It’s safe to say that Alexander the Great is the stuff of movie magic. Despite being a real figure, he lived a life so large and influential on the arc of Western civilization that it’s hard to comprehend. And equally challenging is understanding why there have been so few good movies made on the Macedonian conqueror.
The ancient Greek king ushered in the Hellenistc Age when he managed to take over the majority of the known world, from Greece to Egypt, and through Persia to India. In that time, he saw wonders with an army of about 50,000 men. And despite remaking his era (the fourth century B.C. to be exact), he was dead just days before his 33rd birthday. It is a subject rife with potential and in the early 2000s, two competing Hollywood films attempted to make it a celluloid reality.
The one that actually came to fruition is of course Alexander, the rather infamous Oliver Stone misfire. Rushed into production to beat that other Alexander project, Stone attempted to tell a gripping epic of war, bisexual love, and political intrigue with Colin Farrell as the eponymous Alexander. And even with an intriguing supporting cast that included Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, and Christopher Plummer, plus stunning cinematography and a Vangelis score, it all came out as a mess.
Which is doubly the shame since it killed Baz Luhrmann’s Alexander the Great movie. Yes, the production that Stone wanted to beat was being spearheaded by the visionary filmmaker behind Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001). Famous for his post-modern flair of combining anachronistic music and modern flourishes within the supposedly rigid confines of period setting, Luhrmann was (and still is) a bit of a wild card. He was fresh off just completing his “Red Curtain Trilogy” (the aforementioned films and Strictly Ballroom). However, he wanted to use Alexander the Great to attempt a massive epic with his heightened sensibility, and one that presumably would have included at least a modern pop tune or two.
The film was actually a passion project of his star Leonardo DiCaprio who in his youth was eager to play Alexander the Great. DiCaprio had worked with Luhrmann before on the Gen-X and millennial touchstone, Romeo + Juliet where he played the doomed male half of the star-crossed pair. DiCaprio was convinced Alexander the Great could be the role of a lifetime and obtained the film rights to a screenplay for it in the early 2000s written by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Edge of Tomorrow). McQuarrie had planned to direct the picture, but DiCaprio wanted to work with one of the auteurs from his then-fairly young yet stunningly impressive career.
Setting the film up at Universal, originally Martin Scorsese was persuaded to look at McQuarrie’s script after working with DiCaprio on Gangs of New York (2002), but he eventually backed out, ceding it in favor of what did become a major achievement in both men’s careers, the Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator (2004).
Around this time, Luhrmann was lured by DiCaprio aboard and started imagining a lush vision of Alexander the Great that we’ll never see, however it is known he cast his Moulin Rouge! muse, Nicole Kidman, in the role of Alexander’s young and fiercely political mother, Olympias. Angelina Jolie played her in the Oliver Stone production.
But as Stone—who had admired the Alexander the Great story since the 1970s—pushed ahead with his film, the Luhrmann and DiCaprio alternative stalled. In 2005, after Stone’s movie both flopped and was gutted by its critical reception, DiCaprio and Luhrmann attempted to resurrect the project, working in development with legendary Hannibal producer Dino De Laurentiis. It never got out of preproduction.
Luhrmann would get to make an epic though some years later with Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in Australia (2008). And he and DiCaprio would eventually reunite for their critically respected and box office-friendly melding of the Jazz Age with the modern hip hop: The Great Gatsby (2013). How’s that for a happy ending, old sport?