Theo Angelopoulos' new film comes to us laden with international awards and honors. Its first screening at the 1980 Venice Festival threw almost the entire remaining offerings into sharp relief. Its sheer size and length demanded attention and as a film it proved riveting and engrossing.
John Francis Lane wrote about it in the Rome International Daily News as follows:
"The art of the film, then, can be grateful to the Biennale '80 for having shown us Alexander the Great and (for those who found the time to see them) for the retrospective of films by Mizoguchi Alexander the Great is a ponderous work like Angelopoulos' most famous film The Travelling Players which won the critics' prize at the 1973 Cannes Festival and would, it was felt at the time, have won the top prize if it had been entered in the competition. The director's subsequent film The Hunters has not had the same success and has had very little viewing outside of festival circuits.
The new film, which has already won the international Critics' Prizes, restores the director's credit even if in my view it isn't as good as The Travelling Players, which told its political story in metaphorical terms and made splendid cinema out of the great traditions of Greek culture. Alexander the Great has an inspired and truly cinematic subject. It is based on two stories, one real and one legendary, The real one is the kidnapping of a group of English aristocrats who were then slaughtered by bandits, an event that happened in 1810. The legendary story is that of a communist resistance hero whom the Greek people treated as a new saviour.
Angelopoulos has set his story on the eve of this century. The film begins at midnight on the last day of 1899. As the clock strikes the last note of twelve, the darkened windows of the royal palace in Athens are lit up, voices are heard shouting "Long live the 20th century" and we see shadow-figures dancing joyfully. The scene changes to the Bay of Piraeus where a boat is stalking towards an island where, inside a sombre prison-castle, we see a group of prisoners being set free by a surprise attack Back in Athens, the revellers pour out into the streets, while in a nearby wood we see an operatic figure in armor mount a white horse and gallop off into the night followed by other men who have collected their rifles in his wake.
In the square in Athens, some English-speaking ladies are singing Three carriages and some soldiers on horseback come to collect them, with a guide They are on their way to Cape Sounion to watch the sun rise on the 20th century, fulfilling Byron's poetic dream Under the columns of the temple of Poseidon, one of the Englishmen recites a hymn to the sun in Ancient Greek It is an appropriately rhetorical farewell to the Romanticism of the 19th century As the sun rises higher over the bay. the English tourists back out of the camera as if they had seen some monster rising from the sea As will happen often during the four hours to come, Angelopoulos' camera remains fixed to the extreme length of the shot. The "monster" does arrive. It is Alexandros, the armored figure we had seen a few minutes earlier, and he has come with his bandits to kidnap the English party The dawn of the 20th century has brought with it a symbol of the new 'power'.
It is a magnificent beginning to a film and it is impossible not to remain excited by that whole opening sequence, even during the hours that follow."