2 posts categorized "Sword and Sandal Epic"

December 05, 2015



Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

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GladiatorIt took “Alien” director Ridley Scott to reinvigorate, however briefly, the sword and sandal genre at the turn of the 21st century.

With a script that rings absurdly similar to the betrayal-and-revenge slave plot of “Ben-Hur,” Scott orchestrates the versatile epic formula to detonate violent sword battles that surpass “Ben-Hur’s” much-celebrated chariot race. Scott also puts to shame the brutal jousting battles in “El Cid” (1961). It’s not often that you get to see giant tigers loosely chained inside a Roman coliseum stalking their gladiator prey, alongside gargantuan men with heavy weapons.

Scott takes full advantage of green screen composting to create a breathtaking spectacle of historic period drama.


Keeping true to the nature of the genre, the film’s big action spectacle is offset by a straight-ahead melodramatic plot. British master thespians Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, and Derek Jacobi bring significant gravitas to the barebones story opposite a stylistic character clash that occurs between, and by, Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix. Crowe and Phoenix at times give their scenes an unintentionally camp quality that occur as happy accidents.

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The year is 180 A.D. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) leads emperor Marcus Aurelius’ army to victory against a legion of barbarian adversaries in Germania. Times are tough. Many hundreds of arrows fly and heads are decapitated. Russell Crowe takes dramatic liberties similar to those adopted by Charleston Heston in “Ben-Hur.” It’s all just a walk in the park for Crowe, who puts his signature slow-burn vocabulary of practiced reactions through all five expressions in tight rotation.

It’s a rule in the sword-and-sandal textbook that heroes must wink at their character’s self-righteous yet humble sense of stoic hubris. In this case, Crowe winks at himself. This isn’t to say that Crow’s character isn’t a kick to watch. He adequately fills the film’s clearly drawn demands. He also happens to admire his own reflection. Where was Tom Hardy when Ridley Scott needed him?

Maximus is his father Caesar’s (Richard Harris) favorite son. His other son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) possesses none of the virtues that Caesar desires, namely: “wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance.” The ever-petulant Commodus is all petty jealousy and outrageous ambition. Even the virtues that he imagines he possesses (“ambition, resourcefulness, courage, and devotion”) each come with an asterisk beside them.

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Maximus refuses his father’s offer to succeed him as emperor, even knowing that his evil brother will make life miserable for everyone when he takes the throne. It doesn’t even take that long. Commodus expedites the process by stabbing daddy to death. Next on the list are Maximus’s wife and child, not to mention the man whom he calls brother.

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However, Maximus is a wily one to kill. He ends up as a slave whose only purpose is to give his life away on a battlefield of sand before crowds of bloodthirsty Romans. A fortuitous meeting with Proximo (Oliver Reed), a surviving gladiator, provides Maximus with the fight coaching he needs to stay alive in the coliseum, where anything from blade-wheeled chariots to tigers can emerge, and attack any gladiator with a hellish fury that would call for diapers if it were real.

Rated R. 155 mins. 

3 Stars

Cozy Cole

Cole Smithey on Patreon

July 10, 2007



Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This ad-free website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon. Thanks a lot pal! Your generosity keeps the reviews coming!

Cole Smithey on Patreon

Swords, Sandals & Eyeliner

Oliver Stone Loses Alexander's Story
By Cole Smithey

AlexanderYou know from an early scene of tiresome exposition by Anthony Hopkins that Oliver Stone's three-hour sword-and-sandal epic is doomed. You see a giant scar across the right side Hopkins's forehead mysteriously move to the left side between shots. Then comes Colin Farrell's Irish accent that wrestles against Angelina Jolie's faux Russian intonation like a cat and a monkey fighting in a burlap bag. For all its attention to detail in two reasonably good battle scenes, Stone's movie fails to tell the complex story of one of the most enigmatic conquerors in history. But more than that, Stone doesn't present characters that the audience can believe in as representative of their historic roles.

