Cleopatra (1963)

Cleopatra (1963)Synopsis:

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.

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13 responses to “Cleopatra (1963)

  1. Great review, Eric! I don’t think there is any other Hollywood spectacle as lavishly produced as Cleopatra. Simply fabulous!!!

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  2. Great review! I haven’t seen this in years but definitely want to see it again – a true sumptuous epic. It’s interesting that you’ve observed a lack of chemistry between the leads, when it was all happening behind the scenes.
    In all honesty though, I’d watch three hours of grass growing if Elizabeth Taylor was lying on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Okay, well argued. Fair points and insights. Well explained. Mind you, this doesn’t help me when it comes to liking this film or not. I’ve seen it two or three times, did a piece on it, and still just plain hate it. I will say, and maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a masochist, this review of yours does make me want to rewatch it, even though it’ll no doubt be the most difficult thing to do. Perhaps another viewing will help me to edge this into the love/hate like relationship area that finds “Casablanca” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Or it’ll just cement my current feelings for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t like it the first time (pan & scan, VHS). I think the HD format helps the film a great deal. As I said before, the first half is very good. You can turn it off after the intermission … 😉

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  4. Interesting review. When you say that it ‘is rather good’, I was like it’s an excellent Bio-pic, along the lines of the Bio-pics you’ve mentioned, Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia. Love all those films. But I get your point.
    The movie had some powerful performances; and it’s interesting how Harrison & Taylor had great chemistry, together. It’s interesting to note how great a chemistry, he has with younger actresses, like Taylor, Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn, Zeenat Aman, et al. About Burton’s character being weak. Well, I believe Cleopatra was a very Bold woman, who lived in a MAN’s world. She was afraid of no man. She respected Caesar, held him in high regard, and fell madly in love with Marc Anthony, with whom she had passionate love affair. Marc Anthony wasn’t weak, but he had to bow down to a woman. So I feel Burton does the role with perfection; strong, but can’t say no to Taylor (reel life imitating real life 😉 )
    Agreed they are better at fighting ( as you mentioned, like in The V.I.P.s and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but liked them in The Sandpiper as well. Only The Comedians wasn’t up to the mark.
    About the longer two-part movie; I had no idea, initially, it was longer. That I’d love to watch, if the whole film were to be released on DVD!!! It ought to be.

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    • I’m sorry for this belated reply (I was on vacation).

      I totally agree with your assessment of Cleopatra. She was indeed the precursor of the female politician (e.g. Elizabeth I, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher). The movie does a great job depicting Cleopatra as a trailblazing feminist. I wanted to talk about this, but the review was getting too long. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

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  5. I think allowing for inflation it was the most expensive movie of all time until Titanic in 1997. In fact even without inflation I think it remained the most expensive movie of all time for several years. Yeah you won’t see it’s like again.

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  6. I always recommend this movie as a superb example of a style of moviemaking that isn’t done anymore. Back in the day when a movie called for a cast of a 100,000 the studio went out and hired a 100,000 extras. When the movie called for the city of Rome, by God the studio hired an army of contractors and BUILT the city of Rome.

    And yeah, I agree 100% about the chemistry between Liz Taylor and Rex Harrison. The first half of the movie with them is definitely the best part of the movie. Once Burton/Marc Antony steps into the spotlight, the energy level of the movie goes way down.

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