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Cleopatra Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 7, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    Cleopatra Review

    Heaven’s Gate, Waterworld and, much more recently, John Carter have proved that no matter how good a film might be, or how much money is hurled into its creation, there is no guarantee that a gargantuan production is going to be a critical or a commercial success. Sadly, but also very famously, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s unfeasibly huge undertaking of 1963’s star studded Cleopatra is possibly the most notorious of cinematic bombs that came with a built-in self-destruct mechanism.

    “Queens … queens. Strip them naked as any other woman, and they are no longer queens.”

    For a lot of fans of this type of Bank Holiday afternoon-swallowing historical excess, there is a definite pecking order. Once you’ve trawled back in time earlier than The Great Escape, Zulu and The Magnificent Seven, there is a massive leap further down the centuries to the more excessive productions of Spartacus, El Cid, Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, Quo Vadis, The Robe and The Fall of The Roman Empire amongst others. And it is these lavish, costume dramas with ten-thousand extras, Hollywood royalty donning the robes and the armour, and ornate, flowery and impeccably literate dialogue to which Mankiewicz’s infamous studio-engulfing Cleopatra belongs. Whilst everyone loves Spartacus (and quite rightly too as it is one of the finest films ever made) and Ben-Hur, Cleopatra often seems quite maligned for its exorbitant eccentricities. We know of the all-encompassing egos that strutted about the production, superstars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor not letting simple things like moderation and professional etiquette to curtail their own ambition. We know of the towering budget that, if piled, banknote by banknote, would probably prove unnerving to the mighty Zeus, himself, by tickling his tootsies as he sits atop Mount Olympus. There is the spiralling out-of-control shoot, often delayed due to disasters, rebuilding, re-locating, awaiting studio funds and the appropriate weather, and hanging-fire whilst its leading lady, Taylor, recovered from a damn near-terminal case of pneumonia (resulting in an emergency tracheotomy – the scars of which can clearly be seen in this startling BD transfer). The original director, Rouben Mamoulian, had his bluff called when he threatened to quit, and Fox simply let him go, along with two of the original leads in Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd almost a year into the first abortive shoot. In anybody’s terms, this was a disaster simply waiting to happen and the vultures were circling long before the film ever reached its premier. The much publicised affair between Richard Burton and Liz Taylor was talked about even in the Vatican and in the Hall of Congress, and not fondly. It is fair to say that their saga of illicit love was a tattletale shocker of global proportions.

    There was Taylor’s $1 million fee, at that time the highest paid to any actor for a single role. Taylor also stipulated that the film be made using her late husband, Mike Todd’s new 70mm process, Todd-AO, another expense that Fox could have done without from the outset. Things would only get worse, of course, resulting in the studio making a mammoth loss.

    But let’s not concern ourselves with that too much. What matters right now is that one of the most lavish movies ever conceived and produced has finally made it to Blu-ray, whereupon it is possible that an entirely new generation can appreciate all of its spectacle and excess in as accessible and visually resplendent a fashion as is currently available.

    Working from the screenplay from Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman and Mankiewicz, himself, who was actually rewriting the whole original script well into the shoot and often in-between takes, that in its full, uncut form is the size of a New York phonebook, Mankiewicz carves an unwieldy saga of the sort of love that brings empires to their knees, sends millions to their deaths over issues that are of no concern to the commoner, and writes history with epoch-changing, society-engulfing tsunamis of obsession, guilt, revenge and sacrifice. Boy, that Egyptian Queen Cleopatra must have been great in bed, mustn’t she? Rome fell for a great number of reasons, some of which were birthed by the calamitous romances between the Queen of the Nile and the city-state’s esteemed hero, Julius Caesar, and then, subsequently, the Roman figurehead of might and victory, Mark Antony. Both love affairs were torrid, highly publicised and essentially doomed from the outset. Misunderstood and maligned, yet still adored by all who clapped their peepers upon her, Cleopatra was the cause of much controversy and bloodshed. Her empire was pivotal to Roman world-building and military conquest. To do without her strategic aid was unthinkable, but to work with her was ultimately a folly of huge proportions.

    “You all look so impressive … any one of you could be king.”

