Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

While I certainly had heard of The Sand Pebbles growing up, immersed in nothing but movies. particularly during my teenage years, I never really knew much about the flick. All I can clearly remember was that it was a long film – it was a double-tape CBS/Fox title that sat on the shelf of our local video store, collecting dust. The front image was one of a navy sailor. Ad that’s about it.

Now I understand my relative ignorance of the film – despite its nomination for 1966 Best Picture and its direction by Robert Wise, who’d just lensed the massive hit The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles is actually a pretty modest film, a low-key story about a chapter in American history most people aren’t familiar with. And while Steve McQueen stars, playing his usual steely, essentially moral but isolationist persona, it’s not one of his more showstopping roles. But I really did get into this one, and am glad I finally dusted it off. It’s definitely a good film – not a great film – but a very good one.

 After WWI, the United States was a firmly imperialist power, and by the mid ‘20s it was looking for trouble spots to watch, patrol… and potentially possess. In 1926 there was no more troubled country in the world than China, and so the U.S. Navy sent gunboats to cruise up and down the Yangtzee. The Sand Pebbles tells the story of one such boat, the San Pablo (nicknamed “The Sand Pebble” by its crew), and picks up when a sailor named Jake Holman boards for duty. He’s a machinist, and he’ll be in charge of the engine, but while impressed with its condition and overall maintenance he’s not so pleased with how it’s being done, and especially who’s doing it: a crew of Chinese locals called “coolies,” working strictly off he record, for no wages but rice bowls and room and board. When this closed system results in one of their deaths, Holman protests, but Captain Collins will hear none of it, ordering the disgruntled seamen to train a new coolie, a young man named Po-Han. The training goes well, and Holman takes his new protégée under his wing, but he outside world – China – hates the Americans with a passion, and they torture Po-Han when he is sent off the ship. Holman mercifully shoots and kills him, but is emotionally crushed and more resentful than ever before.

But the problems don’t end there. From time to time, Holman runs into a group of missionaries, and strikes the fancy of one in particular, a woman named Shirley. They believe their place is with the Chinese, but it’s a fractious relation at best; until now, the Pablo had been under strict orders not to fight back, lest she incur the wrath of the Chinese communists, who in turn might allow Soviet involvement. But now Chiang Kai-shek and his emerging Republic of China could be a baddie too, disallowing the Americans from visiting the missionaries and embrassing them in the process. Another story, less political, involves a fallen woman named Mally, now a high-priced prostitute who plans on using the money to pay back a theft and begin a better life. Frenchy, another naval officer, falls in love with the woman and finally “buys” her, and later marries her. But the uion is short lived, as he dies from pneumonia and she is killed (offscreen), again by the barbarous Chinamen. The murder is pinned, you guessed it, on Holman, and again Captain Collins gives him a tongue lashing, but with rising aggression against them from all sides, the officer takes on one final operation – the rescue of the missionaries from China light. They fight against Chinese defenders in order to do so, but they break through the boom and finally arrive. Shirley and the others, apprehensive at first but giving in once they realize their danger, escape with some of the crew, but only after Collins, and ultimately Holman, are gunned down by snipers.

There certainly is a lot going on in The Sand Pebbles, but I didn’t mind that. My biggest issue with the film (I’ll just cut to it now) isn’t so much the volume of plot but the structure of it. After Po-Han’s death at roughly the one-third mark, the film shifts from a largely single-narrative plot to a ore episodic one. Holman’s engine-loving, coolie-exploiting hatred is suddenly cooled down itself, and as a result the focus becomes more diffused. Now we get Holman helping Frenchy and his girl troubles, Holman chasing after Shirley and might stay with her/might not, French at odds against his more obedient co-crew members, etc, etc, etc…

Not that this is al entirely bad, mind you, but it does lack the engagement of the narrative drive from the first act. I started drifting away not only because I was no longer sure what Holman was trying to say, but because I was no longer sure what the movie was trying to say either. When Coliins and her crew opposed the small but nascent communist party, it’s easy to see this as Cold War tract, as it was, after all, 1966. But it’s not, given that all Chinese were enemies of the Pablo, and so, if you had to extrapolate anything from Pebbles’ polemic, it would be a general anti-imperialist attitude, a critique, perhaps, of the American military industrial complex, which in 1926 was just getting started.

