For decades the infamy of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) has effectively obscured the virtues of its storytelling. By design it was a celebration of the aspirations of its production designer, ‘master builder’ John DeCuir (whose Roman forum set was actually one and a half times grander in scope and scale because DeCuir felt that the real forum was just not as impressive). But Cleopatra also spoke to Mankiewicz’s inspiration to make a damn fine film. The director toiled night and day, exhausting his own resources as well as those of 2oth Century-Fox; the latter nearly bankrupted by the time the film reached theaters where it could never be expected to recoup its initial outlay of $40 million. Even before cameras began rolling in Rome Cleopatra had already become an epic three times more expensive than William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). Rounded up for today’s inflation, Cleopatra cost roughly $440 million of which less than half it earned back for Fox.
Even if the final cut had not veered wildly off course, Cleopatra quickly acquired a reputation for the perversity of its expenditures; cast and crew remaining on salary even when they were not working; chauffeur-driven cars supplied to supporting cast; a mineral water bill that could bankroll a third world revolution and daily balance sheets left quietly unchecked; an utter lack of budgetary supervision and costly delays due to weather, Elizabeth Taylor’s failing health, but also in order to satisfy crabby cameraman Leon Shamroy…etc., etc. Still, it might have all worked out in the film’s favor had Mankiewicz been allowed to release two separate movies following the model of playwright George Bernard Shaw; the first, ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’, the second, ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’. At just a little under eight hours there was enough usable footage to achieve the director’s goal. But Spyros P. Skouras, then head of Fox, was leery of this high concept for several reasons, not the least of which was the studio’s desperate need for a hit movie in theaters to rebuild their ailing coffers.
The torrid extramarital affair between costars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had been tabloid fodder for months and Skouras was eager to capitalize on this before the public fascination cooled. However, two books chronicling the turbulent behind-the-scenes chaos, The Cleopatra Papers and My Life with Cleopatra, released just prior to the world premiere did much to dampen the movie’s reputation. It quickly degenerated into an easy target for pop camp and rank parody. But even these assaults paled in comparison to Taylor’s own outspoken condemnation, openly admitting to the press that “the final humiliation was having to go and see it.” Taylor, who had initially refused to do the movie, had profited handsomely by the arrangement; reaping overdraft in the hundreds of thousands in addition to her already agreed upon million dollar salary (the highest ever then paid to a star for a single picture).
Yet, the movie had been an arduous affair for all concerned. Production Chief Johnny Johnston – a main staple in Mankiewicz’s employ died from a heart attack just as production at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios was getting underway. During the movie’s false start at Pinewood Studios in England, Elizabeth Taylor had almost succumbed to a virulent bout of pneumonia and had to have an emergency tracheotomy to save her life. In transitioning from England to Italy the production gave up its Edie Plan tax breaks, jettisoned most of its cast and crew, and, had to begin anew constructing sets on the back lot in Italy. Under such duress, Mankiewicz cobbled together his truncated masterpiece. Yet even at 320 min. Cleopatra occasionally seems bloated and meandering. Variety’s snap assessment of the film as “a series of coming attractions for something that will never come” did little to quell the initial giddy anxiety inside Fox’s corporate boardroom; a nervous friction easily rivaled by the film’s catastrophic box office.
Mankiewicz had committed body and soul to the point of physical collapse and the strain had taken everything out of him. Now, it all seemed hardly worth the effort. “Perhaps you know something I don’t,” Mankiewicz quipped to Burt Parks, MC at the New York World Premiere after being afforded a glowing accolade about the general importance and overall stature of his movie. It was a prophetic epitaph. For although the careers of costars Rex Harrison, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would emerge from this financial debacle virtually unscathed, the reputations of producer Walter Wanger and Mankiewicz would never recover: neither worked in movies again. The irony, of course is that in re-viewing Cleopatra today - some fifty years removed from all the gossip and hype - there is a great deal to admire and absorb; much more than either the critics or audiences of its day gave the film or Mankiewicz credit. Despite the studio’s additional tampering, whittling down the run time even further to accommodate multiple showings, Cleopatra is perhaps ‘the most influential film of the sixties’; an assessment first offered by eminent commercial artist Andy Warhol.
To his dying day Mankiewicz pleaded with Fox – unsuccessfully - to reassemble the story into two separate films. Mankiewicz did not live to see the day (he died on February 5, 1993). But in 1995 Fox launched a worldwide search for Cleopatra’s missing footage – nearly three hours in all, long since excised and now – regrettably – presumed to have been discarded by the studio. What a thrill it would have been to have the opportunity to re-judge Cleopatra on those terms as the movie masterpiece(s) Mankiewicz had envisioned; a super colossus instead of the lavish claptrap it ultimately is.