    Caesar (Rex Harrison) falls under her enchantment first, and she bears him the son that his barren wife back in Rome cannot. Summoned back to the Senate, Caesar wins more victories on the way, carving himself a unique status amongst his countrymen. When at last he brings his new Queen to Rome, she takes the place by storm in a show of wealth and splendour the like of which could only be equalled by Romulus and Remus. But her stay in Rome is not an altogether happy one. As Caesar tutors his son in the manners of the king he should one day become, Caesar’s own aspirations grow too strong for the Senate and the People to endure. His desire to become a king and a god prove his undoing, and he is assassinated by those who understand the fickle nature of the Mob. Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) is forced to flee back home to Alexandria. But her relationship with Rome is further complicated by the attentions of Mark Antony (Richard Burton) whose own campaigning is in need of arms, food and equipment, things that only Cleopatra is able to furnish. But Mark Antony has other ulterior motives too. He has long desired the Egyptian Queen for himself and although he fears giving the game away, she understands the nature of man all too well. Inevitably, she falls for his brusque and aggressive manner, the volatile smokescreen over his feelings, and so begins another foolhardy romance that threatens to tear asunder two proud empires and take them both to the brink of war.

    This is a film of vast halls and palatial splendour. Of gleaming anti-chambers, serene balconies overlooking azure seas, and seductive, silk-draped boudoirs. The interiors are bedecked with finery and props that catch the eye with their finery, detail and iridescent beauty. Characters move through these acid-dropped sets, captured by the ever-beguiling photography of Leon Shamroy. You really get the impression that you could actually step into these rooms, yourself, and wander off on a little illicit treasure-seeking tour. Pools and spa entice, and new treasures beckon around every corner. And then there is the immensity of the exterior sets. With characters poised on marble steps, the camera then surveys a crowded vistas of stone, statuary and imposing gates, stretching away for half a mile, or more. The sheer scale of the production continually dazzles. Inarguably, the entrance of Cleopatra into Rome is the film’s most audacious evocation of size, complexity and outrageous pomp. After we, and the thousands of extras, have been entertained with all manner of exotic choreography and decorative archery from a procession of dancers and musicians, we bear witness to the arrival of the Egyptian Queen, herself, as she and her son sit atop a huge Sphinx being hauled by dozens of ebony-muscled slaves. It would have been awesome if, after all of this ravishing entertainment, Cleopatra and her army of retainers discovered that the Sphinx wouldn’t actually fit under the great Roman arch, and they had to park-up outside!

    Perhaps the most entrancing image, though, is of the Queen’s Nile barge – a floating palace in its own right – making its way over the cool, blue waters. Moored alongside the harbour, the vessel is lit-up like a giant lantern, a trance-inducing party-boat of the gods. As much as I love the modern historical romps of Gladiator, Troy, Alexander and even The Lord of the Rings, their CG world-creation doesn’t hold a Roman Candle to this endless physical craftsmanship. Only Ridley Scott’s overlooked Kingdomof Heavenreaches for a similar level of busy real-time scale and realm-filling glory ... and even this falls far short of Cleopatra’s boundless aspirations. No amount of techno-trickery can compensate for real people bustling through real streets and across real landscapes … and in really large numbers.

    Despite being incredibly epic in visual scope, the story, itself, is profoundly personal and intimate, and the staging surprisingly theatrical. Strip away the lush sets and the flamboyant size of the production, and you have little more than a stage-play running along very Shakespearean lines of tortured pride, ransacked ego and unbridled devotion. It is because of this intensely personal nature that the two action scenes seem not to fit all that comfortably. The battle with the Egyptian forces outside the Moon Gate and the big sea battle sort of sit removed from the main drama, the central arena of the plot’s more personal machinations and confrontations.

    The three “human” stars of the production are undoubtedly the gossip-rewarding trio of Burton, Taylor and Harrison. Their interplay is often exquisite, overcooked and overlong, but exquisite nonetheless. You can see that Harrison knows he is much too old for Taylor and that their romance is, at best, highly unlikely in purely physical terms. But he has such an addictive personality, a reluctantly seductive quality that keeps you glued to his every word, his every movement. Erudite, clipped and extraordinarily articulate, this later Professor Henry Higgins and Doctor Doolittle clearly relishes strutting about in armour and robes and wrestling with wry putdowns and charming challenges. When he admits Cleopatra to his chambers after hearing her tussling with his sentries outside the door, he blithely comments, “Battle seems to suit you. I should arrange to have more legions for you to wrestle with.” Inevitably, once he falls under the power of the Ides of March, the mood changes and he becomes sullen and irritable, and it is here, in the backend of the first act that the film meets its first major stumble. After the lengthy spell of romance and politicking, the fall of Caesar, when he spies what must be a dagger before him, is woefully swift and the film then meanders like a drunken duck towards the Intermission. Harrison’s final moments are reduced in magnitude by the quasi-stylish approach to showing Caesar’s assassination only as a magical vision seen in the mystical flames of Pamela Brown’s soothsayer. Then again, I suppose Harrison’s exit from the film is as ignominious as Caesar’s was, himself.

