Alexander the Great Blu-ray Review

Historical epic doesn't scratch much beneath the surface 3 Stars

A dry, fitfully entertaining historical epic, Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great features a first-rate cast and some arresting location cinematography all used to narrate a history of one of the planet’s youngest and most driven conquerors.

Alexander the Great (1956)
Released: 31 Aug 1956
Rated: NOT RATED
Runtime: 141 min
Director: Robert Rossen
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Cast: Richard Burton, Fredric March, Claire Bloom, Danielle Darrieux
Writer(s): Robert Rossen
Plot: The life and military conquests of Alexander III of Macedon (20/21 July 356 - 10/11 June 323 BC), commonly known as Alexander the Great.
IMDB rating: 5.8
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: MGM
Distributed By: Twilight Time
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 2 Hr. 16 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: clear keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: All
Release Date: 03/15/2016
MSRP: $29.95

The Production: 3/5

A dry, fitfully entertaining historical epic, Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great features a first-rate cast and some arresting location cinematography all used to narrate a history of one of the planet’s youngest and most driven conquerors. With decent historical accuracy and a fine leading role for Richard Burton, the film has its positives, but it’s weighed down by insufficient development of the people surrounding the young warrior, and auteur Rossen (who wrote, produced, and directed the film) either didn’t have the budget or didn’t take the time to make his epic more pictorially splendid (The Ten Commandments which came out the same year lays waste to the relatively meager production values of this presentation).

Proclaimed as a god at his birth by his devoted mother Olympias (Danielle Darrieux), Alexander of Macedonia (Richard Burton) grows into the role of scholar, artist, and warrior quickly, his charisma and ambition for recognition alarming his power-hungry father King Philip of Macedonia (Fredric March) who has made a solid reputation for himself as a ruthless conqueror. But as he grows older, he finds himself losing his focus and his agility, and when Philip is slain by a friend of Alexander whose mind had been poisoned by the quietly treacherous Olympias, Alexander slays him and establishes himself as the new ruler, determined to unite all of the Greek city-states in their war against the Persians. For a decade, Alexander uses his cunning and his knowledge of military strategy to outwit his enemies carving a path of destruction reaching through all of western Asia and into India, but the power-hungry demon consumes him as it had his father as he continually seeks new lands to conquer.

Writer-director Robert Rossen has used a rather patchwork technique for his script fashioning scenes that are sometimes only seconds long and occasionally ending in blackouts as a means of seguing into another shot. That technique has made the characterizations sketchy with the viewer never comfortably familiar enough with Alexander’s surrounding cast of characters. Even the major force in his life – his mother – drifts into and out of scenes staying on the sidelines and not letting us into her feverish brain as she plots ways to gain power for her son and thusly for herself. All of the coterie of warriors who form Alexander’s entourage are simply there behind him and are rarely identified and certainly not explored for their feelings, their loyalty, or their own desires. Only Cleitus (Gustavo Rojo) among those closest to him gets any screen time of note and his presence is specifically noteworthy only in his expression of disappointment over Alexander’s all-consuming thirst for domains to bring under his wing. Rossen stages three major battle scenes (the other military campaigns are covered in montage): Alexander against the Greeks and two battles against the Persians, but none have been executed with great fervor or with the expected rise and fall of momentum that draws the viewer into the great screen battles. Alexander’s personal life doesn’t get much attention either with two particular ladies Claire Bloom’s Barsine and Teresa Del Rio’s Roxane making occasional appearances without fanning much heat with their male co-star. The film’s final quarter hour with Alexander realizing he’s running out of time to accomplish his goals and dreams seems rushed and particularly unsatisfying.

Richard Burton speaks beautifully some of the famous homilies attributed to Alexander with that polished elocution that was unique to him, but the script doesn’t really allow him to dig deeply into Alexander’s psyche and one doesn’t leave the film with as much admiration for the character as might be his due (being saddled with a fluffy blonde wig doesn’t do the actor any favors either). Fredric March pulls out all the stops to make his Philip of Macedonia memorable: lurching for fame at any cost, drunkenly dancing and prancing with victory in his grasp, and lusting fiercely for a new wife after tiring of Olympias. Danielle Darrieux seems far too remote as Olympias, and Claire Bloom’s character of Barsine, wife of loyal Athenian General Memnon, isn’t well written, but she does what she can with it. A great bunch of character actors take their small parts as famous men and act them to pieces: Peter Cushing’s stubborn General Memnon, Barry Jones’ wise Aristotle, Michael Hordern’s crafty Demosthenes, and Harry Andrews’ cocksure Persian King Darrius.

