Monday, July 3, 2017

#2,375. Cleopatra (1963)

Directed By: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison

Tagline: "The motion picture the world has been waiting for!"

Trivia: Joan Collins was cast in the title role in 1958, but after several delays she became unavailable

20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra took years to complete, and a string of calamities caused its budget to skyrocket. Actors came and went (which led to a multitude of reshoots); large sets were built at Pinewood Studios in London, then demolished when the production shifted to Italy; finely-detailed props were constructed at great expense, only to be tossed aside and never used; and more often than not, the cast and crew sat around waiting for director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (brought in after the initial director Rouben Mamoulian resigned) to re-write the script, which wasn’t even halfway finished when shooting began!

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, star Elizabeth Taylor, whose $1 million dollar salary was a record at the time, suffered a number of health scares early on (almost dying at one point when she contracted pneumonia in England), resulting in additional delays. 

Then, of course, there’s the scandal that plagued Taylor and co-star Richard Burton, whose torrid affair made headlines the world over (they fell in love while making the film, despite the fact both were married to other people at the time).

It's as if the Gods of both Egypt and Rome were conspiring against the film. When all was said and done, Cleopatra cost the studio over $31 million (according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator, that’s equivalent to $247 million today), and it is still considered one of the biggest financial flops in cinematic history.

But Cleopatra is something else as well: it’s an extraordinary motion picture, a Hollywood epic of the highest order. It may have taken lots of blood, sweat, and tears to bring it to the big screen, but as far as I’m concerned, Cleopatra was worth every single penny that Fox spent on it!

The year is 48 B.C., and Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has just defeated the armies of his former colleague, Pompey the Great. When told that Pompey, who escaped during the fighting, was on his way to Alexandria to seek sanctuary, Caesar and his armies give chase. 

Once in Egypt, Caesar learns that Pompey is already dead, yet decides to stick around and settle a dispute between that country’s co-rulers, the boy-king Ptolemy (Richard O’Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Taylor), whose followers are locked in a civil war.

But fate intervenes; Caesar falls in love with Cleopatra, and, after naming her sole ruler of Egypt he remains in Alexandria long enough to see the feisty queen bear him a son. Caesar does eventually return to Rome, and after some time sends for Cleopatra and the boy to join him. 

Alas, Caesar is soon after assassinated, on the Ides of March, by several senators, including Brutus (Kenneth Haigh), Cassius (John Hoyt), and Casca (Carroll O’Connor), who feared that Caesar’s most recent title, dictator for life, was turning him into a tyrant. 

With the help of Caesar’s close friend Marc Antony (Richard Burton), Cleopatra and her entourage slip out of Rome and return to Alexandria, and even though Caesar’s will named his grand-nephew Octavian (Roddy Mcdowall) as his heir, Cleopatra still dreams of the day when her son will rule over both Egypt and the Roman Empire.

Several years pass. Though they worked together to track down and kill Caesar’s assassins, the alliance between Octavian and Marc Antony is beginning to falter. The two eventually agree to split the empire in half, with Octavian ruling in Rome while Antony is given authority over the eastern provinces, including Egypt. 

Once in Alexandria, Antony meets with Cleopatra, and like Caesar before him he falls instantly in love with the beautiful queen. With Antony at her side, Cleopatra hopes to conquer the Roman Empire for her son, and she encourages Antony to defy Octavian at every turn, a tactic that is certain to result in yet another civil war.

Above all else, 1963’s Cleopatra is a gorgeous motion picture, with lavish set pieces and well-realized costumes that bring this tumultuous era of human history vibrantly to life. And like most epic films, the movie boasts a number of elaborate sequences, including an early skirmish in Alexandria between Caesar’s legions and those loyal to Ptolemy; as well as the impressive re-creation of the battle in the harbor of Actium, where Antony and Cleopatra took on Octavian’s navy, which was under the command of his good friend Agrippa (Andrew Kier). Topping them all, though, is Cleopatra’s grand entrance into Rome, a sequence so extravagant that it must be seen to be believed.

As for the cast, Elizabeth Taylor shines as the stubborn queen whose feminine guile won the hearts of two of history’s greatest men, and her on-screen chemistry with co-star Richard Burton is positively electric (which, I’m sure, had just as much to do with their off-screen antics as it did their acting ability). 

Often overlooked but equally as important to the film is Rex Harrison’s performance as Julius Caesar, whose skill as a military tactician proved invaluable when he first arrived in Alexandria (those initial confrontations between Caesar and the impulsive Cleopatra are priceless). Also excellent is Roddy McDowell as the conniving Octavian, while both Martin Landau (as Rufio, a general loyal first to Caesar, then to Antony) and Hume Cronyn (as Cleopatra’s top advisor, Sosigenes) are strong in support.

Despite its 4+ hour runtime, Cleopatra is very well paced, thanks in large part to Mankiewicz’s intelligent script, and while it never had a chance to make back all the money it cost to produce it, the movie did take in more at the the U.S. box office in 1963 than any other film. In addition, Cleopatra netted four Academy Awards (for cinematography, art direction, costume design, and special effects) while also scoring a nomination for Best Picture of the year (which it lost to Tom Jones).

Cleopatra may, indeed, be the film that changed the face of Hollywood forever, trumpeting the end of the studio system, which collapsed in full before the decade was out. But it also ranks alongside Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, and Lawrence of Arabia as one of the finest big-budget spectacles ever made, and I for one never tire of watching it.

1 comment:

T-Newt said...

A lot of people found that one boring as fuck, especially nowadays, but I too enjoyed Cleopatra. Good thing I'm not the only one.