Alexander the Great Movie: 'Gay Hero' in Stone's Fetishistic Dud

There's an undue controversy surrounding Oliver Stone's pre-Christian depiction of Alexander as a bi-sexual lover that may give the movie mileage with gay audiences who are likely to be disappointed at the soft-peddled relationship between Alexander (Farrell) and his lifelong friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto).


Apart from both characters wearing matching eyeliner throughout the movie, and sharing hushed conversations and hugs, there isn't enough subtext to hang a horseshoe on. Hephaistion is Alexander's effeminate battle commander whose masochistic existence revolves around being mistreated. We hear Hephaistion and Alexander profess their love for one another, but never see the price of their relationship because they never challenge one another. To his credit Jared Leto gives the most convincing performance in the film as Alexander's wide-eyed paramour.

ALexander Movie Archives Greek City Times

"Alexander" opens with a clumsy homage to Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane wherein Alexander's dying hand drops a ring onto the floor in 323 B.C. The clunky backward-gazing narrative device is sunk deeper by a segue to 40-years later when Alexander's elderly military general Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) dictates his version of Alexander's life to a Greek scholar who busily fills endless scrolls in a palatial library.

Angelina Jolie enjoys some early scene-chewing with live snakes (she's seldom shown during the movie without them) as Alexander's domineering mother Olympias. Alexander's battle-scarred father King Philip (Val Kilmer)  appears in her bedroom and attempts to violently extract sexual satisfaction even as young Alexander watches from the same bed.

Our crash course in Alexander's childhood shifts from oedipal mother worship to homosexual and racist teachings by Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Alexander covets his father's throne. Connor Paolo gives a confident performance as the young Alexander. He shares a remarkable likeness to Collin Farrell that temporarily tips the scales toward some suspension of disbelief.

The Ace Black Movie Blog: Movie Review: Alexander (2004)

Although Alexander The Great won more than 70 battles during the 12-years of his reign, Stone dramatizes just two engagements that are meant to signify how Alexander and his armies conquered millions of square miles of foreign territory. The first conflict at Gaugamela is a 12-minute war sequence that attempts to exhibit the cleverness of Alexander's military strategy while giving the viewer a taste of the brutality involved. However, the painstaking sequence lacks an adequate narrative structure to properly acquaint the audience with its characters.

The film's payoff finale battle involves Alexander's horse-led army
attacking India's Elephant bound troops in the thick of an India forest. Oliver Stone shifts to an odd red-tinged film treatment that gives an hallucinatory quality and foreshadows Alexander's imminent death. The psychedelic color scheme embellishes the battle's cruel violence in a way that makes it seem more disturbing in its abstraction. When one of Alexander's soldiers slices off the trunk of a giant elephant, you feel a kind of empathy for the animal that goes beyond any sensitivity you experience for the soldiers who compulsively fight for the sake of fighting.

A heavy-handed musical score by Vangelis ("Blade Runner") hobbles "Alexander" with bombastic surges of sonic information that further removes the audience from the movie. There isn't a single scene in the film that is improved by the Vangelis's music.

The old commander Ptolemy pedantically says of Alexander, "No tyrant ever gave back so much." It's a troubling notion for a leftist filmmaker like to Oliver Stone to endorse. As Ptolemy preaches on and on during the movie about Alexander's place in history, I wonder at Oliver Stone's little-seen documentary about Fidel Castro for which he interviewed the Cuban dictator.


"Alexander" comes at a time when America is poised as a fear-ridden empire overreaching its boundaries while neglecting its strained domestic issues. To regard Alexander as a man who achieved amazing military success is not necessarily to view him as a hero. Perhaps Alexander's bi-sexuality is an escape clause that Oliver Stone planted in the film to distance right-wing audiences from associating too freely with the warrior. Either way, the truth is never what it's cracked up to be. It's too bad that American cinema hasn't improved on the sword-and-sandal epic in the past 40-years. At this point it's a bankrupt genre.

Rated R. 156 mins. 

2 Stars

Cozy Cole

Cole Smithey on Patreon

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