell and Alexander, however, the major difficulty came that Stone was ordered to complete the film swiftly, so that it could be ready for autumn 2004, and it had a rushed post-production schedule. The filmmaker subsequently sighed that “In hindsight, I wish we had had a little more money and that I had had the guts to say ‘look, I am not ready.’”
Unfortunately, by the time that the film was released in the autumn of 2004, the gulf between expectation and result was a crushing one. As Farrell said in his recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, “We all had our tuxedos ready [for awards shows]…we were all like, ‘Right, lads, we’re off to the Oscars. This is a sure thing.’ And then it came out. The reviews came out, and I remember someone going, ‘Oh God, it’s not good.’ And my publicist going, ‘It’s really not good.’ I was like, ‘Well, what do you mean “not good”?'”
The reviews were damning, and reserved most of their contempt for Farrell, who was largely regarded as an inadequate Alexander. As he shamefacedly recalled “One [review] after another was telling me to pack my bags, I’d been found out: ‘Alexander the Dull,’ ‘Alexander the Boring,’ ‘Alexander the Inarticulate,’ ‘Alexander the Weak.’ I was like, ‘Holy s___.’ I thought, ‘What can I do?’ I felt so much shame. I found myself in a place where with everyone I met I wanted to say, ‘Have you seen Alexander? If you have, I’m really sorry.’” He fled to a ski resort, and suffered a crisis of confidence. “After that, yeah, I did question. I went, ‘I’m just s___e at it. I’m a crap actor. I’ve been found out.”
The other issue of controversy was the film’s depiction of Alexander’s bisexuality. In the original cinematic version, his relationship with Dawson’s fiery princess Roxana is depicted as vastly more significant than any of his associations with men, which are limited to meaningful glances between Alexander and Hephaestion. As Stone later said, this was a conscious decision on the part of the film’s distributor Warner Bros who, in his words, “[wanted me to] cut out all the homosexuality and cut out everything that reeks of anything incestuous.”
Stone had attempted to make Alexander’s sexuality more explicit – “I think he (Alexander) liked the boys frankly. I think that was his predilection. He had to father some kind of heir but he didn't work at it too hard, did he” – but the demands of a mainstream film with a large budget frustrated him. “I think we had guts to go as far as we did. Gore Vidal loved this movie. What epic has gone that far? It is easy to do it as a Brokeback Mountain, when you need very little money.”
Nonetheless, even the film’s reasonably coy treatment of its subject caused offence. One group of Greek lawyers threatened legal action upon release, issuing a comment that “We are not saying that we are against gays, but we are saying that the production company should make it clear to the audience that this film is pure fiction and not a true depiction of the life of Alexander.”
It was perhaps the most damning criticism of all that after seeing the film, they dropped the case, saying “Fortunately it was not what we had feared. The people can go and see the movie…there is a kiss that can be interpreted in many ways, but we have avoided the worst.”
After his brief crisis of confidence, Farrell has, at least, moved on, and has now established himself as one of Hollywood’s premier and most versatile actors. Similarly, the likes of Jolie, Hopkins and Leto have not found that their involvement in the picture has damaged their careers. Yet for Stone, his continuing attempts to do justice to his hero has seen him make no fewer than three separate edits of the film subsequently, titled “The Director’s Cut”, “Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut” and “Alexander: The Ultimate Cut.”
Although none of these have passed into cultural awareness enough to rehabilitate the picture, critical reaction has been considerably kinder to them than it was to the original version, and Alexander is now regarded as a flawed but interesting picture, giddy with ambition and idea. Yet perhaps the director might have been best advised to heed the words of Plutarch – at least, as mangled by Alan Rickman’s villain in Die Hard - that “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”