The story of the legendary Egyptian Queen (Elizabeth Taylor, National Velvet). The film focuses primarily on her relationships with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison, Blithe Spirit) and Marc Anthony (Richard Burton, Alexander The Great).
Reaction & Thoughts:
Director & writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) famously said, “Cleopatra was conceived in emergency, shot in hysteria, and wound up in blind panic.” This troubled production faced an endless amount of problems, yet the final product is rather good for the most part. There is really only one thing wrong with this movie: it goes on and on and on … It’s like eating a whole gallon of ice cream; after a while it’s just too much. At more than four hours, this movie overstays its welcome. Gone with the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) are nearly as long, but none of these films feel excessively lengthy. That being said, Cleopatra is much better than what some naysayers would let you to believe.
I hadn’t seen the movie in years and having the opportunity to see it in High Definition, I jumped at the chance of revisiting it — the film was much better than I remembered. Cleopatra, (re)written by Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman, Ben Hecht, and Mankiewicz, remains a very flawed epic, but its virtues are strong enough to help you survive the dull patches.
This is really two movies stitched together and therein lies the film’s main problem. The first half, which depicts Cleopatra’s relationship with Julius Caesar, is rock-solid. I loved the way this section of the film deals with the politics of the era. There is hardly any action, this section is rather slow, but the dialogue is good and the scenes are smoothly staged. Harrison is excellent as Caesar and he has great chemistry with Taylor. Harrison brings out the best in Taylor and their scenes together have a certain flair. When Harrison exits the narrative, the film begins to die bit by bit, though.
The second half is dedicated to the relationship between Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. Heavy-breathing romance supplants complex politics and the movie suffers the consequences of changing gears. Marc Anthony is not half as interesting as Caesar. Burton struggles with his characterization, but the truth is that the character is poorly developed. He comes across as foolish, weak, and, worst of all, unlikable. To my utter amazement, Burton doesn’t have any rapport with Taylor. They, of course, fell in love during the making of the film, but their on-screen romance lacks … passion? Ironically, isn’t it? There is one thing that I have noticed about them; Taylor and Burton are better at fighting (The V.I.P.s and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) than at making whoopee (The Sandpiper and The Comedians).
The ending is overly extended. The last hour is so slow that it nearly gave me restless legs syndrome. There is one huge sea battle, but it ends abruptly and we go back to many long, talky sequences that have no real pay off.
The superb visuals tie the film together. The sets are amazing. Cleopatra’s Rome entrance is simply spectacular. The costumes are fantastic too. Taylor’s changes clothes every two minutes — I’ve never seen anything quite like that before or after. Leon Shamroy’s (The Black Swan and Leave Her to Heaven) lushly, Oscar-winning camera work is pretty impressive. Many scenes were re-shot after original director Rouben Mamoulian (Blood and Sand) was fired, but Shamroy’s work is pretty consistent — you just don’t see any signs that sequences were filmed months apart. Alex North’s (Spartacus and To Kill a Mockingbird) superb music score is another plus. And the supporting cast is excellent: Roddy McDowall (Lassie Comes Home), Hume Cronyn (Cocoon), Martin Landau (Ed Wood), Carroll O’Connor (TV’s All in the Family), Finlay Currie (Othello), John Hoyt (When Worlds Collide), Robert Stephens (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), etc.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Despite being one of the highest grossing films of all time, the movie almost bankrupted its studio, 20th Century Fox (the movie’s behind-the-scenes drama was probably more interesting than what you see on-screen). Cleopatra was edited without Mankiewicz’s input. Darryl F. Zanuck is responsible for the final cut. Believe it or not, Mankiewicz’s initial cut was even longer. Mankiewicz had the then revolutionary idea of releasing it as a two-part movie. The studio vetoed the idea, but I think that would have fixed some of the issues I have with the movie. Still, it is the kind of spectacle that will never be seen again and a must-see production for Liz Taylor’s fans. Color, 251 minutes, Rated G.