Cleopatra Blu-ray Review
When you’ve got one of the most lavish, fabulously designed and immaculately produced films ever made, with more extras than the population of some countries gadding-about between beautiful marble pillars and acting as living set-decoration down at the end of painstakingly constructed roads and temples and filling an unfeasibly wide and panoramic vista coming to Blu-ray … you damn well hope that it is going to be treated right. With fabulous hi-def transfers for The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur (why not Spartacus, eh?) currently wowing on the format, Fox had a lot to live up to with Cleopatra.
Therefore, I am very happy to report that they have done a tremendous job with this AVC 2.20:1 encode, though there are some minor caveats.
Their handling of The Longest Day and Patton meant stripping them of detail and texture to make them look all spangly and sharp and new, and let’s not even consider the travesty that was their attempt to make Predator shine for the masses, but this time they have made sure to keep their finger from totally squashing the DNR button, and the glorious image retains a degree of fine grain, some wondrous lustre, plenty of finite detail and a truly amazing sense of depth and vitality. Colours positively radiate from the screen, their saturation almost a faithful reproduction of the scintillating De Luxe stock that is totally free from banding or smearing. The primaries aren’t as bold as you might expect, though to be honest, this is just a bit of nitpicking that has been brought to my attention from elsewhere. I doubt very much that I would have spotted such a discrepancy without someone who is far more familiar with both the film and its various appearances having mentioned it first. But, to my eyes, the image is extremely colourful, with a terrific blending of blues, ambers, reds and greens. Midnight blues and subtle pinks are delicious. Pick practically any scene, or any shot and your eyes will be captivated. If I had to, I would say that The Sound of Music has the edge over this, with its palette being simply jaw-dropping, and there are times, here, when the hues seem slightly dulled and the yellows either darkened or muted into something of a more of a smutty golden shade. Moreover, whilst the interiors are soaked in rainbow-tinted ambience, it is the exteriors, most notably those set in Rome that can come over as much duller and more overcast. But make no mistake, this disc offers a gorgeously vivid and mesmerising canvas of opulent colour.
Contrast is great, with only some minor fluctuations that are part and parcel of the original source material. And there is absolutely no complaint about the black levels, which are tremendously deep and solid, lending real weight and atmosphere when the time is right. There is no detail lost within the shadows.
Grain, as I say, is present in the image … but it is very slight and not consistently embroidered throughout the entire film. There are some shots, especially near the start, when Caesar and his commanders first arrive at Alexandria that look bereft of texture and do certainly seem to have been overly scrubbed of noise. In accordance with this, faces during this sequence look waxy and finite detail is lost. If you peruse the figures in the distance, they become slightly sludgy and blurred, when at other times (and this would be for the overriding majority of the time, in fact) they are more tightly resolved. And there are moments when the complete opposite occurs. Again this is noticeable near the start. When Caesar turns from the battlefield and strides away, the image becomes much grainier and dirtier and even appears to gain some bright edge halos. Of course, you get this sort of wayward shot in the transfer of many vintage films but considering the work on the rest of the print, it sticks out quite a bit and puts you in mind that maybe the transfer has been culled from different sources which, given the troubled history of this film, would not be surprising.
Detail, thus, is frequently astonishing. Should you want to count the trinkets and ringlets of jewellery adorning Cleo or any of her servants, then this image will certainly allow you to do so. You can see every chink in Roman armour, every engraving on the walls; the fabulous silks and embroideries yield their construction to similar scrutiny. Peruse the splashes and waves made by the oars of the Nile barge, if you like. Unfortunately for Taylor-adorers, you can plainly see the tracheotomy scar that the makeup regularly fails to mask, and the copious dark hairs on her arms. We can even see the tiny speck of golden glitter that has found its way into one of the pores on Richard Burton’s cheek during the aftermath of a lovemaking session with Liz. For a second it gleams like an irradiated pixel, so sharp and precisely rendered it is. It has always been there, of course, but never shining as clearly as this.
