Cleopatra (1963) is a somewhat fictionalised narrative about the legendary Egyptian Queen, her relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and the eventual fall of Egypt to Octavian. The movie was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewkz stars Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar, Richard Burton as Mark Antony and Rowdy McDowell as Octavian. The titular role was immortalised by Elizabeth Taylor. This is one of the great movies of old Hollywood. It’s also one of the greatest flops of all time. And my most ambitious review to date.
I’ve always wanted to sit down and take this movie in. I’ve never been able to, because of the slow pace in many scenes as well as the ridiculous length. At over 3 hours this film took a lot of dedication to get through. And if it wasn’t for the long flight I was on, I probably wouldn’t have gotten through it.
Well, the story behind this film is just as tragic and epic as the story it’s trying to tell. And hopefully, delving into it a little will add some context. In the late 1950s film studios were suffering from a record decrease in box office sales, thanks partly to the rise in television and partly to the poor quality of movies being released. 20th Century Fox in particular was suffering from a string of flops and needed a big comeback. The solution: remake a 1917 classic, make it a two-parter, larger than anything ever made, and cast the biggest names you can. The result: a studio-force crammed stand alone flick with melodramatic (although memorable) dialogue that would make Shakespeare smirk, a pre-madonna who refused to shoot in the US, had poor health and carried out an affair with her co-star Richard Burton. To top it all of, one of the largest sets ever assembled in the history of cinema: the Roman Imperial Forum, said to be even grander than the original forum. In a time before CGI, through in some more palaces, and ships, and soldiers, and scenery and jewellery and you can see why this film nearly bankrupted the studio.
I bet Joaquin Phoenix took his notes for his Commodus in 2000s Gladiator just by studying McDowell’s body language.
The film could never make all this money back. And tragically, it didn’t. Too much effort and over ambition led to its downfall. Yet, with 4 Oscar wins and a best picture nomination, surprisingly it was still well acclaimed. So what do I personally think?
I got to hand it to Rex Harrison. He played Caesar with charisma, wisdom, shrewdness and ambition the likes one would expect from the legendary General. He commanded the screen in an ‘old Hollywood leading man’ tone the likes you just don’t get from your Ryan Goslings or Brad Pitts of today. He stole the first half and made it thoroughly, thoroughly memorable. I must say, he deserved his Oscar nomination.
Rowdy McDowell. My word what an unsuspecting scene stealer. After a less than stellar start to the second half, he really did save the show. His Octavian is slimy, cold, conniving, and very very creepy. I bet Joaquin Phoenix took his notes for his Commodus in 2000s Gladiator just by studying McDowell’s body language. Great villain.
Elizabeth Taylor. I had to talk about her sooner or later. For better or for worse, this has got to be one of the most iconic portrayals in all of cinema. She plays a young, strong yet unstable, powerful yet weak, whiny (though this is annoying at times) and innocent Queen. This set the bar for leading women in authority for decades to come, from Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia to Emilia Clarke’s Daenarys Targaryian.
Most of the remaining supporting cast is pretty good too. All doing there best not to chew the scenery in this larger than life epic.
The costumes were lovely and great quality too. You can tell no expense was spared. I am not a historian and I can’t tell you much about authenticity in costuming or even in the storyline, but I will tell you – it looked great.
A movie like this will be forever a time capsule from when the Hollywood blockbuster was not a thing, but still somehow a thing.
The sets. I honestly forgot this was 1963. There’s something about practical effects that literally transport you to the place the film wants to be. Practical>CGI any day.
The palaces are grand and imposing, the naval battle is phenomenal for its time. But best of all, is ofcourse the legendary procession scene into Rome. An imposing breathtaking scene one could only imagine what it would like like in real life. No, not on the set, but in real life. In Ancient Rome, glimpsing Cleopatra making her regal entrance for the first time. This is what made this movie the stuff of legend.
That stupid second half. I just got to say, with the exception of McDowell’s Octavian, the second half was pretty much a let down relative to the first. I kept checking my watch and wondering why it wasn’t over yet. The pacing was awful and the film lost the plot (pun intended). The movie went from a historical drama about an alliance between two great civilisations, the checks and balances of democracy, the dynamics of love between two powerful characters to a sloppy, melodramatic, worn out drag.
Richard Burton. Boy was he a let down. You’d imagine that Cleopatra’s second lover would match the strength and authority of Harrison’s Caesar. You were wrong. You were dead wrong. Not only is Mark Anthony played as a whiny, and weak Casanova, he’s even written as such! There is no redeeming quality in this character or performance and you’re left wondering why you’re routing for him.
Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, even the icon herself is not safe from this train wreck of a second half. Her character turns into an out of control, unstable drama queen as opposed to the strong and seductive monarch of the first half. Her relationship with Anthony is nowhere near as entertaining or dynamic as that with Caesar. I don’t blame Taylor. For this I got to blame the poor decision to reduce what could have been a trilogy into a single feature, rushing through character development and narrative and the pretentious, pretentious dialogue. Oh don’t get me started on the dialogue.
This set the bar for strong leading women in authority for decades to come, from Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia to Emilia Clarke’s Daenarys Targaryian.
Over the top. Extra. Pretentious. These are some of the words I’d use to describe the pathetic excuse for dialogue. I found myself rolling my eyes but a few times especially in the second half.
All being said, this is a must for movie buffs. It stands a testimony to the creative effort, ambition and passion in filmmaking. The movie sets were destroyed twice due to bad weather. The leading lady fell terribly ill during the shoot. The scorching desert, the logistics of the 60s all leave you wondering just how such a project was released in the first place.
The film is also a testimony about the dangers of studio interference. This could have been one of the greatest epics of our time. Had it been told in a multi-part trilogy, had the dialogue been a little less ambitious. Had the casting been a little more bold. And had the film not been wrapped on the tabloid gossip about the love affairs on set.
A movie like this will be forever a time capsule from when the Hollywood blockbuster was not a thing, but still somehow a thing. When Hollywood, (for better or worse) we’re not afraid of cultural appropriation in casting. When men spoke with authority. When plots took longer to develop. When disturbing images were offset, not shoved down our throats.
It’s great to see where we’ve gotten too. And I argue there’s a lot left to improve on, such as culturally appropriated casting choices. But it’s still important to know where art has come from to see where it’s going.
A case study from the dying days of the golden age of Hollywood. I’m going to close this review from an apt quote taken from the greatest dramatist of all time.
”As Caesar was ambitious, I slew him”
– Brutus. From Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare.