Rossen's Great Quest
Midway through the 12 years between his two best-loved and Oscar®-honored studies of driven men rising to and falling from the top of the heap – All the King’s Men (1949, available on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray) and The Hustler (1961) – writer/director Robert Rossen, scarred by two years of Hollywood Blacklist exile to Europe and Mexico before returning to appear before the House Unamerican Activities Committee and renounce his Communist past, made a project that was similarly themed, yet still quite personal, and this time global in scope. It would be, as Alan Casty wrote in The Films of Robert Rossen, “a large-scale commercial venture, a historical Technicolor epic far different from his previous works,…[yet] was to depict still another of his young men of power, energy and will.” Alexander the Great (1956), the Cinemascope spectacle which opened in New York 61 years ago today starring Richard Burton (in the title role), Fredric March, Claire Bloom and Danielle Darrieux, chronicled in Rossen’s words “a man born before his time, a catalytic agent, he emerged from an era of warring nationalism to try for the first time in history to get the peoples of Asia and Europe to live together. But he became a destructive force and in the process of destroying other people while attempting to unify them, he destroyed himself.” Casty characterizes this particular heart of darkness: “The film can be seen as Rossen’s comment on the failure of contemporary political ideals to fulfill their aims as they become twisted by the corruptions of power and the weakness of men. For all their noble aims, Alexander and the others are driven by a lust for glory (a word too frequently repeated in the dialogue) as the means, the illusory symbol, of personal fulfillment. For glory, for country, for the possession of power itself, any act, however cruel and bloody, becomes justifiable. Following the typical Rossen pattern, principles and humanity are sacrificed in the drive for success.” It was judged more literate and thoughtful than other films of its colossal stripe and didn’t stint in screen-filling, extras-populated battle sequences (shot by The Third Man Academy Award® winner Robert Krasker, who also numbers among his credits the thrilling historical sagas Henry V (1946), El Cid, Billy Budd and The Fall of the Roman Empire). But the commentary of the time judged that its elements didn’t meld well and the 141-minute film did not prove popular. In Rossen’s view, the family dynamic present in his longer original conception of a three-hour roadshow with intermission, might have won the day were it not for unsteady studio support and his own faltering resistance to pressure. He later told an interviewer: “They got very frightened at the length, and they finally wore me down. Actually, it’s a much better picture in three hours than it is in two hours and 20 minutes, precisely for one reason. It unveils the various guilts Alexander felt toward his father [King Philip of Macedonia, incarnated by March] much more deeply – for instance his chase of Darius [Harry Andrews]. It is not just a simple chase to kill the Emperor of the Persian Empire. The chase for Darius is tied up with his tremendous feeling that as long as a father figure is alive in royalty, he has to kill him.” The achievements of Alexander the historical figure and Alexander the Great the film remain sizable and hampered by the potential cut short. Of the film, Casty concludes: “Before his death Alexander has been morally purged and regenerated. He vows to conquer the hearts of men, not their land; he pledges himself to the unity of the world, and prays for peace. The scale of the moral rebirth may be more grandiose, but in it there is the same Rossen mixture as before: part idealism, part commercialism.” Also featuring Barry Jones, Stanley Baker, Niall MacGinnis, Peter Cushing and Michael Hordern, with a thundering score by Mario Nascimbene on an Isolated Music Track and a 2016 on-camera reminiscence with the still-vibrant Bloom, Alexander the Great still makes for epic entertainment on its glistening TT Blu-ray, available at an amazing 50% off original list through this Friday only as part of our MGM March Madness Promotion.