Cleopatra had been a great 1917 silent movie for Fox vamp Theda Bara and a lavish 1934 Cecil B. DeMille epic starring the sultry Claudette Colbert. Yet the decision to remake Cleopatra on such a titanic scale had followed a very insidious run of bad luck at Fox. The studio needed a hit; ‘mega’, if possible, but sizable success either way if Fox was to continue making movies at all. With television uniformly cutting theater attendance by nearly forty percent and the added stress of divestiture from its once prominent theater chain, Skouras compounded the exodus of talent and real estate by liquidating Fox’s back lot of free standing sets to a high-rise developer – considered by many to be second only to MGM’s. But this financial reprieve was temporary at best.
In its initial phase, Cleopatra seemed destined to be made as a modestly budgeted (under two million) sword and sandal quickie starring Fox contract player, Joan Collins. Two overriding factors prevented the project from proceeding as planned; one - Walter Wanger’s driving ambition and two; a gross naiveté on the part of Skouras in his belief in Wanger’s claim that their hefty investment would yield equally impressive box office returns. As Cleopatra’s budget swelled to $5 million Wanger pursued Elizabeth Taylor for its star, a proposition Taylor thought ludicrous until Wanger agreed to her casual deterrent of a million dollar salary. Taylor was shocked; even more so when her additional demands to shoot the picture abroad, in Todd A-O and with her own choice of director were willingly approved. Regrettably, England’s shoot was anything but smooth. Perpetual rainfall took its toll on the paper mache sets and Taylor’s health. Unable to distill clarity from the chaos, director Rouben Mamoulian was fired, the film’s cast – except for Taylor – dismissed, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz brought in. Shifting locales from London to Rome generated heat of a different kind when Taylor began carrying on with co-star Richard Burton.
While Mankiewicz directed by day and wrote his script by night Cleopatra slowly began to spiral out of control. Falling behind schedule and going way over budget, Mankiewicz endured constant threats from the studio to either cancel the movie or fire him. These added strain to the already unwieldy production. The extras grumbled even more – about their skimpy costumes and the hot sun. At one point Skouras asked Mankiewicz for a final budget; the monumental figure quoted by the director only a ballpark of where the movies was headed. Unable to go to the Fox shareholders with this princely sum, Skouras instead indulged in a bit of his own creative book-keeping that eventually would get him broomed out of the executive suite.
Cleopatra is basically the story of three formidable titans doomed to the notorious quagmire of history. We first meet Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) in his final military campaign against the forces of Pompey. Having secured another victory for Rome Caesar journeys to the port city of Alexandria Egypt for an audience with the joint rulers of the land: Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O’Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). Caesar quickly discovers that Ptolemy has already launched a palace coup forcing Cleopatra into exile. Ptolemy makes Caesar a gift of Pompey’s severed head; a gruesome reward that does not gain Caesar’s favor.
Later, Cleopatra reenters the palace, disguised in a rug slung over the shoulder of her trusted protector, Apollodorus (Cesare Danova). She warns Caesar that her brother’s forces have surrounded the palace and intend to murder him. In response, Caesar orders his Centurions to burn the Egyptian fleet. The fire spreads to the city, destroying the library where many sacred documents, including the original remnants of the Bible are stored. Cleopatra is outraged, but her distemper is quelled by a passionate embrace. Ptolemy’s forces attack. Yet Caesar’s brilliant military strategies keeps them at bay. Ptolemy and his lord chamberlain, Theodotos (Herbert Berghof) are brought to justice and sentenced to death for their assassination attempt on Cleopatra who is shortly thereafter crowned the undisputed Queen of Egypt.
Cleopatra’s happiness is tied up with Caesar; a bond made more precarious for the Romans when their illegitimate son, Caesarion (Loris Loddi) is born. Caesar’s pride and acceptance of the child as his heir apparent becomes a scandal for Rome heatedly debated in the Senate. Two years pass. Caesar is made dictator of Rome – a ceremonial post that falls short of his expectations to be king; an anathema to his people. Nevertheless, Caesar sends for Cleopatra who arrives resplendent in a lavish processional that instantly garners the adulation of the Roman people. Despite symbols of foreboding from both his wife Calpurnia (Gwen Watford) and Cleopatra, Caesar enters the Senate where he is brutally murdered.
