Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Even A God Needs Help

ALEXANDER THE GREAT is something like the Holy Grail of unsold television pilots. Filmed in Utah in 1964, this one-hour show starred a pre-STAR TREK William Shatner as the boy king of Greece and a pre-BATMAN Adam West as Cleander, his sidekick. Both were relatively well-known TV actors at the time, but neither had yet become major stars. In fact, if this show had gone to series, who knows whether they ever would have. Maybe luck really is everything in Hollywood.

Besides Shatner and West, ALEXANDER THE GREAT is awash in top-of-the-line talent. The cast also includes John Cassevetes, Joseph Cotten, Simon Oakland, John Doucette, Ziva Rodann and Cliff Osmond. Phil Karlson (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL) directed a teleplay by Robert Pirosh (HELL IS FOR HEROES). Selig J. Seligman (COMBAT) was the producer, and Leonard Rosenman (BARRY LYNDON) provided a marvelously epic-sounding score.

Looking back, how the heck did this series fail? There never has been a successful network drama series set in this time period, but indications are that ALEXANDER THE GREAT would probably have played out like a western anyway. Handsome men on horseback riding across the desert, but using swords instead of six-guns. ABC commissioned it, but didn't air it until 1968, when the network and producers at MGM were looking for material to fit in with OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD, a prime-time anthology series aimed at children. ALEXANDER THE GREAT is an adult show, but I suppose ABC thought it was a history lesson or something. Of course, by then, Shatner and West were both big TV stars, and it's likely the ratings for the telecast were pretty good.

I enjoyed ALEXANDER THE GREAT, despite my short attention span for pieces set this far in the past. Karlson provides lots of action--wrestling and swordfighting and a big battle scene (although some of this may be stock footage). Shatner is perfectly cast in the lead. He looks great and is believable as a leader of men. It's obvious that much of what he used in the role carried over to his performance as Captain Kirk on STAR TREK. Cassevetes and Cotten also deliver top-notch work, although neither would have been regulars on the prospective series.

I'm no historian, but I suspect ALEXANDER THE GREAT wouldn't hold up under much scrutiny. Certainly the language and dialects were different. However, this pilot is a real find. You'll find many reviewers who snub it off, merely because of the shallow perception that Shatner and West are "bad" actors or because it stars macho guys running around in very short skirts. The script is not very complicated and its mystery subplot will take you about 40 seconds to figure out. It ain't SPARTACUS, but it's still an interesting show and one of mild historical significance, even if only for the talented filmmakers involved.

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