Depth of field is considerable too. Not only do the battlefields and the seas and the Roman plazas stretch so far back that you’d swear someone had knocked down the wall behind your screen and towed elements of the image into the distance, but the chambers and apartments of palaces and temples also provides visual acres of space with which to conjure opulence. There is sweep, there is grandeur and there is incredible clarity. Damage is only spotted once that I can recall, and even then it is minute. Occasional soft filters are used, and there is also photography taken through the silk drapes of Cleopatra’s bed that makes the image appear diffused and hazy. But, all in all, this is a tremendous transfer of a film that demands you to admire it.
Very definitely, Cleopatra’s beauty has been maintained with this often incandescent transfer.
Naturally, we need to scotch any expectations of intense wraparound sonics and bludgeoning sub action when it comes to the transfer of Cleopatra’s sound mix, but this DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is still sure to impress with its clean, crisp and highly detailed presentation of what was, for its time, quite an audacious approach to providing a stimulating aural experience. Mankiewicz’s film was equipped for and presented in 70mm Roadshows that had six-channel surround sound. 35mm prints had four-track stereo. This is reproduced with a DD 4.0 track. Immediately, the Overture kicks in with Alex North’s sensational score, and the soundfield is filled with warmth and range, a rich orchestral spread and full-blooded vigour when called for. The width across the front is suitably broad, with an appreciable sense of spatial dimensionality taking place.
Bass elements are noticeable and, although hardly grand, they provide a solid foundation to the few scattered action scenes and the more aggressive parts of the score. The surrounds are not called into service very much, but there is some occasional bleed-through to help bolster the bigger moments, such as the battle outside the palace walls or the crowd scenes. When Cleopatra makes her famous entrance into Rome, the horsemen who herald her arrival with trumpets and horns, ride towards us and then peel away to either side and ride off behind us. The audio follows this movement, of course, but the effect isn’t totally immersive and still sounds quite limited in scope. The roar of thunder, however, presses down from up above and swelters across the soundscape with some power and a degree of ominous accuracy.
The finer elements of the audio are also treated with subtlety and respect. The crystal clear sound of chimes carries on the air, and there is the gentle lapping of the water in a spa. Footsteps on marble, and the metallic glimmering of swords and armour are also cleanly discerned.
Occasionally, there is a line of dialogue that occurs off to one extreme side of the screen that sounds a bit duff – clunky and dislocated – but, for the overwhelming majority of the time, speech is neat, crystal clear and steered within the mix with alacrity. One utterance from Cleo, when she first learns of Mark Antony’s marriage to Octavia, is strangely murky and swamped within the mix, but this is probably more to do with Taylor’s ill-judged and half-mumbled delivery of it than any error of the transfer.
Overall, this is a very fine audio mix for a film that is not exactly a powerhouse of action and bombast, but one that employs richness of score and subtlety with smooth style and finesse.
The supplements can be found on both discs in this UK region-free set.
The movie’s incredible back-story is rendered with terrific detail from the combined reminiscences of director/writer Mankiewicz’s sons, Chris and Tom, Fox’s PR man Jack Brodsky and actor Martin Landau in the huge commentary track that rattles over the top of this four hour cut of Cleopatra.
The lost elements of the film and the dropped sequences, and what happened to them is discussed in the brief 9-minute featurette Cleopatra’s Missing Footage, in which historian Brad Geagley and film archivist Schawn Belston discuss the various versions that were developed out of the leviathan screenplay, and why we are never going to see Mankiewicz’s full vision of the story.
