Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay:Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, and Sidney Buchman
Stars: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Marc Antony), Rex Harrison (JuliusCaesar), Pamela Brown (High Priestess), George Cole (Flavius), Hume Cronyn(Sosigenes), Cesare Danova (Apollodorus), Kenneth Haigh (Brutus), Andrew Keir(Agrippa), Martin Landau (Rufio), Roddy McDowall (Caesar Augustus Octavian)
MPAA Rating:G
Year of Release: 1963
Country: USA
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In terms of sheer size and scope, legend and excess, few Hollywood films will ever be ableto hold a candle to Joseph L. Mankiewicz's epic production of Cleopatra. Fromthe beginning, when filming commenced in 1960, Cleopatra was doomed to beone of the largest, most expensive, and most problematic productions ever, and its inordinatecost almost sank 20th Century Fox (it was bailed out by the mega-success two years later ofThe Sound of Music).

Adjusting for inflation, Cleopatra is still the most expensive movie ever made.When all was said done at the end of 1963, after three years of production, the cost wassomewhere between $40 and $44 million, which is estimated today to be well in excess of$200 million (some estimates put it as high as $270 million). There was trouble on the setfrom the very beginning: Elizabeth Taylor, who was the first actor ever to be paid $1 millionfor a single movie, had health problems that kept her off the set for extensive periods oftime. The original director, Rouben Mamoulian (Mark of Zorro, Blood andSand), left the production after six months of principle photography at PinewoodStudios in London, along with the two leading male stars, Peter Finch (as Julius Caesar) andStephen Boyd (as Marc Antony). At this point, Joseph L. Mankiewicz stepped in to direct,and Rex Harrison took the role of Caesar and Richard Burton took the role of Marc Antony.The entire production was moved to Rome. At this point, there was 10 minutes of usablefootage in the can, and the movie had already cost $7 million and taken up 16 weeks ofproduction time.

When Cleopatra finally premiered in 1963, audiences turned out in throngs to seeit, but it would be years before the movie made back its enormous production costs. Thesteamy rumors about on-set sexcapades between co-stars Richard Burton and ElizabethTaylor (both of whom were married to other people) helped generate interest in the movie,even though critics were generally mixed in their responses (Pauline Kael later called it"terrible, but compulsively watchable"). The popularity of the widescreensword-and-sandals genre that had made such big hits out of The TenCommandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), andEl Cid (1961) was waning, and the perceived box-office failure ofCleopatra sealed its doom.

Returning to the movie almost 40 years later, without the clouded lens of high expectationsand swirling rumors, one can see Cleopatra for what it is: a moderately successful,generally entertaining, both overly ambitious movie. There are moments inCleopatra that are as stunning as anything ever committed to film: Cleopatra'sgrand entrance into Rome on a giant rolling sphinx while thousands cheer, the great Battle ofActium involving hundreds of warships, and other scenes literally definespectacle. Yet, the spectacle is not enough, and it is the human drama in the storythat is generally lacking. There is much love and passion, jealously and betrayal, but muchof it feels too much like historical plot machinations and not enough like the turmoil enduredby real human beings.

The screenplay for Cleopatra, written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, RanaldMacDougall, and Sidney Buchman (the list of inspirations in the opening credits range fromthe ancient history of Plutarch to C.M. Franzero's 1957 history The Life and Times ofCleopatra), sticks fairly close to the basic historical trajectory of Cleopatra's attempt toreassert her power in Egypt by forging alliances (both sexual and political) with Rome'sgreat leaders, but most of it plays like a soap opera. The movie opens in 55 B.C. at the endof a bloody Roman civil war between the armies of Pompey and Julius Caesar (RexHarrison). After Pompey is defeated, he flees to Egypt where he is killed by Ptolemy, whois in the midst of his own civil war with his co-ruler and sister, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor).

Cleopatra becomes Caesar's mistress, and he puts her in full command of Egypt afterdisposing of Ptolemy. Cleopatra, ever hungry for power, appeals to Caesar's own sense ofgreatness, urging him to accept the position of dictator of Rome, something the Romansenators do not appreciate. Cleopatra envisions a worldwide empire ruled jointly by her andCaesar as king and queen, but her dreams are cut short when Caesar is murdered by therepublican-minded senators.

