Cleopatra
(1963)











Rated: G
Runtime: 4 Hours and 8 Minutes


Reviewer: Jones
Grade: A

Cleopatra. The name itself brings a flood of images to mind. The Pyramids, The Sphinx, the Nile River and exquisite beauty are just a few of the many that could be mentioned. Incredibly, the film "Cleopatra" manages to capture the essence of the Egypt we all have within our imaginations and so much more, with grace and splendor. Take the Egypt of your dreams and multiply it by ten and you have the world of "Cleopatra".

Widely regarded as one of the biggest Box Office failures of all time, "Cleopatra" is a fine film of tremendous scope that's failure was more than likely attributable to it's herculean run time of four hours and eight minutes as opposed rather than it's lack of quality. It should be said that this film needed to be this long to tell it's story. There is very little that could be cut and only a few moments where my interest waned (mainly in the second half of the film).

"Cleopatra" is an epic in every sense of the word. It started with a budget of $2 million and after all was said and done, the budget had ballooned to nearly $40 million making it the most expensive film ever made if one takes inflation into account. In the lavish sets and costume design, it is easy to see where every last penny of that $40 million budget went. I believe Elizabeth Taylor goes through somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty costume changes!
Each and every one of them glamorous and breathtaking. Entire ships were built for the battle scenes (apparently they didn't believe in miniatures) and Cleopatra's floating palace is an opulent world in and of itself. Oddly enough, none of this extravagance seems out of place or over the top. It all feels as if it is as it should be, which is quite a feat when one considers the lavish composition of each and every scene.

I think I've established the fact that the production design is top notch and deserving of every one of the Academy Awards it won, but what about the story, the acting and the direction you ask? All said and done, all of these components augment the spectacular environment they inhabit quite well, although not without a couple of minor problems along the way.

The story of Cleopatra, the woman is, legendary. So legendary in fact, that I believe she is the only woman from ancient times to have wielded any sort of influence over others. And wield it she does. We begin on the battlefields of the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has just won a hard fought battle, when he receives the news that his mortal enemy Pompeii has fled to Egypt. He also is told that Egypt is in upheaval, due to a bitter feud between the joint rulers of the nation Ptolemy and Cleopatra, who just so happen to be brother and sister. Some time before Rome was appointed to be the overseer of Egypt. With this knowledge Caesar makes his way to Egypt with the intention of bringing resolution to this conflict.

When he arrives in Alexandria (capital of Egypt) he makes the acquaintance of King Ptolemy who presents him with a present that the King had hoped would please Caesar. Caesar graciously accepts the gift, but his displeasure is apparent. That night he has the pleasure of finally meeting Queen Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), who has been exiled from the capital by her brother. She wants Caesar to remove Ptolemy from the throne and place her there, as she believes the throne is rightfully hers. Caesar is smitten with her and eventually does just as she asked. Over time they will be married and the Queen shall finally bear Caesar a son.

Things are a little out of whack back in Rome, so Caesar must leave Cleopatra behind, but she and their son will rejoin him one day soon. And what a reunion it is. Cleopatra's arrival in Rome has to be the grandest moment in film history in terms of scope, production design and composition. You can't help but sit in awe as this scene unfolds. It is spectacle in it's purest form.

With Caesar back in town, he has his eyes on being named Emperor of Rome, which would involve dissolving the democratic process in effect removing what little voice the people have from the decision-making process. There is a fair amount of grandstanding on behalf of both sides and, after a time, a sort of agreement is reached in which Caesar will receive at least part of what he wants. He is to receive it on the Ides of March and we all know what that means (at least if we're up on our Shakespeare). Make that one dead Caesar to go please.

With her husband dead, Cleopatra, deterred but not defeated, heads back to Alexandria.
Meanwhile Caesar's old friend Marc Antony (Richard Burton) has been out for blood back in Rome. He has been seeking out and executing those men who were involved in Caesar's assassination and doing quite a fine job of it I might add. Guess what friends. All of that is just in the first two hours, which is only halfway! After this Cleopatra woos Marc Antony into doing her bidding. Wars will be fought, people will die, suicides will be committed and no one will get what they want in the end. It is the sort of epic story that just cannot be told anymore.
Back in the 50's and 60's they didn't screw around when it came to making films of the largest of scale as evidenced by the existence of such timeless epics as "Ben-Hur" and "Lawrence of Arabia" to name a couple of the finest.

Like the two films just mentioned "Cleopatra" is carried by a captivating story, brilliant performances and awe-inspiring production design. Of the performances the most notable belongs to Elizabeth Taylor as Queen Cleopatra herself. Just going through the endless barrage of costume changes would have been more than enough for her to earn her $1 million (the largest of it's time) payday in my book. That was not enough for her though. She delivers a fine performance that is well grounded for a character that has to the most well known woman in the history of the world. She takes us on a whirlwind tour of the emotional spectrum. From joy and determination to heartache and mourning she is there, conveying all of the qualities that one would expect of a woman with the world resting on her shoulders. Her performance feeds off of the men she would love and lose: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.

Caesar is played with considerable poise and direction by Rex Harrison. When he is onscreen you dare not look away for fear of missing the slightest of expressions that he employs to make his character all the more compelling. He, and his relationship with Cleopatra, are the driving force of the film for the first two hours and make those two hours worth every single minute of their run time. After Caesar is offed, Richard Burton takes over the role of lead actor and carries it reasonably well. The weakest parts of the film are in it's second half once Caesar has been assassinated. I can't say that I feel that this is completely attributable to Burton's performance, but rather to the fact that the character of Marc Antony isn't nearly as interesting as the character of Julius Caesar. Overall though, Burton gives a fine performance that only seems to leave something to be desired due to the strength of the performances of Taylor and Harrison.

Directorially speaking Joseph Mankiewicz really surprised. He manages to sustain a good solid pace for the film's entire run time, while keeping the film fresh and invigorating through his shot selection and composition. Cleopatra's arrival in Rome, which I mentioned earlier, is a prime example of what I'm talking about. He takes full advantage of the enormity of the scene by employing just about every camera angle imaginable, without overdoing it. He shows you the scene from a multitude of vantage points to show off the impressive scope of the scene and it never, ever gets dull. This is just one of the many examples I could have chosen to illustrate his mastery over the technical elements of the film.

How this film ever got made is beyond me. With a budget that, in the end, was twenty times greater than what it was originally set out to be one has to wonder how the plug was never pulled. Luckily for us fans of the cinema, the plug was never pulled and we now have a fine bit of cinema history to appreciate nearly forty years later.

If you like your epics full of grandeur, spectacle and opulence you can't go wrong with "Cleopatra". Quite likely the only thing holding you back, is the overtly epic runtime that this film carries with it. Take my word for it. You will not notice how much time has gone by until you're well over two hours into it and even then it will quickly regain your attention and hold it until four hours of your life have expired.

"Cleopatra" is the closest thing we will likely ever get to realizing the legendary existence of ancient Egypt. If that sounds like it even remotely interests you, I implore you to take the journey that is "Cleopatra" and inhabit the world of your dreams through the only medium capable of giving it to you.