    Liz Taylor was not a great actress … but she had incredible screen presence and an otherworldly allure that defied the lens and reached beyond the cameras. She was a celebrity who could portray a character without simply playing herself which, for a star of her phenomenal popularity, is quite something. There are many times within this picture that she attains the breathtaking poise and spectral aura of a true goddess, but there are also many times when her delivery and her performance slips, perhaps weighted down by the enormity of the role and the passion-play taking place off-camera with her co-star.

    When Cleopatra is informed by a messenger that Mark Antony has married Octavia (an uncredited Jean Marsh) the scene builds very quietly towards her slow-release fury. But Taylor is terrible at wringing her feelings of torment and grief. Her shriek of “Antony!” as Shamoy’s camera pulls back in preparation for it, falls completely flat, and her subsequent wrecking spree of the royal boudoir is rendered quite embarrassing by her inability to change facial expression throughout her conflicted hysterics. Pampered in spa and festooned with handmaidens, one of whom is played by a young Francesca Annis, she always looks the part (although, for some reason, when she has that snake-like Egyptian eye-shadow on, I’m horribly reminded of Sheila Reid’s harridan Madge Harvey in TV’s Benidorm!). But her tactical talk and her womanly wisdom, her knee-trembling pillow-bound rhapsodising, lack the necessary verve and sweet, star-crossed poison to bring the character truly to life. Besides that monumental cleavage which threatens to push down the pillars and the walls of both Alexandria and Rome, you find yourself wondering just what it is about her that drives men to acts of insane infatuation. Taylor is bewitching to behold, certainly, but hollow as a Trojan Horse.

    “Your tongue is old, but sharp, Cicero. Be careful how you wag it. One day it will cut off your head.”

    Burton has definitely been better, but then again, as far as I am concerned he is not a film actor at all. He is theatrical through and through. Deportment, line-delivery, physical presence, facial expression – he is performing and enunciating for the rest of the cast and the arrayed crew behind the cameras in lieu of a proper paying audience. Yes, there is fun to be had from his portrayal of Col. Faulkner in The Wild Geese, or his psychic avenger in The Midas Touch, or his Nazi-bashing commando in Where Eagles Dare. He saw the Light in The Robe and he provided astounding dignity to his narration ofJeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds. But the very instant that appears on-screen, driving a chariot down a Roman road towards Caesar’s home, you can see the precision of every glance, every purse of the lips, every expression no matter how minute. This is a man who could see throngs of adoring crowds in his mind’s eye wherever he went and whatever he was doing. It is a unique personality, you can be sure … but it is glaringly artificial. And, to be fair, in this film he was indeed performing in front of massed legions of extras for a good degree of the time. But it is those jaw-bone eroding monologues that Anthony expounds – his bedside admission of raging jealousy for the “dream” that Cleopatra still has for her fallen Caesar being one particularly wince-worthy example – that make a mockery of the passionate cinematic atmosphere that has been created.

    “You know when you die, Octavian, it is possible that you will die without ever having been alive.”

    There’s definitely quality in the surrounding cast. Roddy McDowell gives preening zealousness to his Octavian, bringing sneering villainy to a man who is, in fact, hardly a villain at all. As his sister, Octavia, the widow is matched-up with Mark Antony, is the great Jean Marsh, who is handed down simply the remains of a part, yet still shines as a coldly unwanted and swiftly forgotten bride of convenience. Then there’s the ever-dependable Andrew Keir, who plays the naval general, Agrippa, and Martin Landau as the steadfast Rufius, the one Roman who stays beside Cleopatra throughout her odyssey with both her vaunted lovers. During the first act, Keir and Landau are always seen standing to attention with their helmets either upon their heads or clutched under their left arms. Both get the chance to rant about the endless obstacles that empirical love faces, though both fall upon different sides of the fence or, in this case, the Nile. The ever-taciturn Hume Cronyn sports a fastidiously shaped beard and hops between Alexandria and Rome more times than Taylor had a costume-change. And it you care to look, there’s even George Cole, Michael Gwynn, Michael Hordern, Desmond (Q) Llewellyn, John Alderton and Calvin Lockhart in the merry masquerade of senators, slaves and emissaries. An extra prize goes to anyone spotting the Argonaut who faced the skeletons alongside Jason. With that beard and bushy hairdo he looks exactly like the Wolfman as played by Benecio Del Toro in the (unintended comedy) remake of the Lon Chaney Jnr. classic.

    Both Burton and McDowell were able to take advantage of the frequent lapses in the shooting schedule to go off and film their parts for The Longest Day, the film that, coupled with Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, saved Fox from going under in the wake of Cleopatra’s supersonic crash-landing. So they did, at least, help to rectify the huge financial error that the studio was making.

    “My breasts are full of love and life. My hips are round and well apart. Such women, they say, have sons.”

