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The anxious epic

WRITING ABOUT the Romans seen on film 50 years ago, the French theorist Roland Barthes saw in their sweaty brows the mythology of "man thinking." These days, however, our Greeks and Romans do not think, they remind. They remind themselves of their destiny. They remind their followers of the glory they might win. And their stories remind us a great deal of our current empire, and its strategic uncertainties.

Today, we are in the midst of a gathering of ancient warriors unseen in half a century. Touched off by Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" (2000), the procession brought us Antoine Fuqua's "King Arthur" and Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy" this past summer. Now comes Oliver Stone's "Alexander," which opened on Wednesday with Colin Farrell in the title role, and next year will bring "Hannibal" (with Vin Diesel as the elephant-riding emperor) and "Kingdom of Heaven" (about anti-Crusader resistance), both directed by Scott. Baz Luhrmann may still make his Alexander movie; and Warner Bros. is developing its own "Kleopatra." And this list does not include other recent epics of imperial uncertainty, such as "The Last Samurai" (set in Japan in the years following the American Civil War) or "Master and Commander," Peter Weir's seaborne tale of the Napoleonic wars.

America's current empire -- enduring, threatened, temporary, semi-accidental, take your pick -- seems to call for a cinema to think through its contradictions. But it's not just America's military empire that's nervously eyeing its expanding boundaries. Today, Hollywood's own global dominance is unquestioned -- Europe, Japan, Korea, and Latin America are vanquished; India and China are the last unconquered outposts of resistance, though the major studios already have their boots on the ground. A few years ago, much of the world was anxiously debating America's cultural imperialism. Now, confronted with old-fashioned military imperialism, much of that world turns to American culture to help explain the mess. And Hollywood, mindful of where most of its revenue really comes from, is only too happy to oblige.. . .

Imperium needs an imperial cinema. Stalin needed his "Ivan the Terrible" to justify his wartime tyrannies, and Sergei Eisenstein gave it to him. (At least in Part I -- Part II ended Eisenstein's career and nearly got him killed.) When Mussolini set up Cinecitta, the huge production facility outside Rome that would later host grand epics like "Cleopatra," the first project he commissioned was "Scipio Africanus," a film designed to justify the takeover of Ethiopia (if only by making it look like a fairer fight).

Italy remained a hotbed of sword-and-sandal superspectaculars. But as the Cold War took hold, American studios and directors joined them with films like William Wyler's "Ben Hur" (1959) and Henry Coster's "The Robe" (1953), the story of a Roman soldier's conversion to Christianity, which was the first CinemaScope film.

Then as now, American filmmakers did much of their best political thinking through the ancient epics. Robert Rossen's 1956 "Alexander the Great," starring Richard Burton, took up the Cold War question of whether an empire could be an empire of liberty -- whether Alexander brought "the idea of Athens" to the world, or only glory to himself. With "Spartacus" (1960), producer/star Kirk Douglas went looking for political controversy with a film that told the story of a doomed slave revolt against the Roman Empire, but which was more notorious for securing screen credit for the blacklisted leftist writer Dalton Trumbo.

Today's filmmakers, like an outsized portion of their global audience, regard the American-led invasion of Iraq with horror. As Oliver Stone told Rolling Stone: "It's not just Iraq, it's the whole Bush adventure . . . the notion that we are an empire, and that by setting the rules, we set reality. . .. The world has strongly expressed its disapproval, but America doesn't listen or even hear it because it's cut off by the media satellite curtain that they put up."

Apparently, Stone imagines it is up to him to tear down that curtain and assure the world that someone in America is listening. And regardless of their personal politics the studio heads are listening, too, for good reason: International audiences turned modest domestic disappointments like "King Arthur," "Last Samurai" and "Troy" into major hits. Three-fourths of those films' box office has come from outside the United States.

