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DVD Review HTF Review: Alexander the Great (1 Viewer)

Jason Perez

Second Unit
Jul 6, 2003

Alexander The Great

Studio: MGM
Year: 1956
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 136 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (2.35:1)
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: English – Stereo Surround; French - Monaural; Spanish - Monaural

Release Date:
October 19th, 2004

Planned for release to coincide with Oliver Stone’s upcoming (and much-ballyhooed) film on Alexander, King of Macedon, Alexander the Great (1956), written and directed by Robert Rossen (The Hustler), chronicles the life of the powerful young man who ascended to the throne of Macedon and conquered virtually the whole of the civilized world before his untimely death at only 33 years of age.

For a little historical background, Alexander, was born in the year 356 B.C. to the tyrannical Philip of Macedon (Fredric March) and his wife, Olympias (Danielle Darrieux). During his rather short life, the legendary leader marched a unified Greek army through Persia and Asia, establishing one of the greatest and most expansive empires in recorded history. His success in battle is the stuff of legend, but leading a united Greek army into battle was quite an accomplishment as well, as at the time of Alexander’s birth, the Athenians and Macedonians were engaged in a bitter and bloody conflict.

Basically, most of the film’s first half treats with the tension filled relationship between Alexander and his father (like any ancient king, Philip feared his heir’s procession toward manhood), and his mother’s attempts to supplant her husband with her son. Of course, the aforementioned unification of the Greek people is dealt with during this portion of the film as well. All of this sets up the film’s second half, where Alexander, who is now ruler of Macedonia, marches his fighting forces into Persia, to both expand his empire and bring glory to his name.

In Alexander the Great, the great Richard Burton, who turns in an uncharacteristically lifeless performance, played the title character. To be sure, the cringe-inducing dialogue and seemingly endless expository scenes are not conducive to entertainment, but Burton is very, very stiff in this role. Obviously, even if the film had better dialogue and more exciting battle scenes, a performance like this in the lead role would have hurt the movie, and although Rossen’s film had neither, Burton’s turn as Alexander did not help elevate the material any.

In terms of performances, Richard Burton is not the only offender, for despite a few notable supporting performances, Fredric March (ordinarily a pretty solid actor) blatantly overacts as Philip, to the point where the “campy” nature of his performance made me wish he was not in the film at all. In terms of the better supporting performances, Claire Bloom does a good job in her limited screen time as Barsine, and honorable mention, for another strong performance, must also be given to Peter Cushing, who was excellent as Memnon.

In addition to the varying quality of the performances, I also took issue with the way this film offers merely a fleeting glimpse at the latter portions of Alexander’s campaign, and that it fails to sufficiently address a topic that could have been much more interesting than anything covered in depth by the finished film. What I am speaking of is the inherent competition between fathers and sons in imperial societies, where the desire to rule sometimes bred intense infighting between kings and their over-eager heirs. This is a concept that is touched on by Rossen, and it leads to the best scenes in the film, but I think he dropped the ball by not developing this theme to any significant degree.

Another of the few highlights of Alexander the Great comes in the form of the lovely scenery. Mr. Rossen and company shot the film on location in Spain, and used some of the country’s most beautiful environments as a backdrop for its action, or lack thereof. However, despite being set in such majestic locales, the film lacks passion, and feels nothing like the other grand epics from the era, such as Ben Hur. In my opinion, Rossen simply frittered away far too much of the film’s running time on dialogue-heavy scenes pertaining to Alexander’s path to the throne, leaving very little left to treat with how Alexander created his own legacy.

In addition, most of the battle sequences in Alexander the Great are anemic, to put it mildly. In particular, the swordplay and fighting do not survive close scrutiny, and in wide shots the miniscule number of troops in the competing armies are revealed, making what should have appeared to be epic battles look more like skirmishes.