    Aye, my Queen, they’re very popular, that’s for sure. And you’ve got an asp to die for!

    With two hours shorn from the final main release cut of the film, the gaps are often quite jarring. People plot and scheme about something, or someone, and then the very next scene has them sitting side-by-side with the apparent act having been conducted in the blink of a frame-change.

    And, thus, the final film is a disjointed, narrative-neglecting phantasmagoria of spellbinding colour, exotic redolence and flamboyant period eye-candy all wrapped around a deeply earnest, yet massively over-written love-triangle. I mentioned Alex North’s splendid score, and there is no way to oversell its importance to the finished, final release four-hour cut of the film. For sure it is the glue that holds a wayward screenplay together, cementing over the cracks and smothering the many fissures like honey. As the two-act performance goes along, it is the one constant accompaniment that complements, enhances and maintains the narrative flow of the story. When deliveries of love and passion go all melodramatic and arch, North’s music reaches deeply inside and caresses the heart. When emotions and motivations flare-up in tempestuous conflagration, it roils and burns, but never neglects the inner psychology of the characters. As exorbitant production designs and legions of extras dot the film’s canvas for miles all the way back to the furthest extremities of the frame, it fills the film with wild vitality, exotic variety and ripe, ceremonious colour. His score shares some similarities with his earlier work for Spartacus. Both feature lush and moving love themes that journey through several profound iterations, and both boast an amazing array of exotic and ethnic percussion. Here, the main motif is one of beauty and yearning. His music twists, serpentine, throughout the dark trials of Cleopatra’s fated loves, coursing with corrupted power for the Romans and harshly courting the angular jolts of warfare, but always returning to the troubled tranquillity of Egypt with a silken, mournful caress.

    But problems absolutely abound with the film that no amount of set-dressing or musical drapery can disguise. Firstly, it is ridiculously overlong, even in this truncated form. It is not good enough to simply speak of battles and campaigns and to show virtually nothing of them … and this is because the protracted sparring of the various relationships becomes exceedingly tedious without some grit to spice things up. And then there is the matter of these “powerful” relationships. Well, with an hour of time given over to Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and almost three bestowed her and Mark Antony, you would truly expect to have discovered some sequence that actually nailed just why these blokes fell so madly, desperately and tragically in love with her. But there is nothing of the sort. There is no wooing. No romance. Just obsession, pain and guilt right from the very start. Considering the passion that both Burton and Taylor had for one another you would expect some sort of spark of chemistry between the two … but there is nothing. It could just be the style of acting that is to blame for this strange dearth of believable affection – with Burton so ripe and in-the-moment, and Taylor just wearing her staged emotions like a pair of earrings or a new gown – but this can only work against the point of the affair. By the time that Mark Antony has failed to die honourably in battle – a very good scene, actually – only a true sadomasochist could derive any entertainment from the hell of yet another set-piece conversation-a-thon between Burton and Taylor. And this is where the infernal Shakespearean ending-the-never-ends comes into being. God, it just goes on and on. I had the horrific misfortune to sit through the 2010 play Antony and Cleopatra, with Kim Cattrall in the starring role and the film’s doomed finale, at least, does not drag on as long as that yawnfest seemed to. But the final stretch of the movie is a definite slog that actually does the unthinkable in making you realise that you simply didn’t care at all about either Antony or Cleopatra. Or anybody else, for that matter.

    And that is a damning indictment upon such a hugely emotional drama.

    Yet whatever your opinion about Mankiewicz’s leviathan production of Cleopatra it is difficult not to become smitten with the sheer over-the-top, no expense spared visual excess of it all, and to be swept along with its ornate and imperious, unashamedly Machiavellian power-play. There is always a fascination with the huge-scale historical epics, and Cleopatra doesn’t fail to ignite the imagination in terms of both its intricate depiction of the real-life soap operatics of the Caesarean misadventures with the Queen of the Nile, and the elaborate insanity and escalating ambition of the Hollywood Empire’s celluloid myth-machine. There is no denying that you feel that you can see every damn penny of that $44 million (don’t even think about adjusting that for today’s terms) up there on the screen, and there is a sheer sense of indulgence that, hey, is very satisfying to behold. Some bemoan the lack of battles – well, you’ve got two, but this is no Gladiator, that’s for sure– but the story is not about the carnage of mighty civilisations going to war, it is about the glamour and the intrigue of the most powerful people in the known world struggling to understand their own desires and duties amidst a civilisation based around betrayal, false allegiance and myriad deceptions.

    The film is a temple to the excesses to Hollywood … enter only to admire its gaudy, but disposable delights.

    The film is spread over two discs, with the Intermission and Entr’acte occurring at the end of Disc 1. Extra features can be found on both discs of this UK region-free release.