The scandals and myths that made the production so rocky and so captivating are either endorsed or denounced in the half-hour look at the film’s notoriety, Fox Legacy with Tim Rothman, the studio’s CEO. We get an appropriate history lesson from Professor Stuart Tyson Smith as he seeks to inform us about the real life and times of the Queen of the Nile in Cleopatra Through The Ages: A Cultural History. The correspondence that took place between Fox’s two PR men, one in Rome and one in New York, as this production went steadily off the rails is detailed in text format in The Cleopatra Papers. This makes for an interesting set of opinions about what was clearly a ticking time-bomb.
The commentary track continues, of course.
Back in 2001, Kevin Burns and Brent Zacky, the guys who went seeking the fabled lost footage and to discover the incredible story behind such a colossal undertaking, threw all their findings into a feature-length documentary entitled Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood, and this once adorned the original DVD of the film. Thankfully, this monumental two-hour chronicle, featuring interviews with the then-surviving cast and crew members as well as elements of the once-missing footage, is present on this well-stocked BD release. Even if you don’t particularly enjoy the movie, this documentary is pure gold and worth the price of the release on its own. Very informative and pleasantly warts ‘n’ all, this is utterly exhaustive. Packed with interviews and on-set footage, including some great material from the original Robert Mamoulian shoot at Pinewood Studios with Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd, as well as screentests, this is endlessly entertaining. With so much myth and magic applied to big Hollywood productions, it is refreshing to see how lavish, ego-led disasters such as this get greenlit and are then allowed to spiral completely out of control. A unique set of circumstances plagued Cleopatra from the very beginning, and this marvellous exposé makes the whole farrago fascinating and compelling.
The Fourth Star of Cleopatra is a vintage promo affair that reports upon the building of the mammoth sets.
And the set is rounded off with archival footage from the film’s Hollywood and New York premiers in Fox Movietone News, and we get to see three Theatrical Trailers for the film.
All of these features played perfectly well on my US PS3.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s swooning Cleopatra is less a chronicle of the turbulent life and loves of history’s Queen of the Nile than it is a cinematic shrine to the excesses of a studio that just couldn’t say no, and a searing depiction to the swollen superegos of celebrity both on-screen and off. It is tempting to find common ground between the real-life characters of Caesar, Mark Antony and Cleopatra and those of the superstars who portray them in the new empire of Hollywood. All had ambition, desire and power … and all contributed greatly to the fall of this peculiarly rapturous yet profoundly stilted production. Watching it now with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see where it went wrong, but difficult to see just how such a financial calamity could have been averted. So many factors played a part in the film’s notoriety that it seems miraculous that it ever got made at all.
In the genre of the lavish, star-studded historical epic Cleopatra is undoubtedly the most audacious, elaborate and visually intoxicating, and for these reasons, alone, it is a truly breathtaking experience to sit through its exorbitant four-hour running time. But there is no denying that however the original six-hour cut of the story was going to be presented, this would always remain a deeply flawed film – the story is unwieldy, the plotting longwinded, the performances often ridiculously arch and theatrical (Burton) or just slow and unsatisfying (Taylor), the direction strained and the action too sparse and far-between. And yet, there is much to savour. Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome is a showstopper. The Royal Barge and its teasing performance put on to seduce the gullible Mark Antony is a real delight for the senses. Antony’s despairing attempts to die in battle against an army who will not raise a sword against him is a powerful moment. And the whole thing is entombed within the aching beauty of Alex North’s gorgeous score.
Far from the majesty of Spartacus or Ben-Hur, two titans that it so wants to rival, Cleopatra is the soap-opera epic that almost sank a studio. It looks ravishing on Blu-ray, where every jewel, trinket, medallion, embroidery and ripple in the Queen’s spa can be studied, and the raft of extras, as good as they are, boast the marvellous two-hour documentary that sets the record straight on this monumental undertaking.
Cleopatra is not a great film, but it offers a stimulating and hypnotic viewing experience, just the same. Fans of the epics will still need this BD in their collection because it is a terrific showcase for one of the most beautiful movies ever made, and there is certainly something to enjoy about watching such a pillar to excess unravel slowly and gloriously across the screen.
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