Screenplay : Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, and Sidney Buchman
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 1963
Stars : Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Marc Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), 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)
In terms of sheer size and scope, legend and excess, few Hollywood films will ever be able to hold a candle to Joseph L. Mankiewicz's epic production of Cleopatra. From the beginning, when filming commenced in 1960, Cleopatra was doomed to be one of the largest, most expensive, and most problematic productions ever, and its inordinate cost almost sank 20th Century Fox (it was bailed out by the mega-success two years later of The 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 was somewhere 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 set from the very beginning: Elizabeth Taylor, who was the first actor ever to be paid $1 million for a single movie, had health problems that kept her off the set for extensive periods of time. The original director, Rouben Mamoulian (Mark of Zorro, Blood and Sand), left the production after six months of principle photography at Pinewood Studios in London, along with the two leading male stars, Peter Finch (as Julius Caesar) and Stephen 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 usable footage in the can, and the movie had already cost $7 million and taken up 16 weeks of production time.
When Cleopatra finally premiered in 1963, audiences turned out in throngs to see it, but it would be years before the movie made back its enormous production costs. The steamy rumors about on-set sexcapades between co-stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (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 widescreen sword-and-sandals genre that had made such big hits out of The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and El Cid (1961) was waning, and the perceived box-office failure of Cleopatra sealed its doom.
Returning to the movie almost 40 years later, without the clouded lens of high expectations and swirling rumors, one can see Cleopatra for what it is: a moderately successful, generally entertaining, both overly ambitious movie. There are moments in Cleopatra that are as stunning as anything ever committed to film: Cleopatra's grand entrance into Rome on a giant rolling sphinx while thousands cheer, the great Battle of Actium involving hundreds of warships, and other scenes literally define spectacle. Yet, the spectacle is not enough, and it is the human drama in the story that is generally lacking. There is much love and passion, jealously and betrayal, but much of it feels too much like historical plot machinations and not enough like the turmoil endured by real human beings.
The screenplay for Cleopatra, written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, and Sidney Buchman (the list of inspirations in the opening credits range from the ancient history of Plutarch to C.M. Franzero's 1957 history The Life and Times of Cleopatra), sticks fairly close to the basic historical trajectory of Cleopatra's attempt to reassert her power in Egypt by forging alliances (both sexual and political) with Rome's great leaders, but most of it plays like a soap opera. The movie opens in 55 B.C. at the end of a bloody Roman civil war between the armies of Pompey and Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison). After Pompey is defeated, he flees to Egypt where he is killed by Ptolemy, who is 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 after disposing of Ptolemy. Cleopatra, ever hungry for power, appeals to Caesar's own sense of greatness, urging him to accept the position of dictator of Rome, something the Roman senators do not appreciate. Cleopatra envisions a worldwide empire ruled jointly by her and Caesar as king and queen, but her dreams are cut short when Caesar is murdered by the republican-minded senators.
This does not stop her, however, as she then becomes involved with Caesar's loyal chief lieutenant, Marc Antony (Richard Burton). As she did with Casear, she appeals to Antony's desire for power and convinces him to start another civil war in Rome so that Cleopatra's son by Caesar, Caesarion, would be ruler of Rome, rather than Octavian (Roddy McDowall), 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 relationships that are forged and destroyed throughout the four-hour-and-eight-minute movie. It is certainly political and military power that are at the heart of the story, and Mankiewicz focuses primarily on how that power is earned and lost. His Cleopatra is a wily, intelligent woman of great contradiction. She thirsts for control, yet she realizes the only way to get it is through the Roman leaders she seduces. Yet, at the same time, it is clear that she truly loves these men, even as her romantic passions are bound up in her passion for power--they are one in the same.
Elizabeth Taylor holds the center of the film well as the great Egyptian queen, even if we know that Cleopatra was most likely not a fair-skinned, voluptuous brunette. Taylor mixes the right amounts of lusty passion and cold calculation. Her then-record 65 costume changes doesn't feel excessive--one would imagine that this woman would change her clothes to suit her various moods (the majority of her wardrobe choices seem designed with the singular purpose 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 be forgotten 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 of self-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 for art direction, sets, special effects, costumes, and cinematography), the screenplay fills the characters' mouths with a combination of pseudo-Shakespearean poetry and banal modern dialogue 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 same way a soap opera does, with multiple plot lines and interwoven conflicts that seem to have no resolution.
