I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Hail, Cleopatra!

by Barrie Maxwell
March 24, 2011

Reposted from DVD Verdict

Somehow over the years, I'd never managed to see Cleopatra once, partly due to circumstance but also perhaps partly because I was turned off by all the Taylor-Burton nonsense that had accompanied the film's shooting. Thus, as I opened this new DVD from Fox and faced with a four-hour running time for the film (never mind about seven other hours of supplementary material) I was prepared to be bored, disappointed, and perhaps annoyed. Boy, was I wrong!

From the acting (for the most part), to the costumes and sets, to the cinematography, this is an impressive piece of work. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who took over from Rouben Mamoulian, has managed to craft a film of incredible beauty, spectacle and impact. It's all the more impressive when one considers all the roadblocks that he had to overcome, including a script that needed extensive rewriting, having his producer (veteran independent Walter Wanger) yanked from the production, suffering last minute budget cuts that reduced many battle scenes to skimpy skirmishes, and dealing with serious health issues because of such difficulties. Then too, he was forced to cut two hours out of his preferred six-hour cut of the film. (Mankiewicz actually saw the production as two three-hour parts—Caesar and Cleopatra, and Antony and Cleopatra.) The four-hour version is the one that premiered, but in fact, for general release, a further 45 minutes was snipped out at the behest of returned Fox head Darryl Zanuck. The resulting version was denounced by many of the principals including Taylor and Mankiewicz.

One of the aspects of Cleopatra that most struck me was the performance by Elizabeth Taylor. As things have transpired, I seem to have seen and re-seen a number of Taylor's films of the late 1950s and 1960s lately and I have come to appreciate even more how great an actress she is. Her Cleopatra is a stunning portrayal—a woman at times playful, at times subservient, at times cruel and commanding, but the impact is always one of complete believability. The effect is only enhanced by the costuming and make-up that have been devised for the character and which Taylor carries off with ease.

As Caesar and Antony respectively, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton are both quite good. Harrison manages to convey the regal, forceful nature of Caesar as well as convincingly make us understand how Cleopatra can manipulate such a man. Richard Burton's task as Antony is more difficult because he must portray a man who is essentially weak, yet still try to make us feel sorry for him. That he is successful at all is a tribute to Burton's acting skill, given that a significant portion of his performance was lost in coming up with the four-hour cut.

Of particular note in the supporting cast is Roddy McDowall who plays Octavian in a quiet yet forceful manner. At times, he almost makes Octavian seem inconsequential, yet he never lets us forget the scheming nature of the man. McDowall was inadvertently wrongly listed in the best actor rather than best supporting actor category at Academy Award nomination time, effectively shutting him out of consideration in either. Other good supporting help comes from Martin Landau, Hume Cronyn, and Cesare Danova.

If there's one thing you can't say about Cleopatra, it's that the money that was spent (apparently some $40 million) doesn't appear on the screen. The sets and set pieces are spectacular. Of note is the processional entry of Cleopatra into Rome crowned by the appearance of her and her son seated atop a model of a sphinx pulled by a multitude of slaves stepping and swaying in unison. Another impressive sight is Cleopatra's imperial barge—large, regal looking, and apparently crafted using real gold leaf to complete the effect.


[Special Thanks to Michael Stailey, Publisher of DVD Verdict]

Precedents: Classic Films on DVD is Barrie Maxwell's informative look at the classic film era and its coverage in the DVD format. Barrie no longer maintains Precedents, but his fans can read his new column, Classic Coming Attractions at The Digital Bits.