Video: 4/5

3D Rating: NA

The film’s Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Color values are this transfer’s strong suit, and the saturation and solidity of the hues is impressive throughout with believable and appealing skin tones. Sharpness, on the other hand, varies throughout the presentation with quite a few long shots being soft and poorly defined and other occasional shots oddly cropped and blown up to make for something ugly and unnatural. Contrast has been consistently applied. As with many MGM high definition transfers, there are specks and spots here and there that sometimes are irritating. The movie has been divided into 24 chapters.

Audio: 4.5/5

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo sound mix offers a very pleasing aural presentation. There is clear directionalized dialogue throughout, and Mario Nascimbene’s background score sounds very nice spread across the front soundstage. Atmospheric effects likewise reflect the era of sound recording and have been mixed with surety so as not to overpower the dialogue scenes.

Special Features: 3/5

Isolated Score and Effects Track: presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono.

Claire Bloom Interview (17:26, HD): the actress recalls her first meeting with Richard Burton and their subsequent acting experiences together as well as memories of filming the production in Spain.

Original Theatrical Trailer (2:52, SD)

MGM 90th Anniversary Trailer (2:06, HD)

Six-Page Booklet: contains some tinted stills, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s estimable examination of the career of Robert Rossen in conjunction with comments on the movie.

Overall: 3/5

Alexander the Great offers a decent historical look at one of the world’s most famous warriors, but recounting and explaining the man’s extraordinary life seems to be something difficult for filmmakers to get just right (Oliver Stone has struggled with different cuts of his biographical offering for many years). Regardless, there are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.

Published by

Matt Hough

administrator

12 Comments

  1. I am looking forward to this one.  I have to admit I recorded this film off TCM a few years bak and just could not get into it, so I dumped if off my DVR.  I've rather regretted it because I've read some positive things about the film.I'm a fan of Burton, I like some Mario Nascimbene from time to time, and I appreciate the standards Twilight Time uses in selecting the movies they put out.I don't know what rewards may be waiting for me, but your review gives me some hope!

  2. Thank you for verifying that this is in stereo. There is an annoying trend now of labeling everything "2.0" with no indication of whether it is 2 channel mono or stereo.

  3. I remember watching one of the battle scenes in this film in World History my sophomore year of high school (can't remember if it was on VHS or laserdisc). It's definitely a "low energy" kind of film, but I still enjoy it, and am glad I picked up my copy from Twilight Time. Loads better than the ancient DVD I had for so long. I remember having this one and the 300 Spartans on DVD (Richard Egan was really great in an otherwise lackluster film) and doing a double feature on occasion.

  4. To me, Alexander the Great is one of those "the sum of the parts is greater than the whole" type of movies. Matt's review is very good. It is a sort of "dry" epic. The music score by Nascimbene seems to want to sound "authentic", so it eschews complex melodies in favor of a somewhat primitive and unmelodious sound. It was shot in dry and dusty climates that also emphasize primitive and ancient over spectacle. Some of the effects, such as those involving burning/sacked cities are pretty cheezy. the end is rather abrupt as it wraps up in montage the final less glorious campaigns. Then, he dies.

    I mainly like it for Burton. He excelled in playing ruthless and cynical people and hits the right notes for Alexander. His blond wig doesn't bother me all that much. Many of the men in the film wear similar wigs. I would probably have put him in something different, but I can look past it. Burton's haughty patrician style and brilliant voice and diction contrast nicely with the rougher, less refined style of Frederic March. I think it's a pretty good film, and it is certainly intelligent. but It misses being a great epic. I am still glad to have it on Blu-ray from TT.