Caesar’s nephew Octavian Caesar Augustus (Roddy McDowell) is appointed heir apparent, tendering Cleopatra’s position in Rome tentative at best and highly volatile at its worst. Marc Antony (Richard Burton) spirits the queen and her young son away on a barge, promising to avenge Caesar. Two years later Antony’s mission is accomplished. He has caught and put to death all the senators responsible for Caesar’s murder and established a second triumvirate with Octavian. The empire is divided. Antony takes control of the eastern provinces and, like Caesar before him, makes his pilgrimage to Egypt where he too finds passion in the queen’s arms. Cleopatra is consumed by her love for Antony and equally devoured by a venomous rage when she learns he has returned to his wife Octavia (Jean Marsh). Hence, when Antony returns to Egypt many months later, on a military campaign in Parthia, Cleopatra coolly denies him her audience; eventually agreeing to a détente in Tarsus aboard her royal barge.
There Antony becomes a piteous and slovenly drunk. Cleopatra exploits the moment to make a fool of him in public. Bursting into her bedchamber for a night of violent love-making, news of Antony’s seduction reaches Octavian who uses the affair to smear Antony’s good name back in Rome. Antony is forced to grovel at the queen’s behest; an acquiescence that includes a divorce from his wife, Octavia. Branded ‘the Egyptian whore’ by Octavian, who uses the circumstances of Antony’s will – that he should be buried in Egypt/not Rome – for his own campaign of war against Egypt, Rome’s forces begin their preparations to march on Alexandria; a decision stirred into near religious fervor when Octavian publicly murders the ever-loyal Egyptian Ambassador, Sosigenes (Hume Cronyn) on the Senate steps.
The naval Battle at Actium decimates Antony's legions. His devoted second in command, Ruffio (Martin Landau) commits suicide. Cleopatra stirs Antony to challenge Octavian’s forces on Egyptian soil – a battle already lost in Antony’s mind and affirmed when the Romans refuse to fight Antony, but instead regard him as a pathetic figure of fun. Disgraced Antony returns to the palace where Apollodorus - believing him unworthy of the queen - convinces Antony that Cleopatra has died, whereupon Antony falls on his own sword. Octavian conquers the city without bloodshed. But his plans to return to Rome in triumph with Cleopatra as his slave are thwarted when she arranges to be bitten by a poisonous asp. Infuriated, Octavian asks Cleopatra’s devoted servant, Charmian (Isabelle Cooley), who has also been bitten by the asp and lays dying at her queen’s feet, if the deed was done ‘well’ to which Charmian replies, “Extremely well, as befitting of the last of so many noble rulers.”
Cleopatra is an undeniably resplendent epic – perhaps the last of its kind. Yet, it is not like other epics of its vintage, rather something of an impressively overwrought and overproduced soap opera; its central appeal still the rumored backstage badinage between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The acting throughout is very fine; the production values finer still, and Mankiewicz’s direction, although curiously uncustomary from his usual, nevertheless is more than serviceable with the material at hand. Yet, Cleopatra never seems to attain the sort of immortality afforded epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) or Ben-Hur (1959). Perhaps the absence of a religious subtext is to blame. The 1934 version of Cleopatra had done more than merely hint at Paganism. But this 1963 remake never concerns itself with anything more, or perhaps better, than this romantic ménage a trois.
Rex Harrison’s formidable display in the first half of the movie is weakened by his absence immediately following the intermission. Richard Burton is an impressive actor to be sure, and arguably a successor to Harrison. But his Marc Antony is a lumbering, heart sore and very weak-kneed sister to Harrison’s towering figurehead. Also, it remains one of the movie’s many curiosities that the smoldering heat so obviously generated by the Burton/Taylor affair behind the scenes never escalates to anything greater than embers on the expansive Todd A-O screen; the couple’s slinky embraces and tender pas deux bested by their backstage reputations as red-hot lovers. Without question, the real star of Cleopatra is John DeCuir’s production design; utterly lavish, regal and meticulously researched down to the last detail. Regrettably, here too the spectacle is distilled into a sort of absurd fashion parade with the antiquity spilling over into the then contemporary high-trend fashion marketplace; endlessly aped and exploited by clothing designers and makeup companies.
To say that Mankiewicz’s involvement on Cleopatra instantly elevated the film’s potential from B-grade quickie to A-list colossus is a bit much, but there’s no denying that the buzz in Hollywood then was that Cleopatra would be one of the greatest movie epics of all time. Tragically, this never happened. What began as a ten week scheduled shoot in Rome quickly escalated into a ten month ordeal buffered by bad timing and ill-planning. At one point, it was estimated that the delays were adding $70,000 of debt to the movie’s bottom line per day, with Elizabeth Taylor’s overtime alone costing the studio $50,000 a week. Hence, the obvious virtues of the production were being submarined by its grotesque budgetary mismanagement; a sentiment echoed elsewhere in the corporate boardroom and slowly trickling out to the press. The oppressiveness of this exercise entirely rests on Mankiewicz’s shoulders and, unfortunately, is occasionally apparent in the finished film.
