Why 'Alexander' failed to conquer cinemas

I'm bigoted against Colin Farrell in a blond wig and a testosterone-fest without wit or humour
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The Independent Online

Why do you go to see a film? Well, for many reasons, good and bad. Maybe someone has recommended it to you. Maybe you've seen other films by the director, or have a particular liking for some of the stars. Perhaps you have a weakness for this particular film genre - a thriller, a musical, a Western. Or perhaps you were just walking past the cinema with nothing to do, and the poster seemed inexplicably tempting. It could be a million reasons, most of which are fairly superficial and random - I wouldn't have thought that more than once in 10 times do I go and see a film with the absolute certainty that it's going to be terrific, and enjoy it for the reasons that I anticipated.

Why, on the other hand, do you resist going to see a film? Well, probably exactly the same reasons. Someone told you it was crap; it's by Oliver Stone, who you can't stick. You've never had a great deal of interest in ancient Greek epics, and can't really remember what the hero of this one is supposed to have done, anyway. And frankly, even if you did want to go and see a lot of stuff about ancient Greece, you'd prefer that it wasn't done by Hollywood, and wasn't delivered by a dirty-looking Irish actor with dyed blond hair in a frankly random Irish brogue, because he's been absolutely terrible in every film you've ever seen, and there's no reason to suppose he's improved recently.

Now, this may be terribly unfair. Prejudice against a film may be completely unfounded. My general belief that a good movie needs to contain a major building being blown up and large amounts of violent death has no doubt kept me from many masterpieces. In the end, forced to go, I even enjoyed Before Sunset, that tale of two ex-lovers mournfully wandering through Paris, though I still think it would have been even better if Nôtre Dame had been blown up halfway through.

All of which is to say that there are, in truth, a thousand reasons why people haven't been going to Oliver Stone's film of the life of Alexander the Great. It's been a disaster in America. The film, which cost $150m to make, occupying 15 years of its director's life, has taken not much more than a tenth of that domestically, and any hopes are now pinned on the overseas market.

It must have seemed like a fairly safe bet. The robe-and-sandals epic had more or less disappeared from our screens since the 1963 Cleopatra almost destroyed Twentieth Century Fox. A long run of Roman and Greek epics, some of which, like Kubrick's Spartacus, are some of the greatest films ever made, came to an end, not really to be revived until the surprising success of Russell Crowe in Gladiator, quickly followed by the wildly ludicrous spectacle of Brad Pitt in Troy.

Now, Stone's Alexander the Great might have seemed a dead cert. Why has it failed so massively, up to this point? It's worth saying that Hollywood, now, regards its products with so little confidence that if a movie doesn't open big on its first weekend, they see no possibility in its prospects improving over time. Alexander, as far as America is concerned, has by now failed definitively.

Its director has a clear explanation. "There's a raging fundamentalism in morality in the United States. From day one, audiences didn't show up." What he is referring to is the film's discreet suggestions - by all accounts they are incredibly discreet - that Alexander was in love with Haphaestion. That, on its own, prevented audiences from coming to see the film; the director hopes that overseas audiences will not be so blinkered.

Admittedly, some of the response to the film has been barking mad. A group of Greek lawyers threatened to sue Stone for suggesting that Alexander had sex with men. There was a certain amount of "Alexander the Gay" commentary in America. But can we seriously suppose that anyone would, or would not, go and see a film because there is a suggestion that two men in it have undepicted sex as part of their relationship? Let's face it: Troy was one of the smuttiest gay films ever made. I've never in all my life seen anything so lasciviously homosexual as Pearl Harbor. How many successful American TV sitcoms and reality shows revolve around gay characters? Can we really suppose that it took until Alexander for anyone to start noticing and boycotting?

Well, I'm not going to see Alexander, but that's not because I'm bigoted and blinkered; or rather, I'm principally bigoted against Colin Farrell in a blond wig and yet another three-hour testosterone-fest without noticeable wit or humour from Mr Stone. I don't see why any of the countless millions who have refused to go and see this awful-sounding film should have moral objections, when the ordinary aesthetic objections seem quite compelling enough.

The truth is that the only issue here is why homosexuality should be made into such a test, automatically accepted as a "problem" for audiences. It's dishonest for those mad fundamentalists who refuse to go and see the movie; it is just as dishonest for a film-maker who insists that it is a problematic area. For me, and millions of ordinary filmgoers, a homosexual theme is not a problem to be compared to an unwatchably bad film; to go on as if it obviously were can only make it so.

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