  5. Burton is excellent in portraying Alexander and the director does show Alexander's strategy in moving down the Mediterranean coast into Egypt.  On his way winning battle after battle.  Unfortunately, neither movie shows Alexander's greatest victory over the battle of the island Tyre. The few battle scenes are poor Oliver Stone did a much better job in showing the Greeks using their frontal assault 16 x 16 with fighters using up to 18 foot long spears.  Alexander showed battle after battle a smaller highly motivated well skilled fighting force can defeat a much larger enemy who is very disorganized.  The Persian army relied on foot soldiers and chariots with some fighters on horseback.  Alexander felt chariots were not an effective fighting force because they were not as mobile as horse back and the required a driver. Alexander saw the driver as a wasted soldier his great fighting force was his 7000 fighters on horse back.

  6. [QUOTE="skylark68, post: 4365579, member: 400268"]I remember watching one of the battle scenes in this film in World History my sophomore year of high school (can't remember if it was on VHS or laserdisc). It's definitely a "low energy" kind of film, but I still enjoy it, and am glad I picked up my copy from Twilight Time. Loads better than the ancient DVD I had for so long. I remember having this one and the 300 Spartans on DVD (Richard Egan was really great in an otherwise lackluster film) and doing a double feature on occasion.[/QUOTE]

    Yes, definite improvement, and glad to have it.

  7. [QUOTE="Mark-P, post: 4365394, member: 325695"]Thank you for verifying that this is in stereo. There is an annoying trend now of labeling everything "2.0" with no indication of whether it is 2 channel mono or stereo.[/QUOTE]

    I couldn't agree more with this comment.  Unfortunately, the "stereo" description is still inadequate.  The original film was produced in 4-channel discrete sound (i.e., three front channels and a rear mono surround).  The laserdisc of the film was labeled as being in Dolby Surround, which matrixed the four channels into two so that they could be decoded back into four by a Dolby processor.  So, is this Blu-ray in two channel front stereo only, or is it in two-channel matrixed surround sound?

  8. [QUOTE="rdimucci, post: 4390622, member: 342156"]I couldn't agree more with this comment.  Unfortunately, the "stereo" description is still inadequate.  The original film was produced in 4-channel discrete sound (i.e., three front channels and a rear mono surround).  The laserdisc of the film was labeled as being in Dolby Surround, which matrixed the four channels into two so that they could be decoded back into four by a Dolby processor.  So, is this Blu-ray in two channel front stereo only, or is it in two-channel matrixed surround sound?[/QUOTE]

    Can you give an example of a 4-channel discrete soundtrack that has been remixed into stereo only? Every mixdown I've ever encountered always plays back properly as pro-logic surround.

  9. [QUOTE="rdimucci, post: 4390622, member: 342156"]I couldn't agree more with this comment.  Unfortunately, the "stereo" description is still inadequate.  The original film was produced in 4-channel discrete sound (i.e., three front channels and a rear mono surround).  The laserdisc of the film was labeled as being in Dolby Surround, which matrixed the four channels into two so that they could be decoded back into four by a Dolby processor.  So, is this Blu-ray in two channel front stereo only, or is it in two-channel matrixed surround sound?[/QUOTE]

    How or why the original 4-track discrete got to this 2 channel stereo I don't know. For the time, I think the only other track would have been mono optical, but correct me if I am wrong. I think any stereo track can be run through a matrix decoder and you will get a surround output. If your player has bitstream and lpcm output, you would choose lpcm for this purpose. I think the varying results depends on the encoded metadata flags at the time of mastering.

  10. [QUOTE="Dr Griffin, post: 4390736, member: 384146"]How or why the original 4-track discrete got to this 2 channel stereo I don't know. For the time, I think the only other track would have been mono optical, but correct me if I am wrong. I think any stereo track can be run through a matrix decoder and you will get a surround output. If your player has bitstream and lpcm output, you would choose lpcm for this purpose. I think the varying results depends on the encoded metadata flags at the time of mastering.[/QUOTE]

    The mixdown would likely have occurred in the 1980s. Hundreds of discrete soundtracks were mixed down during this era for use on home video formats such as laserdisc and VHS.

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