For 30 years after it played in theaters, “Cleopatra” held the record for the most expensive Hollywood film ever made. Even now, after its $44 million price tag is adjusted for inflation, it still ranks as the 16th most expensive—and the only one of the 30 most costly films produced before 1997.
“Cleopatra” was also the last of the BIG Hollywood spectacles, which makes it a film every movie-lover ought to see at least once. Considered racy for its time, “Cleopatra” showed plenty of star Elizabeth Taylor’s skin—whether on the massage table, in the bath, or sprawled sensuously on a couch while getting her nails done.
Naturally Hollywood took some liberties, as with Cleopatra’s influencing Caesar to seek the title of Emperor—something he never did—or Cicero’s involvement in the Ides of March assassination. But “Cleopatra” is surprisingly fact-based.
Then again, it’s tough to embellish this sort of colorful history. The real Cleopatra (the Seventh, actually) was indeed supposed to co-rule Egypt with her 13-year-old brother, Ptolemy, and Ptolemy really did set up his throne at the waterfront so he could watch one of his men behead the Roman consul Pompey, who had fled the civil war in Rome. And with Ptolemy’s men occupying the palace, Cleopatra really did have herself brought to Caesar in the palace through a secret chamber, rolled up in a rug. So wrote Plutarch in his “Life of Julius Caesar,” and the film stays pretty close to his accounts, streamlining mainly in the matter of Cleopatra’s famed political-sexual alliances. In the film she has a child by Caesar; in reality, she had that child plus twins by Marc Antony.
The film begins as two civil wars rage, with Caesar defeating former 1st Triumvirate ally Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece, and Ptolemy’s forces fighting Cleopatra’s in Egypt. Since the Romans depended on Egypt for grain and gold, what happened there was of interest, so when Pompey fled to Egypt it was for two reasons that Caesar followed. The first half of the film shows Caesar’s attempts to restore order in Egypt and details his evolving relationship with Cleopatra, while the second half picks up after Caesar’s assassination and Cleopatra’s flight back to Egypt, with Antony in pursuit . . . and Caesar’s heir, nephew Octavian, not far behind. But for a Roman-world epic, there’s surprisingly little action. The focus is instead on the main characters.
Though it received mixed reviews, “Cleopatra” was the top grossing film of 1963 and a hit with the general public, who reveled in this first onscreen meeting between Taylor and Richard Burton. The “power couple,” who had a much-publicized affair despite being married to other people, would marry each other (the first of two times) the following year and go on to make 10 other films together.
“Cleopatra” had an intermission when it played in theaters, and this Blu-ray comes with two discs, each with half of the film on it and each introduced by a red curtain visual, with either a musical Overture or Entr’acte, as experienced when it played in theaters.
So how does it play today? Surprisingly well, though it will strike many of today’s viewers as being a little too “talky” in spots, with romantic and political conversations that probably could have been rendered in half the time and still be effective. But director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“All about Eve,” “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” “Guys and Dolls”) was also co-writer, and writers are notoriously wont to trim their own work. You see this especially in the ending, which seems drawn out. As a result, even for a spectacle, “Cleopatra” has a long runtime: 251 minutes.
All of the sets still look lavish, though some of them seem more accurate than others. Cleopatra’s grand entrance into Rome is still impressive, and the dialogue has far more wit and subtle humor than I remember. Most of the 65 costumes Taylor wore are stunning, but there are a few scenes where you see her in “Sixties hair,” and it’s a bit jarring. The Battle of Actium isn’t going to wow audiences who are used to grander special effects, but it doesn’t stand out as being deficient, either. And of the three stars, Burton comes across as being the hammiest. Every speech sounds like a Shakespearian soliloquy. Contemporary audiences will find Rex Harrison’s understated portrayal of Caesar far more gratifying.
Harrison, in fact, was the only star of the picture to earn an Oscar nomination. But “Cleopatra” did okay at the Academy Awards, with nine nominations overall and wins for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), and Best Effects/Special Visual Effects.
“Cleopatra” comes in a 50th Anniversary 2-Disc Edition (reviewed here) and a 50th Anniversary Limited Edition 2-Disc Steelbook.
Epics and spectacles were meant for Blu-ray, and “Cleopatra” looks gorgeous in HD. Each frame bursts with pageantry and glam, and the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to two 50GB discs produces no compression issues to muck things up. There’s a pleasingly slight layer of filmic grain, with strong black levels and colors that pop. Edge delineation is such that there’s also a nice sense of 3-dimensionality. “Cleopatra” is presented in 2.20:1 aspect ratio.
The English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio has a nice presence overall, with clear tones and a complete absence of hiss, pop, or other distortion. My only complaint is that there are a few times—especially in the first half—when the dialogue sounds flat and trapped inside the TV. Other than that, everything is great—from the trumpeting heralds to Alex North’s Oscar-nominated score. Additional audio options are English Dolby Digital 4.0, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, and French DTS 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
If you’re trying to decide between the Steelbook and regular edition Blu-ray, the only difference in bonus features is the book itself. All of the other disc supplements are identical, and there are some gems here.
Disc 1 features a richly detailed commentary from the directors sons—Chris and Tom Mankiewicz—with actor Martin Landau and author Jack Brodsky. It seems like a hodgepodge pairing, but it’s probably one of the better commentaries I’ve listened to in a while. There are plenty of insights into the film, but it’s no whitewash. We get the full story, warts and all.
Also on the first disc is “Fox Movie Channel Presents: Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman,” a half-hour look at the movie’s LONG filming schedule, delays, emergency runs, and everything else connected to the film’s production history. Then there’s eight minutes of “Cleopatra’s Missing Footage”—a teaser, perhaps, for an even longer version in the future, since Mankiewicz shot the film thinking it would play as two three-hour movies: “Julius Caesar and Cleopatra,” and “Marc Antony and Cleopatra.” Included here are facsimiles of letters and memos that were sent during production, unearthed as a result of Brodsky’s research, and “Cleopatra through the Ages: A Cultural History,” an eight-minute overview of Cleopatra VII and how she has been depicted throughout history.
Disc 2 continues the excellent commentary track, but it’s “Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood”—a two-hour documentary—that’s the real gem of the bonus features. Everything is here, and it’s a great place for the uninitiated to begin.
Rounding out the bonus features is a Fox Movietone News segment (6 min.), “The Fourth Star of Cleopatra” (9 min.) featurette about the film’s award-winning production design, and three original trailers.
It may not be as compelling and tightly edited as “Ben-Hur,” but “Cleopatra” is still a Hollywood epic that tells a grand story in a grand way.