CLEOPATRA

DEFENDING ONE OF THE MOST BEGUILING HOLLYWOOD EPICS

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
31st July 2023

When the Oscar-winning hit 'Gladiator' was released in 2000, director Ridley Scott and his team were credited with reviving the long dead Sword-and-Sandals epic, a genre of large-scale historical films that had been a staple of Hollywood since its inception and reached their peak in the 1950s and early 60s. Though the genre remained a perennial favourite for audiences, and despite a few attempts to revive the genre from the 70s through to the 90s, its heyday was decades in the past, coming to a painful and expensive end in the mid-60s. The film credited for having brought about its end was the infamous 1963 film 'Cleopatra', a gigantic recreation of the reign of the last queen of Egypt and her relationships with the powerful men of the Roman Empire.

'Cleopatra' is a film now mostly remembered as a series of trivia facts. For many years, it was the most expensive film ever made. Its budget was so extreme that it was essentially impossible for the film to make a profit on release, making it, for many years, the biggest flop in Hollywood history. The financial failure was so extreme that its studio, Twentieth Century Fox, almost went bankrupt, before being saved in 1965 by the gargantuan success of 'The Sound of Music'. And at the heart of the hurricane that was its production, there was the scandalous affair between two of its stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which began one of the most tumultuous relationships in Hollywood history.

For the most part, these facts have dominated the discourse around the film, excuses to dismiss it as one of the lesser Hollywood epics. There's an assumption that, because it was a flop, the film itself mustn't be very good, that audiences in 1963 were turned away by a poorly-made production crippled by tabloid gossip. In truth, 'Cleopatra' is one of the more interesting and entertaining of the Sword-and-Sandals films of the period, possessing qualities that have ensured the film has grown in stature in comparison to its contemporaries. It has the same camp qualities of Cecil B. DeMille's preposterous 1956 classic 'The Ten Commandments', but the camp in 'Cleopatra' is a bit more knowing and the whole affair far less pompous. It may not be quite as considered or intelligent as Stanley Kubrick's 'Spartacus' (1960) or William Wyler's 'Ben-Hur' (1960), but there's a tremendous amount of thought put into the ideas in 'Cleopatra' and it's a hell of a lot more entertaining. And while a lot of time and money were spent on the film to an undoubtedly frivolous extent, every penny spent and every minute used is up there on the screen. 'Cleopatra' is gigantic in every way, the folly of its production amplifying the follies of its central characters.

The film was shepherded by Walter Wanger, a once-disgraced producer looking to revitalise his career and realise a long-held dream project. After a costly false start, the production he pulled together featured some of the most acclaimed artists in Hollywood. Elizabeth Taylor, who was the first actor paid $1 million in a Hollywood production to play the title role, would win an Oscar for 'Butterfield 8' during shooting. Her co-stars included future Oscar winner, Rex Harrison, as Julius Caesar, and acclaimed stage actor Richard Burton as Marc Antony. And leading the production as co-writer and director was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had swept the Oscars in 1950 with his biting masterpiece 'All About Eve'. While everyone working on 'Cleopatra' would suffer considerably as a result of the production, this melting-pot of talent, which also included an incredible team of behind-the-scenes artisans, would arguably translate to the screen. It takes considerable skill to make a great film, but also to make any film at all out of circumstances as legendary and catastrophic as what happened with 'Cleopatra'.

It would take too long to recount all the dramas surrounding production on 'Cleopatra' here, and for those interested, I highly recommend Kevin Burns and Brent Zachy's excellent and extensive 2001 TV documentary 'Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood'. The more pertinent question to ask on the film's 60th anniversary is whether its reputation deserves to be reassessed. I first saw the film as a midday movie when I was a teenager, coming to it based purely on its scandalous reputation, but I was struck by how arresting a film it was. There's something immediate, almost frantic about the film, much of it thanks to Alex North's propulsive, beguiling score. The characters are strong, the drama is well-conceived, the production design is staggering, and the cinematography is shockingly dynamic, certainly compared to how static 'The Ten Commandments' often looks. I've watched the film now countless times, and with each viewing, I find myself gently falling into the film, caught in its dazzling web. In fact, of all the Hollywood epics of the 50s and 60s that I love ('The Ten Commandments' included), 'Cleopatra' may be my favourite.

For one, it's unusual in this genre for the screenplay not to be based on a biblical story. So many of the films root themselves in the Bible, whether directly or by indirect means (such as 'Ben-Hur' or 'Quo Vadis?'). Even 'Spartacus' has a spiritual quality to it. Though 'Cleopatra' makes reference to the spiritual world of the Egyptian and Roman gods, this is a story about actual people, about their relationships and decision-making, about how they choose to rule and how they navigate their royal/imperial responsibilities. There is no deus ex machina of some divine power intervening or some promise of a greater afterlife through the will of God. In 'Cleopatra', actions have immediate consequences and the threat of mortality hangs heavy.

