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Fearsome phalanx

Executing His Vision Of Grandeur, Oliver Stone Leads A Front Line Of Powder-keg Actors Across 3 Continents. What Could Go Wrong?

September 12, 2004|David Gritten | Special to The Times

Ubon Ratchathani Province, Thailand — It's an appropriate setting for what everyone on set is calling "the end of the world scene": a harsh landscape dotted with scrub and a few parched bushes, the ground underfoot a dark gray volcanic rock. It rises to a cliff with a sheer drop, and from its edge, one glimpses the republic of Laos across the wide, muddy Mekong River. You feel you've gone as far as you're going.

On high ground, close to the cliff's edge, Irish actor Colin Farrell, dressed like the ancient Macedonian warrior Alexander the Great, hair dyed blond, is haranguing dozens of sullen-faced soldiers who have taken a cue from the terrain and decided: This far, but no farther. The Mekong is meant to be the river Beas in India, where 2,300 years ago Alexander's men -- weary from years of fighting battles, discovering new lands and extending his huge empire east -- mutinied, demanding to go home.

Farrell rounds on the men, reminding them he has suffered alongside them: "There's no part of me without a scar or a bone broken. By sword, knife, stone, catapult and club, I've shared every hardship with you." He urges them to stay on with him at least for another month.

The real-life parallels abound.

There are just three days to go until "Alexander," this modern-day epic written and directed by Oliver Stone, finally wraps. A grueling five-month shoot has taken cast and crew to three continents, with locations including Morocco, London and Thailand. For Stone, this is a sweet culmination. Back in film school in the 1960s, he dreamed of creating an epic film about Alexander, and now he is finally within sight of his ambitions.

As for Farrell, this speech in this setting carries yet another set of resonances. During the shoot he has fallen twice from his horse; on one occasion the animal reared and fell on him. He has suffered chronic back pain and cracked ribs, and the day after the scene beside the Mekong, he will accidentally fall on the grounds of his hotel and sustain a hairline fracture in his heel. On the last day of shooting Farrell will learn he has also broken his wrist.

Despite having been saddled with a "bad boy" image in sections of the media, he has learned to lead by example and to shoulder responsibility for seeing the film though to its conclusion.

"He's not in this for the money," Stone says of Farrell's starring role in "Alexander," budgeted at an estimated $150 million. "This was so expensive, it was a no-money film from the start." Stone adamantly denies reports that Farrell earned an $8 million fee: "He didn't come close. We both had to defer so much money as well as guarantee. He could have gone out and done another movie for three times what he received. He was worth far more on the market. But he stuck to his word. He said: 'I'll do this movie with you, and whatever you're getting, I'll do in proportion to you.' "

Driving the film, which received its primary backing from German producers Thomas Schuhly and Moritz Borman of Intermedia and will be distributed by Warner Bros. in the U.S., was an obsession with one of the great figures in all of history, a military conqueror and an idealist inspired by the gods and ancient myths, a man who, as Stone puts it, "dreamed big dreams and took big chances. He had the ferocious energy of a lion, he was a mover and shaker, he combined intellect with action. He built cities and libraries, he had a vision of the world. And as a commander, no one eluded him."

Even Stone's numerous detractors might concede that he too dreams big dreams and takes big chances. Make a film about Alexander the Great, and you end up tackling huge themes: power and fame and their corrupting qualities; the isolating effect of greatness; man's constant desire to push to the very limits; and the resolution of feelings toward two parents who used Alexander as a pawn to combat each other.

The story has interested numerous filmmakers over time -- Baz Lurhman and producer Dino De Laurentiis insist they are still moving forward on their version with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role for Universal and DreamWorks, with David Hare working on the script. But that film, which initially had been viewed as a competitor with Stone's project, remains a long way from production.

Get the tale right, and it could be an extraordinary triumph; get it wrong and it could be a catastrophic failure. "Ah, yes," Stone says, grinning his gap-toothed grin. "Hubris!"

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