Alexander The Great

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Before William Shatner assumed command of the Enterprise or Adam West donned a cape and cowl, they co-starred in the television pilot episode of a series called Alexander The Great in 1964 with guest stars John Cassavetes and Joseph Cotten. But Alexander The Great was never picked up and did not air until four years later in 1968 as a television movie. For a weekly series, Alexander The Great boasted a rather handsome budget, but for a movie, even a movie of the week, it’s budget was middling at best.

Director Phil Karlson, who went on to make Walking Tall (1973), made the most of a small budget with carefully framed and blocked compositions and the use of stock footage. Karlson used every trick available to him to give the illusion that a vast Greek force was waging a terrible battle against the Persian horde. While the images often fell flat or failed to convey the epic scope suggested by the theme music, it is clear that every effort was made in the attempt.

But the real weakness of Alexander The Great isn’t its cheap production values, but the acting. Shatner, West, Cotten, and a host of character actors chew up the scenery with a verve that only those steeped in the theater of William Shakespeare are capable of. Melodrama pours from the pores of these actors while the villain of the piece, John Cassavetes, stews with a restrained intensity. Cassavetes brings a modernist approach to performance to the film and becomes the lone standout. Shatner proclaims his lines while Cassavetes mutters and mumbles as if it were his job to pit naturalism against Shakespearean artifice.

The schism between acting styles draws more attention to the fiction of the film than Shatner’s blonde wig or Cliff Osmond’s phony beard. The minute Cassavetes charges into frame the curtain is pulled back and the illusion shattered. Any hope that Karlson possessed that his hodgepodge spectacle of battle would be convincing becomes utterly beside the point. Alexander The Great was epic television making rendered mediocre by poor casting and a four year delay in release.

Yet, Alexander The Great is still worth watching just to see Shatner and West together. These hams of the small screen grin and shout their way merrily through the material that, by today’s standards, is overtly queer coded. Why in the scene where West is introduced Shatner greets him with a playful spank on the buttocks with his sword. Add to that the joy of seeing John Cassavetes in a plumed helmet and Alexander The Great is likely to be the most enjoyable TV movie one is likely to see for weeks.