At its best, 'Cleopatra' feels almost literary, Mankiewicz carefully considering the personal and the political within the central triangle of Cleopatra, Caesar and Marc Antony. Though the film credits the histories of Plutarch, Suetonius and Appian as its source material, Mankiewicz cited the 1898 play 'Caesar and Cleopatra' by George Bernard Shaw and the 1607 play 'The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra' by William Shakespeare as key texts for his construction of 'Cleopatra'. These influences are clear in the final film; mixed into poetic declarations of love are pontifications on the nature of power, the philosophies that built Rome, the ancient traditions of Egypt, what it means to rule and what it means to represent those who you seek to protect. Just as much space is given to secondary characters such as Caesar's heir Octavian (a tremendous Roddy McDowell), characters who barely come into contact with Cleopatra. The world of Ancient Rome and Egypt is full of political intrigue, and Mankiewicz understands the importance of this moment of history, the assassination of Caesar which ends the first act being a major turning point in western history.

'CLEOPATRA' TRAILER

It would be easy for Cleopatra herself to disappear under the weight of all these important men, or to simply be the exotic femme fatale that leads them all to their doom, but neither Mankiewicz nor Taylor are interested in this important historical figure falling into this trap. There are certain things we have to take as read when looking at a Hollywood epic of this kind - the gender politics will be questionable, all people of colour will function as exotic slaves with no dialogue or autonomy, commentary on colonialism will be non-existent - but it is to the film's credit that it makes sure to position Cleopatra as not just a figure of aesthetic power but also a political one. Numerous times she exhibits a level of intelligence and insight that surpasses her male lovers, whether that be her horror at the burning of the Library of Alexandria, the political strategies she concocts for both Caesar and Antony, and perhaps most impressive of all, the spectacle with which she enters Rome in the first act of the film.

This sequence is legendary for its unbelievable scale and opulence, but what always strikes me about it is how clever a move it is for Cleopatra. After an endless parade of exotic spectacles, she arrives atop a golden sphinx, towering and resplendent. Below her, the people of Rome scream in adulation. All the while, we hear Alex North's thundering march, not romantic and exotic but sturdy and inevitable. We know that this is a figure of great influence and power, shown on the admiring face of Caesar or the dazzled face of Antony. Standing before Caesar, Cleopatra bows and the crowd cheers, but this isn't an act of supplication and she knows it. With a knowing smile, she winks at Caesar as the crowd goes wild. "Your queen has conquered the people of Rome," comments Antony to Sosigenes (Hume Cronyn), Cleopatra's chief advisor. He gives a smile. "The people," he replies. "Yes."

Cleopatra may perform great feats of theatricality in the film, opulence that crosses over into the arrogant and then even further back to the impressive, like a snake coiling in on itself, but she understands the power in theatricality. As a woman in a world dominated by men, she knows that her position of power is always under threat and that these tools of razzle-dazzle aren't in the arsenal of her contemporaries or enemies. They show power through violence; she shows it through spectacle, but her power is no less informed or influential. It's in this way that Mankiewicz is able to ensure that 'Cleopatra' is more than an exotic romance, and that the central love triangle is imbued with a strong thematic foundation. It's never clear whether Cleopatra's love for Caesar and then for Antony (indeed, their love for her) comes from a genuine love, a burning lust or a desire to sleep next to great power, but I would argue that this ambiguity is the film's intention. The consequences of these romances are immense on their respective empires, and the film is just as concerned with these consequences as it is with those romances. This is the terrible tragedy for Taylor's Cleopatra, a woman torn between the need to be a ruler to her people and a human being who loves and desires. In order to have one, the other must suffer, and as her circumstances continue to spin out of control, the right path becomes harder to navigate. In one of the film's most powerful moments, where Cleopatra finds out that Antony has married for political reasons, she stands in silence alone in her palace. Mankiewicz and his cinematographer (either Leon Shamroy or Jack Hildyard) frame her in a wide shot, reducing this mighty woman into a tiny figure, alone and abandoned. The moment is shockingly still and silent, getting longer and longer, until she suddenly breaks, screaming her lover's name as if her soul is shattering. Mankiewicz never loses sight that, for how fascinating the machinations of Rome are, the central figure of this film is Cleopatra, and Taylor's performance ensures she is rooted in an emotional integrity that ultimately holds the film together.