This does not stop her, however, as she then becomes involved with Caesar's loyal chieflieutenant, Marc Antony (Richard Burton). As she did with Casear, she appeals to Antony'sdesire for power and convinces him to start another civil war in Rome so that Cleopatra'sson by Caesar, Caesarion, would be ruler of Rome, rather than Octavian (RoddyMcDowall), Caesar's nephew whom he had chosen in his will to be his successor.

That brief plot description does not even begin to elaborate the complex power relationshipsthat are forged and destroyed throughout the four-hour-and-eight-minute movie. It iscertainly political and military power that are at the heart of the story, and Mankiewiczfocuses primarily on how that power is earned and lost. His Cleopatra is a wily, intelligentwoman of great contradiction. She thirsts for control, yet she realizes the only way to get it isthrough the Roman leaders she seduces. Yet, at the same time, it is clear that she truly lovesthese men, even as her romantic passions are bound up in her passion for power--they areone in the same.

Elizabeth Taylor holds the center of the film well as the great Egyptian queen, even if weknow that Cleopatra was most likely not a fair-skinned, voluptuous brunette. Taylor mixesthe right amounts of lusty passion and cold calculation. Her then-record 65 costume changesdoesn't feel excessive--one would imagine that this woman would change her clothes to suither various moods (the majority of her wardrobe choices seem designed with the singularpurpose of displaying Taylor's ample cleavage, which should have received second billing).

Rex Harrison does equally well as Julius Caesar, but it's amazing how quickly he can beforgotten once he is assassinated and Richard Burton's Marc Antony takes center-stage.Antony is the more interesting character (at least as he's portrayed here), and his downfall ofself-destruction has a certain tragic resonance, even if Burton's performance is a bit weak.

Despite the vast and convincing historical settings (the film won richly deserved Oscars forart direction, sets, special effects, costumes, and cinematography), the screenplay fills thecharacters' mouths with a combination of pseudo-Shakespearean poetry and banal moderndialogue that often runs amusingly contrary to expectations. This is not a serious detriment,however, and in some ways contributes to the movie's watchability--it grabs you the sameway a soap opera does, with multiple plot lines and interwoven conflicts that seem to haveno resolution.

Even at more than four hours in length, there are only a few segments that seem to draguncomfortably. The rest moves along at a steady clip, bogged down only when thescreenplay traps the characters in having to make long, unwieldy speeches. Some judiciousediting of some of the longer monologues would have likely resulted in a movie half an hourshorter and better paced, but it still wouldn't have been enough to save Cleopatra'sreputation as one of the biggest debacles in movie history.

Cleopatra: FiveStar Collection DVD

AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
LanguagesEnglish(5.1, 2.0), French (2.0)
Supplements Audiocommentary with Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, Martin Landau, and Jack Brodsky
Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood American Movie Classics'two-hour documentary
The Fourth Star of Cleopatra 1963 production featurette
Archival footage of New York and Hollywood premieres
Five still galleries
  • Costume concept and research
  • Excerpts from original exhibitors' campaign book and manual
  • Excerpts from original commemorative theater program
  • British lobby cards
  • Billboard art and miscellaneous key art
    Three original theatrical trailers
    Advance trailer (English, French, or Portuguese)
    THX OptiMode test signals
  • Distributor20th CenturyFox

    Cleopatra is presented in a stunning new,THX-approved high-definition transfer, which was taken from the 1995 restored road showprint. Presented in its original Todd-AO theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, this opulent moviespectacle looks positively brilliant. Granted, even on the best widescreen TVs it will not havethe same impact as it would have on a theatrical screen, but this is as good as it can get. Thepicture is razor sharp with only a hint of edge enhancement and a slight amount ofshimmering on some of Cleopatra's ornate costumes. The mis en scene in thismovie is mind-boggling in its complexity and quantity, and the quality of the image on thisDVD renders it all in loving detail. Colors are bold and striking without any oversaturation,and flesh tones appear natural.

    I do have a complaint about the transfer that is not technical in nature: the decision to placethe entr'acte at the end of Disc 1 instead of the beginning of Disc 2. This is disconcertingbecause, in a theatrical presentation, the intermission ends with the last scene of the first partof the film, and the second part commences with the music of the entr'acte. It's a smallnuisance to be sure, but a nuisance, just the same.

    You should also be aware that, on the first pressings of this DVD, the exit music was leftoff. When originally shown in theaters, the film ended with roughly four minutes of musicbefore the final credits. This was a mastering error and Fox has since corrected it.