Sadly, although Robert Rossen was at the helm of such great films as The Hustler and All The King’s Men, he seems to have left his gift for storytelling at home during the making of the decidedly mediocre Alexander the Great. Really, this film plays more like a monotonous, factual re-cap of history than a compelling epic that rekindles the spirit of the times, and an engaging chronicle of the exploits of one of history’s greatest military commanders.

In consideration of all of these factors, I think that Alexander the Great has to be considered a great disappointment, not to mention an ineffective treatment of the career of the man it is named after. Perhaps the upcoming films by Oliver Stone and Baz Luhrman will do a better job of telling his story, but as the old saying goes “only time will tell.”

For Alexander the Great, MGM offers the film in its original aspect ratio (2.35:1), which has been anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 displays. Unfortunately, the clarity of the print varies throughout the film, as some sequences appear extremely sharp, with excellent depth and dimensionality, while others exhibit a dingy, somewhat blurry appearance, peppered with grain and spots. For me, one of the ugliest scenes occurred at about 1 hour and 51 minutes into the film, where the softness becomes pronounced enough to sap the detail from the image.

Color rendering is similarly inconsistent, although pleasing in general. In most sequences, primary colors are bright and nicely saturated, and I noticed no trace of dot crawl or banding. However, in other sequences the color of some objects appeared to fluctuate slightly, particularly Alexander’s hair, which ranges from blonde to reddish. The same holds for flesh tones, which in some cases look somewhat unnatural due to slight shifts in the actors’ pigmentation.

On a more positive note, blacks are deep and fairly detailed throughout, so shadow delineation is above average in most sequences. There are also few visible instances of artifacts that I would attribute to the compression process, and most are brief enough not to cause much in the way of a distraction. Perhaps the most disturbing anomaly occurred at the very beginning of the film, where the red text being displayed has a serious case of the jitters. Fortunately, although this is a very obvious problem, the annoyance it causes is also quite brief.

In the final analysis, while this is clearly not a reference quality transfer, MGM deserves a nod for preserving the film’s original aspect ratio. In and of itself, if you are going to see the film, this aspect of its presentation makes this edition the one to see, although I have to say that the transfer is little better than average, at best.

The soundtrack for Alexander the Great is presented in Dolby Surround (2.0), with monaural French and Spanish tracks on board as well. There is an awful lot of talking in this film, and in terms of quality, dialogue remains hiss-free and intelligible throughout. Interestingly, dialogue is not rooted in the center channel, but spread across the front of the soundstage, coinciding with where the speaking character is located on screen.

Frequency response is pretty good as well, with some solid (though unspectacular) bass response during the film’s battle scenes. During these scenes, the rear channels are also somewhat active, emitting music and sound effects directed to them by the surround encoding, which makes them slightly more exciting. Of course, all epics need some music, and to that end, the score by Mario Nascimbene exhibits decent fidelity, and is balanced nicely against both dialogue and effects.

All in all, while Alexander the Great’s soundtrack is not going to amaze anyone, it does do a fair job of reproducing the source material.


Theatrical Trailer
The original theatrical trailer for Alexander the Great is included.


(on a five-point scale)
Film: :star: :star:
Video: :star: :star: 1/2
Audio: :star: :star: :star:
Extras: :star:
Overall: :star: :star:

Unfortunately, despite being based on an intriguing and powerful historical figure, Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great is not a very exciting or memorable film. Certainly, it is not in the same league as some of the other “epic” films from the same era, as the dialogue is banal and long-winded, the battles are weak, and most of the actors do not bring very much to the party.

In terms of presentation, I think that although this DVD’s audio is serviceable, aside from being presented in its original aspect ratio, the visuals are inconsistent, even for a catalog release. Given this, and how disappointing the film is, I cannot recommend a purchase for this title. I would recommend waiting for the Oliver Stone and Baz Luhrmann revisions instead, and hope that one of them can do a better job of getting the story of Alexander, King of Macedon right.

Stay tuned…

Jason Adams

Supporting Actor
Aug 30, 2002
Real Name
Roger Jason Adams
I wonder how come movies these days dont have directional dialogue...

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