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MGM Studios DVD presents
Alexander the Great (1956)

"For the first time in history Greece is now a nation able to measure its strength with any empire in the world, a nation with a destiny, a divine mission to bring Greek culture and civilization to all the world."
- Alexander (Richard Burton)

Review By: Nate Meyers   
Published: October 18, 2004

Stars: Richard Burton
Other Stars: Fredric March, Danielle Darrieux, Claire Bloom, Gustavo Rojo, Marisa de Leza, Barry Jones, Harry Andrews, Stanley Baker, Niall MacGinnis, Peter Cushing, Michael Hordein, Ruben Rojo, Peter Wyngarde, Helmut Dantine, William Squire, Friedrich Ledebur, Virgilio Texeira, Julia Pena, Jose Nieto
Director: Robert Rossen

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (battle scene violence, scenes suggesting sex)
Run Time: 02h:15m:39s
Release Date: October 19, 2004
UPC: 027616911995
Genre: historical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- CD-D+ D-

DVD Review

Robert Rossen's take on the immortal tale of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian ruler who, in 331 B.C., conquered the known world at the age of 25, is a display of pragmatic professionalism. Obviously, an epic film made in 1956 is not going to be a technical virtuoso on the level of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but grand Hollywood epics from the 1950s and '60s can hold up with the most cutting edge special effects, provided that the filmmaker's passion is on that screen and accompanied by a compelling script. Sadly, Rossen's Alexander the Great contains none of the freshness and zealof his other work.

The script is not so much about Alexander as it is about the family conflict he lived through. The story begins in 356 B.C., a time when Greece is not a single state but divided between the Athenians, Spartans, and Macedonians. Philip of Macedonia (Fredric March) is leading his troops in a war to conquer Greece when his son is born. The arrival of little Alexander immediately causes Philip's closest advisors to recommend Philip execute not only the heir, but also the mother, Olympias (played by, as the opening credits state, "the French star" Danielle Darrieux). The exact reasoning behind everyone's hatred for Olympias is not entirely clear, but it appears to be a matter of ethnic conflict. Consequently, when Alexander grows up, Philip's council sees him as an illegitimate son undeserving of the throne.

However, Alexander grows up to be a man of tremendous strength, will, and ideals. As played by Richard Burton, this Alexander is still childish despite his assets. Much time is devoted in the opening half hour to the relationship between Alexander and his teacher, Aristotle (Barry Jones). How historically accurate this depiction is will never really be known, but Rossen uses the character of Aristotle to paint the broad themes of this work. Alexander is too ill-tempered, arrogant, and contemptuous to be a ruler. Yet the events shown on screen seem to largely contradict this claim.

A lot of the second half of the movie chronicles Alexander's exploits in power after Philip's assassination at the hands of Alexander's friend, Pausanias (Peter Wyngarde). These scenes, beginning with Alexander's triumphant role at the Battle of Chaeronea, don't paint the portrait of an ill-tempered man. The filmmaking, with heroic framing of Alexander being shown in low-angle shots meant to reveal his power, and Burton's performance instead show a strong, heroic figure. To be certain, there is a degree of truth in this portrayal of Alexander, but Rossen never seems to wrestle with the paradox of a man whom he clearly feels is unfit to rule, yet fulfills the enormous faculty needed to govern men.

After Alexander assumes power, he leads thousands of Greeks into a long war against Persia. Initially the Persian king, Darius (Harry Andrews), dismisses the warnings from Memnon (Peter Cushing) about the threat of Alexander. A series of battle scenes ensues, with the Greeks marching forward and defeating their enemies, but it's never clear why—the script doesn't develop the character of Alexander enough to understand his motivation. A few lines of dialogue appear on occasion that indicate Alexander is interested in spreading Greek culture, but then why does he become so hostile to Greeks like Memnon and order their executions? Even more baffling is the love story between Alexander and Memnon's wife, Barsine (Claire Bloom). One can assume that Rossen uses Barsine as a vessel to fuel the third act, which, incidentally, feels tremendously inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the movie.

The story concludes with Alexander's retreat from India back to Greece, but by the time this happens it is not clear what the journey has been for. That is, the journey of making this film. There is no natural progression in character arcs and most of the supporting cast is largely unmemorable. Additionally, certain elements of history, such as Alexander's affair with the Persian king's daughter, are only hinted at while others are completely ignored. The costume design and makeup certainly suggest a homoeroticism, but there is no hint of Alexander's bisexuality. Obviously, one cannot expect that Rossen would have been able to release this film with an explicit reference to this, but if David Lean was able to suggest the alleged homosexuality of T.E. Lawrence, then certainly Rossen was up to the task of at least intimating Alexander's long standing affair with Ptolemy (Virgilio Texeira).

The most frustrating element of Alexander the Great isn't that it's a bad picture, because it contains proficient acting, cinematography, production design, and scoring throughout (though nothing is extraordinary). It's that none of this amounts to much and this is largely due to Robert Rossen. As writer, director, and producer on this project, one would expect that he'd be fervent about his subject. However, watching this it is clear that Rossen chose a disinterested approach to the material and the result leads the viewer to be uninterested.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The original CinemaScope format is preserved on this DVD in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. The image is dirty, grainy, and contains print defects throughout. Detail is lackluster, as is depth. Some shots, especially when Alexander frees his slaves, are absolutely atrocious to look at, containing so many compression artifacts that the image is barely recognizable. The night scene before the battle with Darius has solid blacks, however, but this is the exception—not the rule.

Image Transfer Grade: D-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrench, Monono
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Alexander the Great is presented here with an English Stereo Surround sound mix that uses all of the speakers. The surrounds are almost exclusively used for the score, which comes through nicely though is at times over mixed (part of this is probably due to the style of scoring pictures in 1956). Dialogue and sound effects are rarely heard in the surround speakers, being placed across the front sound stage. Some separation occurs during the battle scenes, but outside of that this is not a dynamic mix. Dialogue is some times under mixed and inaudible, which is not helped by an annoying hiss that permeates throughout the whole track. There also are optional French and Spanish mono tracks as well.

Audio Transfer Grade: D+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:17m:29s

Extras Review: The only supplemental material here is the original theatrical trailer, which is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen and 2.0 Dolby Surround sound. The image and sound quality are even worse than the feature presentation, so the final product could have been worse. The subtitles (provided in English, French, and Spanish) are not accessible by remote, nor are the audio tracks.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

MGM, most likely in hopes of catching some buzz from the forthcoming Oliver Stone epic of the same character, has released Alexander the Great in a practically bare-bones edition. The image transfer is awful, which helps hide some of the defects within the sound mix. The only extra feature is the original theatrical trailer. Not recommended.


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