Alexander of Macedon was the greatest general of antiquity. A king at 20, an emperor at 25, he was a brutal tyrant and open-minded administrator whose paradoxes still confound understanding.
Before his death in 323 B.C. at the age of 32, he drove the boundaries of his empire from the rock-strewn barrens of Northern Greece through the easternmost reaches of Persia to the fabled opulence of India. Subjugating mightly dynasties in a lather of gore, his name bacame Alexander the Great and he was worshipped as a god. Beside the stupefying scope of his accomplishments, the conflicts of Ben Hur, Spartacus or Masada look like barroom scuffles.
So it is with high expectations that one approaches "The Search for Alexander the Great," PBS' four-part series of one-hour programs beginning tonight at 10 on Channel 26. And it is with real regret that one discovers a carefully researched, truly educational but pitifully underdramatized saga, a low-rent spectacle better suited to high school history classes than the video biography of the Wonder of the World.
His story is told in dozens of short vignettes, heavy on close-ups of Alexander (played by the beautiful Nicholas Clay, last seen cavorting in the buff as Lancelot in "Excalibur"), looking like a Gentlemen's Quarterly centerfold as he enacts his greatest hits: learning strategy from his father, Philip II, a womanizing boozer and brilliant warrior of whom Will Durant said, "He had all the virtues except those of civilization"; winning early victories in Egypt; cutting the Gordian knot; marching into Asia; conquering Darius, King of the Persians.
Unhappily, these "action" sequences are rarely shot with more than five or six people in the frame (often on a present-day ruin, giving the impression that ancient Greeks lived in cities of stony rubbish), and the oppressively tight camera work (and absence of sets) gives the action a disembodied, claustrophobic feel. To add a sense of depth, director Peter Sykes fleshes out the story by alternating three other narrative techniques.
The first involves conversations from a sort or Doric cocktail hour, a surreal gathering under a canopy tent -- erected inexplicably amid the lone and level sands -- containing all the principal characters in Alexander's career, many of whom never met in real life: Philip II (Julian Glover) disports himself in winey rancor next to his sworn enemy, Demosthenes of Athens. Alexander's mother, the Dionysian voluptuary Olympias (splendidly embodied by Jane "Piaf" Lapotaire), rubs tunics with Aristotle, the young king's tutor. Hephaestion, Alexander's beloved male companion, stands languid and fey beside Darius, whose thick eye shadow, massive mascara and stylized ringlets are below de trop.
The tent-talk sequences achieve a facile compression of fact and opinion about Alexander; and the acting talent under the Macedonian big top is better than the dialogue (often as wooden as it is instructive). But the atmosphere is so social, the shaves so close and the clothing so polyester-crisp that the net effect is of a Marin County toga party hosted by Fellini.
Every few minutes, when the story needs to be nudged ahead, Sykes draws upon narrator James Mason, who does a professional job with the kind of expository donkeywork customarily given to Alistair Cooke -- strolling through amphitheaters, mounting breezy ruins, even hunkering down and using a stone to scratch a battle plan in the sand. Not an exciting use of the TV medium, perhaps, but it's about as close as the viewer gets to the depiction of war in this biography of a man who did little else. No battle is enacted, and when one is called for, Sykes is obliged to trot out his third narrative technique: close-up details of heroic European oil paintings and Hellenic art of the period, backed by a soundtrack of thundering hoofbeats. This is an unforgivable low-budget lapse for Time-Life Television, which produced the show.
Fortunately, the canvas sop-out does not begin in earnest until Episode II next Wednesday. Tonight's introduction takes Alexander from conception (in the royal boudoir, Olympias murmurs huskily to Philip, "My gift, the gift of the god is ecstasy" -- but moments later, Zeus appears in a clap of thunder, confirming the legend of divine parentage) to the death of his father (falling from an assassin's stab, perhaps at Olympias' instigation, he catches sight of his son: "He stared at me. . . as one would watch a falling oak. There was no pity"). In between, there is considerable history and numerous interludes of young Al at play (this primitive Greek is a perfect little Nordic dandy, with surfer-blond hair and, apparently, lipstick), taming the great horse Bucephalus ("The young fool's got on 'im!" Philip shouts, like an Aegean Ben Cartwright), and in class under Aristotle ("Now, what are the qualities that make a king?" the sage intones. Who can blame the kids for looking bored?).
And who can blame the viewer for losing interest at intervals? Thanks to a grant from Mobil, it's a deserving subject seriously treated. But like Time-Life's traveling art show of the same name, it is ultimately a collection of shiny fragments that don't add up to drama.