These days any commercial filmmaker (and particularly one with a fondness for casts of thousands and lavish period detail) needs a certain amount of imperial hubris: that is, he needs to believe that audiences will flock to his or her films around the globe. Call it cultural imperialism or a superior distribution network, filmmakers with $200 million budgets need Hollywood's power, and it is not hard to convince them to pay obeisance to it. When Alexander or Achilles yells about "everlasting glory," the hearts of studio marketing executives beat a little faster: everlasting glory equals more downstream revenue, what the French might call hyper-Oscar-puissance. (No wonder Anthony Hopkins, as the old general Ptolemy, narrates "Alexander" from the great library at Alexandria: Library rights are where it's at, and they're certainly why Sony bought MGM this fall.)

For this reason epic filmmakers, like their imperial heroes, have to be forward-thinking types: They have to bet that the world in which their film is released will be one that wants to see it. This makes them native theorists of imperial overstretch. Who wants to be the last person to greenlight or direct a $250 million Roman epic when the bottom falls out of the market -- either because the genre goes out of style again when one of the films flops hard or because the political contradictions of the moment make the movie's ambivalence quaint or abhorrent? No doubt Stone learned some of this studying the icon of imperial overstretch closest to his heart, Time-Warner -- distributors of "Alexander" and before that his documentary on Fidel Castro, as well as "Any Given Sunday," "Natural Born Killers," "JFK.". . .

Given that there are limits to empire -- even Alexander's, even Gerald Levin's, even George W. Bush's -- an emperor's great problem is knowing when to turn back, and the great rhetorical achievement lies in justifying that retreat. For imperial rhetoric is boundless and must be so. It is not a language of revenge or restoration, but of world-remaking.

Since much of the action of "Alexander," moral and military, takes place in what is now Iraq, it's hardly surprising that Oliver Stone takes some potshots at the president. What is unexpected are the heartfelt neocon speeches Alexander delivers. Standing on his balcony overlooking Babylon, he goes on and on: "These people want change, they need change," Alexander asserts. He lives "to free the people of the world."

To be sure, Stone lays the irony on thick here. After the first balcony speech, Alexander's boyfriend Hephaistion quickly changes the subject to his sovereign's dreamy eyes. And during Alexander's second major policy address on the balcony, he is too preoccupied with Babylon's "deep water port" to notice that Hephaistion is busy flailing away out of focus in the background, dying of a poison-induced fever.

When a trusted commander complains that conquering all of Asia "was not your father's mission," Alexander responds (again la W.), "I am not my father." Why stop now? Why stop ever? One more month, Alexander tells his men in India. They speak of wanting to go home to see their wives and children; Alexander first apologizes for, well, extending their tours ("I should have sent you veterans home sooner"), but then he reminds them of their mistresses and the libertinage of their time away from home.

This is the great scene of the film, and it gives "Alexander" whatever toehold on immortality it may deserve. As more voices join the chorus against the campaign, Alexander wades into his men, seeking out the potential traitors; he is lost in his need to refute and rebuke them, and they can do nothing but resist more openly. No outright mutiny erupts, but the film begins to look like its battle sequences -- the unsteady Steadicam that usually represents the fog of war now depicts what Hopkins will later call "the end of all reason." Cut to a tracking shot of corpses, stripped and splayed in Alexander's camp -- the bodies of the men who thought they were debating policy with their commander-in-chief.

In the ensuing battle against the Indian army and its elephants, Alexander takes an arrow to the chest and is borne away on a shield to die. Yet he recovers from his seemingly fatal wounds and announces the retreat. The men receive the word as if it came from a god, and in a way it does. Not because Alexander is divine but because there is no justification, save a theological one, for ending this or any other imperial drive. More lands exist to be assimilated, more treasure to be gained, more glory to be won, more people to be liberated from tyranny; and yet here it stops. Praise Alex.

In his haste to return to Babylon, Alexander leads the men through the Makran desert, where untold thousands die. "It was the worst blunder of his life," Anthony Hopkins says. The problem with the rhetoric of empire, Stone finally seems to be saying, is not that it's false or ignoble, but that it leaves you without an exit strategy.

And so empires retreat in a mix of denial, betrayal, irony, and gore. Whether the "Alexander"s they leave behind can commission freedom -- and everlasting revenue -- is the unanswered question.

J.D. Connor teaches film and literature at Harvard. 

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