Cleopatra (1963)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

I can think of no other movie that so overwhelmed me with its spectacle than Cleopatra. Is it a good movie? Probably not. But that doesn’t really matter. It is so spectacular, and in so many ways, the question of “good or bad” vanishes.

Besides, we don’t actually get to see the movie director Joseph L. Mankiewicz intended, which was actually two movies that would run about six hours between them. Whether it’s the original, or the three hour theatrical version, or what we get on the DVD which runs slightly over four hours, we can only get an eviscerated version of the movie.

But what we get to see is pretty eye-catching. Somewhere in the documentary Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood someone uses the word that best describes the movie: opulent.

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963).

In the version I’ve seen, the four hour one, you can see how it should be two movies because the first half concerns Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) and Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison). The second half is about Cleopatra and Mark Antony (Richard Burton). Of the two, I prefer the relationship with Caesar because it is more a kind of jousting between equals.

With Antony, I have to say I’m with Darryl F. Zanuck and find the character weak – not the performance, but the character. Burton plays him well, but Antony is a man in over his head and not anywhere up to Cleopatra’s intellectual abilities or resolve, nor is he a match for Octavian (Roddy McDowell).

Of course, a lot of the second half with Antony is known less for the characters and the story than the off screen story of Taylor and Burton and their new found and tempestuous romance.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.

But what about the movie itself? It’s fascinating from beginning to end but also far too long as a single movie. Mankiewicz was on the right track thinking two movies. Even then, it would be a bit much. This story is really what in the 1970s and 1980s would have been a television mini-series. (However, done as television all the opulence would have been lost.)

The endless stream of spectacular, lavish images keep the movie riveting. Everyone should see the movie if only to see Cleopatra’s entrance in Rome.

The story itself is fascinating and partly because of its ironic connection to the making of the film. Much of it reflects the last gasp of the old studio approach to making movies, including how what it did best also held the seeds of its end. All the splendor and wealth we see visually on screen also reflects the madness of desperation behind the making of the movie.

Poster for Cleopatra (1963).

As a movie, it’s a good one but challenging simply because of its length. Its merits are overshadowed by the story of how it was made, which was characterized by lunacy. The way it is often spoken of suggests it is a disaster and in many ways it was, though not as a movie. It was a disaster only in the sense of how to make a movie and manage money.

In the end, it’s a movie you marvel at as you see its endless stream of visual opulence and also one you feel a melancholy regret for what might have been.

Finally, though, if you’re me you’re thankful for what you have.

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