Each act of the film ends in death (the first in Caesar's, the second in Antony and Cleopatra's), but the most upsetting scene comes just before Cleopatra chooses her demise at the sting of an asp. Finally confronted by the cruel and maniacal Octavian, she is reduced to nothing. His barks of "Look at me" cut like a spear to the heart, her responses of "If it pleases you" acting as the last defence for her dignity and power. She sits there, heartbroken and shattered, as this arrogant man takes her kingdom apart piece by piece, reducing her great dynasty to supplicants to his will. It's the most crushing scene of the film and easily its finest, horrifying in its clarity and its stillness. Both Taylor and McDowell are magnificent, but it also solidifies that what Mankiewicz is aiming for is greater than an exotic romantic epic. 'Cleopatra' is trying to say something amongst all the trappings, to give a sense of dignity to this consistently underestimated historical figure. We obviously have a greater understanding of her importance now than in 1963, but it's still a breath of fresh air to see her taken so seriously in this context, not just be reduced to a scheming, ambitious femme fatale using her sexual charms to act in her own best interests. In the hands of Mankiewicz and Taylor, she is mighty.

This isn't to say that 'Cleopatra' is without its flaws. At no point does the film not feel frantic, as if it were a train throwing the tracks down right in front of itself. This freneticism works often in its favour, but there are stretches in the second act - particularly around the grand sea battle - that the film loses its momentum (certainly compared to the jaw-dropping sea battle in 'Ben-Hur'). As well-constructed as Cleopatra, Caesar and Octavian are, Marc Antony never feels quite complete, with Richard Burton often left treading water. Then again, maybe this is also intentional, Antony being perhaps the most foolish member of the central triangle. Cleopatra and Caesar never lose sight of their roles as leaders amidst the lust and romance, but Antony cannot find as effective a balance. His responsibilities to Rome are jettisoned in his desire for Cleopatra, and in the last act when it all falls apart, perhaps the treading water is a manifestation of his impotence as both a leader and a lover, unable to will himself to achieve either. At times, the dialogue can be a bit hammy and the staging a bit stagnant, but this is then quickly forgotten in the face of moments of true breathtaking spectacle or Mankiewicz's erudite, intricate, meaty speeches. And when the film finds its stride, it throttles forward, thrilling and dazzling and fascinating.

As production on the film went on and on and on and on and on, Mankiewicz's ambitions for the film became grander. He wanted to make it a two-part film, each chapter over three hours in length. His first assembly is reported to have been over seven hours long. As the film completed principal photography though, Twentieth Century Fox was in shambles. Every other production had essentially been shut down as 'Cleopatra' devoured resources, and in an effort to save the studio he helped found, Daryl F. Zanuck returned to take over the studio and get control of the film. He fired Mankiewicz, took 'Cleopatra' out of his hands and completed it as a single film. When it premiered on the 12th of June 1963, it ran at 244 minutes, but very soon after the film reached theatres that runtime was further cut to just over three hours in order to maximise as many screenings a day as possible. In the end, it didn't amount to the huge success Fox had dreamed of when they greenlit the project in 1958. Despite favourable reviews, a strong box office that made it the biggest hit of 1963 and nine Oscar nominations including Best Picture, of which it won four, the film was simply too expensive to make a profit, and the legend of 'Cleopatra' as a Hollywood calamity was born. It wouldn't be until 1973 that the film would finally break even.

In 2001, the film was released on DVD in its original 244-minute premiere runtime, later carefully restored and presented at the Cannes Film Festival for its 50th anniversary in 2013. Despite extensive efforts to find the missing three hours of material in order to recut the film as Mankiewicz intended, it is believed that the additional footage shot for 'Cleopatra' is now lost, making its full restoration impossible. Even so, 'Cleopatra' as we have it today is among the richest of meals from this golden era of Hollywood historical epics, an era the film essentially brought to an end. It has all the best qualities of its contemporaries, mixed together in a melting pot that was just brought to the boil too quickly. What has become clear over the last 60 years is that 'Cleopatra' is so much more than its reputation suggests. It's a triumph of spectacle, anchored in consistently strong performances, built on a foundation of rigorous questions on power, love, the right to rule and the role of women in shaping history. Where other contemporary epics such as 'The Ten Commandments' or 'Ben-Hur' can feel pompous and pondering, 'Cleopatra' is propelled forward by a frantic roar, threatening to lose control. But then isn't that indicative of the moment in history it depicts? Cleopatra stood at the turning point of Western history, the last person left standing in an old world as it transitioned into the new, one that would eventually collapse into the dust. Perhaps the chaos of 'Cleopatra' is the reason it still feels so arresting, so thrilling, so strangely dangerous. It was done, as the film says in its final worlds, "extremely well, befitting the last of so many noble rulers."

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