    The original soundtrack has been effectively remixed into anew Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. During the more elaborate sequences, the multiplespeakers are quite active, creating a vast front soundstage and using imaging and thesurround speakers to create a plausible sense of inclusiveness. For instance, duringCleopatra's big entrance into Rome, there is a sequence where a line of men on horsebackrush toward the camera and the split off to the right and left and ride past. The soundtrackdoes an excellent job of separating the sounds of the beating hooves and moving them alongeither side of the viewer and into the background. The Battle of Actium is also appropriatelythundering, with ample use of low-frequency effects. Alex North's Oscar-nominated,multi-layered musical score is also well-rendered, as is the dialogue.

    Fox has yet to disappoint with a DVD set released under its"Five Star Collection" banner, and Cleopatra is no different. The scope and depthof the supplements is impressive.

    The screen-specific audio commentary lasts the film's entire 248-minute running length. Thefour contributors to the commentary are Chris and Tom Mankiewicz, the sons of directorJoseph L. Mankiewicz who died in 1993, actor Martin Landau, and film historian JackBrodsky. Each man contributes numerous anecdotes and insights into the extraordinaryproduction of this mammoth film. They also lament the fact that the intended six-hourversion of the movie has never been seen (Landau seems especially upset, likely becausemany of the scenes left on the cutting room floor involved him, including his suicide scene).

    The brand new, two-hour documentary, Cleopatra: The Film That ChangedHollywood, which was produced for the cable channel American Movie Classics, is anengrossing production history. Much of it focuses on the financial troubles faced by 20thCentury Fox in the late 1950s, and how Cleopatra, which was originally intendedas a "sword-and-sandal quickie" with a budget of $2 million, went from being its ace in thehole to its worst nightmare. Fans of the film who are familiar with its troubled history willstill find much of interest in this exceptional documentary, especially in the revelation oflong-lost footage from the intended six-hour version, as well as scenes from the footage shotby the original director, Rouben Mamoulian, at Pinewood Studios in London. Thedocumentary covers the gamut of problems that plagued the three-year production, fromElizabeth Taylor's chronic health problems, to bad British weather that disintegrated theoriginal sets, to the battle over final cut of the film between director Joseph L. Mankiewiczand newly instated Fox chief Daryl F. Zanuck. The myth that Cleopatra was abox-office bomb is put to rest (it did eventually make money, after several years), and thedocumentary works hard to recuperate the film as an honest work of art by a great director,ending on the upbeat note that someday all the lost footage will be recovered and the six-hourversion will be restored.

    The AMC documentary makes an interesting contrast to The Fourth Star ofCleopatra, a 10-minute featurette produced in 1963. Focusing exclusively on theproduction itself (Taylor, Burton, and Harrison are the first three stars), it is an expectedwhitewash of the movie's vast production problems. Filled with behind-the-scenes footage,The Fourth Star gives no hint to the chaotic nature of the production, portraying itinstead as large and complex, but completely ordered. The featurette does have its amusingmoments, such as when the narrator intones "These scenes from Cleopatra arerenewing interesting in history all around the world" over a scene depicting a group ofhalf-naked women practicing their sensual dance routine.

    There is also an extensive set of still galleries. The first, "Costume Concept and Research,"contains 84 stills of concept art, drawings from historical books, and costume testphotographs. The second gallery contains 83 stills of excerpts from the original exhibitors'campaign book and manual. These are mainly comprised of newspaper ads, productionphotos, as well as cover art for the soundtrack album and the novelization and ads for tie-inssuch as cosmetics and an Egyptian chess set. The third gallery contains 61 stills of excerptsfrom a glossy commemorative theater program, which contained historical engravings andproduction photographs. The fourth gallery contains 8 British lobby cards, while the fifthgallery consists of a few stills of billboard art and some miscellaneous concept art ofCleopatra's barge.

    Other goodies include two black-and-white newsreels of Cleopatra's East andWest coast premieres. Put together by 20th Century Fox publicity as part of itsMovieTone News series, these reels are sheer publicity through and through, butit's still fun to see all the various stars and dignitaries turning out on the red carpet for thepremieres (note the conspicuous absence of Elizabeth Taylor). There are also three theatricaltrailers that play up both the movie's opulence and its sexuality, as well as an advance trailerin English, French, or Portuguese.

    Copyright ©2001 James Kendrick

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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