At times Taylor seems bored or at the very least visibly displeased with herself, while Burton infrequently appears to have found his lines merely amusing. This leaves Rex Harrison as the standout performer – delivering a peerless and very stately Caesar indeed. But he’s only a third of the show and featured in less than half. Without him, the narrative waffles – badly at times – in a sort of ‘what’s to become of me?’ limbo, infrequently resurrected by Mankiewicz’s attempts to seize the reigns and steer his production back on course. Undeniably, the last act is hampered by a final insult – the cutting off of purse strings from Fox’s front office after Darryl F. Zanuck’s triumphant takeover and ousting of Spiros Skouras; the latter a middling executive at best who blindly believed he could ride out the maelstrom. But then, there are the ramifications of Zanuck’s own tampering to ponder.
In its late stages, Zanuck began to tinker with Cleopatra’s continuity without Mankiewicz’s approval or input. Zanuck did eventually recall the director into the editor’s chair, but by then even Mankiewicz had had quite enough of the doomed Egyptian queen. At 320 min. the movie’s theatrical cut is elephantine without ever achieving its trajectory as a truly epic masterpiece. In the final analysis, Cleopatra remains ‘the monumental mouse’ the New York Times so declared in 1963. It is a fascinating catastrophe; a magnificent flop and a marvelous spectacle all at once; a collaborative misfire the likes of which Hollywood had never seen before and is unlikely to ever witness again.
Does this mean Cleopatra is a clunker? Arguably, no. The artistic merits of the movie are as gargantuan as its mistakes. This keeps the movie in a sort of precarious ‘checks and balances’; impossible to dismiss outright. Real failure is easy to spot and label. But Cleopatra isn’t the genuine article. It rises to the occasion as an enthralling entertainment periodically, but just enough to salvage the enterprise from being a total waste of time. The threat of absolute implosion never fully materializes and this keeps our fascination perennially above the water line. We wait for that moment when our patience is pushed over the edge, to completely bash the movie as nothing better than over-produced tripe, yet are pleasantly surprised when this seemingly inevitable moment is denied us. Is the manipulation deliberate? Hardly - more likely just some unhappy, or very lucky chance; the staving off of our collective ennui making the movie more impressive as a topic of discussion all these many years later. Cleopatra therefore holds a very dubious distinction. It isn’t a bad movie. Haplessly, it isn’t a great one either.
Fox has outdone itself on this hi-def Blu-ray. First up, Cleopatra is offered in a bare-bones two-pack or an exquisitely produced digi-book. My opinion is that you invest in the digi-book; handsomely, yet succinctly produced with good linear notes and a spectacular array of vintage photographs reproduced in full color. Wow! The disc content for both releases is virtually identical. For starters, we get the movie looking absolutely fabulous; the spectacle all the more vibrant and pronounced for having been re-scanned in full 1080p. Colors pop off the screen. Fine detail is superbly realized. Contrast is exceptional. Age related artifacts are not an issue and film grain looks very natural indeed. You will be amazed – decidedly so – and perhaps even more by the gorgeous DTS 5.1 audio that reveals subtle nuances in Alex North’s score. Dialogue sounds better than ever. Honestly, this is really good stuff.
Extras are also very impressive. For starters, we get ‘Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood’ – a 2 hr. plus chronicle of the movie’s debacle and resurrection as a pop-u-tainment with an abundance of archival footage and interviews. Truly, it’s one of the best documentaries I have ever seen on the making of a movie. I dare say I think I like it better than the movie itself! We also get a vintage featurette ‘The Fourth Star of Cleopatra’, and, a lengthy audio commentary from Martin Landau and others. These were all extras jam-packed onto Fox’s Five Star DVD from 2000. But this Blu-ray has also given us several newly produced gems; Cleopatra Through the Ages gives us a look and insight into the real queen and the ‘reel’ pretenders who have long since deposed her memory. There’s also, Cleopatra’s Missing Footage – a featurette that explains how short-sightedness on Fox’s part back in the 1970s led to virtually all of Mankiewicz’s extemporaneous archival material being junked. There’s also ‘The Cleopatra Papers’ a private correspondence that is fascinating. Fox pads out the extras with vintage ‘Movietone’ news reels and snippets taken at the Hollywood premiere. Yep folks, if you’re a fan of Cleopatra then Fox’s new Blu-ray is a must own experience; very classily put together. For Fox – it’s nice to see, for a change!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)