Even at more than four hours in length, there are only a few segments that seem to drag uncomfortably. The rest moves along at a steady clip, bogged down only when the screenplay traps the characters in having to make long, unwieldy speeches. Some judicious editing of some of the longer monologues would have likely resulted in a movie half an hour shorter and better paced, but it still wouldn't have been enough to save Cleopatra's reputation as one of the biggest debacles in movie history.
|Cleopatra: Five Star Collection DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Languages||English (5.1, 2.0), French (2.0)|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary 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
Three original theatrical trailers
Advance trailer (English, French, or Portuguese)
THX OptiMode test signals
|Distributor||20th Century Fox|
| Cleopatra is presented in a stunning new, THX-approved high-definition transfer, which was taken from the 1995 restored road show print. Presented in its original Todd-AO theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, this opulent movie spectacle looks positively brilliant. Granted, even on the best widescreen TVs it will not have the same impact as it would have on a theatrical screen, but this is as good as it can get. The picture is razor sharp with only a hint of edge enhancement and a slight amount of shimmering on some of Cleopatra's ornate costumes. The mis en scene in this movie is mind-boggling in its complexity and quantity, and the quality of the image on this DVD 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 place the entr'acte at the end of Disc 1 instead of the beginning of Disc 2. This is disconcerting because, in a theatrical presentation, the intermission ends with the last scene of the first part of the film, and the second part commences with the music of the entr'acte. It's a small nuisance 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 left off. When originally shown in theaters, the film ended with roughly four minutes of music before the final credits. This was a mastering error and Fox has since corrected it.
|The original soundtrack has been effectively remixed into a new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. During the more elaborate sequences, the multiple speakers are quite active, creating a vast front soundstage and using imaging and the surround speakers to create a plausible sense of inclusiveness. For instance, during Cleopatra's big entrance into Rome, there is a sequence where a line of men on horseback rush toward the camera and the split off to the right and left and ride past. The soundtrack does an excellent job of separating the sounds of the beating hooves and moving them along either side of the viewer and into the background. The Battle of Actium is also appropriately thundering, 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 depth of the supplements is impressive. |
The screen-specific audio commentary lasts the film's entire 248-minute running length. The four contributors to the commentary are Chris and Tom Mankiewicz, the sons of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz who died in 1993, actor Martin Landau, and film historian Jack Brodsky. Each man contributes numerous anecdotes and insights into the extraordinary production of this mammoth film. They also lament the fact that the intended six-hour version of the movie has never been seen (Landau seems especially upset, likely because many 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 Changed Hollywood, which was produced for the cable channel American Movie Classics, is an engrossing production history. Much of it focuses on the financial troubles faced by 20th Century Fox in the late 1950s, and how Cleopatra, which was originally intended as a "sword-and-sandal quickie" with a budget of $2 million, went from being its ace in the hole to its worst nightmare. Fans of the film who are familiar with its troubled history will still find much of interest in this exceptional documentary, especially in the revelation of long-lost footage from the intended six-hour version, as well as scenes from the footage shot by the original director, Rouben Mamoulian, at Pinewood Studios in London. The documentary covers the gamut of problems that plagued the three-year production, from Elizabeth Taylor's chronic health problems, to bad British weather that disintegrated the original sets, to the battle over final cut of the film between director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and newly instated Fox chief Daryl F. Zanuck. The myth that Cleopatra was a box-office bomb is put to rest (it did eventually make money, after several years), and the documentary 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-hour version will be restored.
The AMC documentary makes an interesting contrast to The Fourth Star of Cleopatra, a 10-minute featurette produced in 1963. Focusing exclusively on the production itself (Taylor, Burton, and Harrison are the first three stars), it is an expected whitewash 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 it instead as large and complex, but completely ordered. The featurette does have its amusing moments, such as when the narrator intones "These scenes from Cleopatra are renewing interesting in history all around the world" over a scene depicting a group of half-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 test photographs. The second gallery contains 83 stills of excerpts from the original exhibitors' campaign book and manual. These are mainly comprised of newspaper ads, production photos, as well as cover art for the soundtrack album and the novelization and ads for tie-ins such as cosmetics and an Egyptian chess set. The third gallery contains 61 stills of excerpts from a glossy commemorative theater program, which contained historical engravings and production photographs. The fourth gallery contains 8 British lobby cards, while the fifth gallery consists of a few stills of billboard art and some miscellaneous concept art of Cleopatra's barge.
Other goodies include two black-and-white newsreels of Cleopatra's East and West coast premieres. Put together by 20th Century Fox publicity as part of its MovieTone News series, these reels are sheer publicity through and through, but it's still fun to see all the various stars and dignitaries turning out on the red carpet for the premieres (note the conspicuous absence of Elizabeth Taylor). There are also three theatrical trailers that play up both the movie's opulence and its sexuality, as well as an advance trailer in English, French, or Portuguese.
©2001 James Kendrick