History: January 5, 1956: Alexander the Great, The Motion Picture

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A Brief History

On January 5, 1956, producers and editors of the major Hollywood motion picture, Alexander the Great, starring Richard Burton in the title role, were hard at work preparing the movie for its March 22, 1956 release, cutting its running time from over 3 hours to 135 minutes.

Digging Deeper

The film is of course about the great Macedonian King and conqueror who ruled an enormous empire carved out of the Middle East and Mediterranean by his own leadership between 336 and 323 BCE.  During his reign, Alexander defeated the great Persian Empire and all others that stood in his path, perhaps the most successful military leader of all time (at least until Genghis Khan).

The film starts predictably at the time of Alexander’s birth, the son of the Macedonian King Phillip II and Olympias.  Olympias angers her husband by claiming Alexander is a “god born of a god” and animosity toward his young son starts immediately.  Advisors counsel the King to allow the boy to grow up and become his heir, which Phillip reluctantly does.  Alexander is shown being tutored by the great scholar Aristotle, and eventually takes his place beside his father in battle.

When Phillip ditches Olympias for a new wife, the gulf between King and son grows to a new level.  Alexander secures his place in succession by having a friend murder Phillip, upon which Alexander declares himself King and has his friend executed.

The new King Alexander goes on to attack and defeat Babylon and Persia, and on the way encounters the fabled Gordian knot which he is challenged to untie.  In typical brash fashion, Alexander cuts the knot with his sword.  His success causes him to believe the hype his mother created by declaring himself a “son of a God” and his army marches to India.

A drunken Alexander murders his closest friend, Cleitus, over an argument and is not the same man since.  Alexander retreats from India back to Babylon, marries Roxane at Susa, and dies soon afterward of an unknown illness.  On his deathbed, Alexander is asked to whom he leaves his kingdom, to which he replies, “To the strongest.”

Charlton Heston was originally offered the starring role, but turned it down.  Oddly enough, the producers were criticized for picking Burton because of his age (29), although Alexander ruled from age 20 to age 32.  Apparently Burton seemed older than he actually was.  A stunning film visually, with rich period sets and costumes, the film had a massive budget (for the time) of $4 million, and only grossed a box office of $2.5 million.  The movie was not an audience favorite, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 3.5 out of 10 audience approval.  Nevertheless, the film was nominated for a Directors Guild of America Award in 1957.

In terms of historical accuracy, one notable error is that both Alexander and Aristotle are seen with books bound in the modern way.  In reality, in their time all books were in scroll form.

Of course, being such an enormous Historical figure, Alexander has been the subject of many other motion pictures.  Which one is your favorite?

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.