Having been driven out of the palace by her jealous brother, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) regains her title as Egypt’s queen thanks to the intervention of the visiting Roman emperor, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison). Determined to unite Egypt and Rome into one great empire, Cleopatra seduces Caesar and bears his child. In the wake of her triumphant entry into Rome, Caesar is assassinated, and Cleopatra turns her attentions to his general Mark Antony (Richard Burton). Their union of love grows so strong that the Empire is weakened by it, leaving the ambitious Octavian (Roddy McDowall) poised to strike.
Review by Keith Lofthouse:
For once it was no overstatement for a film to declare itself “bigger than Ben Hur.” Not better, mind you, but bigger. In 1959, it cost $15 million to bring Ben Hur to the screen. It was then the most expensive picture ever made, but a mere four years later, at three times the cost and four times the waste, it was gazumped by the $44 million Cleopatra. Originally conceived as a modest “tits and toga” romp for Joan Collins, it swelled to elephantine proportions as the longest, most publicized film of all time and was trumpeted as “the motion picture the world has been waiting for.”
The overpaid, overfed, over-hyped and over-sexed stars were married to others but became lovers on the set, spinning the scandal sheets into a whirl of hysteria while the fans waited…and waited. Filming began in London in August 1960, with Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony and Peter Finch as Caesar, but was abandoned in March 1961 with just twelve minutes of film in the can. Taylor, who had yet to face the cameras, came down with a rare form of pneumonia that would have killed her if not for the emergency tracheotomy that saved her life but scarred her for the picture. It was almost a year before filming resumed in Italy, with a new director and only Taylor surviving the switch…Burton replacing Boyd and Harrison as the new Caesar.
Filming wasn’t completed until July 1962, leaving a gargantuan eight hours of footage to be fathomed and a lengthy editing ahead before the film made its public debut in New York in June 1963…1000 days after the “wait” had begun. Large, lavish and ludicrous, Cleopatra is memorable for the wrong reasons, but especially for Taylor’s torturous outing as the temptress queen. She was the first actress to receive over $1 million in salary but was lumbered with listless direction and some unspeakable dialogue, like: "The master must not be loved - never loved. Give yourself to love and you give yourself to forgetfulness - what you are and who you are and what you want." Yes, it's babble as bad as that. There’s so much of Cleo’s cleavage on the screen that there’s no room for character and so there’s always a snigger when she reminds us how her “breasts are full of love and life.”
On the set, she wielded more power than the ancient queen herself. In London, Taylor’s then husband Eddie Fisher was paid $1500 a week to get her to the set on time, until he was usurped by Burton in Rome. She refused to take Cleo’s famous milk bath and, having converted to Judaism, she baulked at the scene of her triumphant entry into Rome for fear that the hordes of Catholic extras would riot and kill her. It is a glorious moment: Cleopatra and her love child draped in cascades of gold, mounted on a giant sphinx…all but ruined when she opens her mouth and out pops an unqueenly squeak Seen either bellowing, lovesick or inebriated, Burton fared no better as the conqueror defeated by love.
Mankiewicz, who said that Cleopatra was “conceived in emergency, shot in hysteria and wound up in a blind panic,” insists that Burton’s performance was destroyed in the cutting room by Darryl F. Zanuck, after he had ousted Fox’s disastrous president Spyros Skouras, whose vision for Cleopatra almost trashed the company. There are of course splendid moments of pure pageant and spectacle - the grandeur of Cleopatra’s barge sailing into Tarsus, the decisive Battle of Actium, and that beautiful, bosomy woman in 68 magnificent costumes. There were 26,000 garments in all, but Burton’s boots made his feet ache (they were the same boots issued to Stephen Boyd two years before). But all this is empty opulence, interspersed with too much talk, too little action and love scenes between the tubby twosome that have all the spark of a blackout. As a cinematic experience, some people think of it as a “camp classic” as much deserved of derisive sneers as Mommie Dearest with a moment to equal Faye Dunaway’s frenzied axe attack on the rose bushes when Cleo takes a symbolic dagger to her mattress and stabs it in a fit of pique.
On the DVD “extras” actor Martin Landau, who plays the Roman Rufio and the Mankiewicz offspring try to talk it up…and fail due to four hours of incriminating evidence. Perhaps Elizabeth Taylor summed it up best after the London premiere. “I raced back to the Dorchester (Hotel), just made it to the downstairs lavatory and vomited."
Published February 26, 2004
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CLEOPATRA: DVD (M15+)
CAST: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison
DIRECTOR: Joseph Mankiewicz
SCRIPT: Joseph Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman
RUNNING TIME: 249 minutes
PRESENTATION: 2.35 aspect ratio 16:9; dual layer single sided disc; English; subtitles in Czech, Danish, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish and English for the hearing impaired
SPECIAL FEATURES: Two disc set. Audio commentary with Jack Brodsky, Martin Landau, Chris and Tom Mankiewicz.
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Entertainment
DVD RELEASE: February 25, 2004