And although there are flaws with the writing of McQueen’s character, there are no flaws with his performance. He does the character he was best know known for – the no-nonsense loner, who always manages to be… right. No matter what, he knows what time it is even if no one else does. I always liked him – he’s got the patriotism with of John Wayne without the self-parodying bombast; the isolation of Eastwood but somehow more – human, more realistic; and the good nature of Paul Newman but less like a movie star, like wandered in off the screen, accidentally getting caught up in the melee at hand. As far as modern actors go, only Ryan Gosling seems to possess that ragged cool, albeit for the post-grunge generation.

All told, a curious film. A would-be epic, were it not for its unconventional subject matter, and fragmented treatment of it. It may have worked great in the book, but the movies require greater focus (something Milos Foreman knew when he adapted Ragtime).

But, glad I saw.

Rating:  ***1/2

Friday, January 20, 2017

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Whew! We finally get to a film that isn’t epic-length. With a modest TRT of 1 hour, 40 minutes, Fantastic Voyage has a lot of things going for it, and I’d be lying if I were to say that relative brevity isn’t one of them.

By the mid-sixties, sci-fi movies were getting pretty serious, characterized by darker themes and tones, denser information, and more realistic characters. By 1966 we already had Fahrenheit 451 and Seconds, and before long Planet of the Apes and 2001 (not to mention star Trek on TV). And well, why not? As nightly headlines grew more sobering, and scientific knowledge advanced ever the more, it made sense that science fiction reflected those changes. Gone were the days when “Radar Men From Mars” could satisfy an audience; now they required a dose of reality in their escapism.

And Fantastic Voyage was no exception. In fact, anyone expecting to find an MST3K-worhy schlock-fest will be sorely disappointed – Voyage takes its premise seriously,
not unlike, say, a Michael Crichton novel. Perhaps too serious: there’s not a single second of levity in this film, not a joke, an anecdote or even a smile. Well, perhaps I can’t blame them: if I had to face one crisis after another, and had to race against the clock in doing so, I probably wouldn’t be smiling much either.

The story begins with a man named Grant , a military man assigned by a secret organization to join a surgical team. Their mission: to save the life of a scientist, Benes, recently hit with a car by the “other side,” by removing a life-threading blood clot from his brain. But Grant is unaware of only one thing – he’ll be performing the surgery with a laser beam, from inside of a submarine, miniaturized to the size of a molecule. His team will include a navigator, Capt, Owens; a specialist, Dr. Michaels; the chief surgeon, Dr. Duval; and his assistant, Cora. Cautious, but realizing Benes holds the secrets to the miniaturization process and must protected at all costs, Grant accepts the mission.

But once they get shrunk, trouble begins. Om top of a sixty-minute time limit, they get bombarded by corpuscles and must detour through the heart (requiring an induced cardiac arrest), suffer damage to their air tanks and must replenish their air supply from lung alveoli; go through the inner ear and go through enormous turbulence when a nurse in the outside world drops her scissors; and finally must fight off smothering antibodies, particularly Cora. Even worse, suspicious damage to the laser gun leads Grant to suspect a sabateur among them. Despite initial skepticism of Duval, it turns out to be Dr. Michaels, who gets his comeuppance when the sub starts enlarging and he gets enveloped by white blood cells. The rest of the crew abandons ship, and escapes via the optic nerve, and out through a tear duct. Having destroyed the clot with a now-repaired laser, the crew returns to normal size, and enjoys the success of their mission.

As you can probably infer from the above synopsis, Voyage’s story is quite the potboiler, but it does keep things humming nicely along. The formula pretty much follows a “crisis averted/new crisis arises” sequence repeated several times, with a whodunit and a race against the clock thrown in for added suspense. But what really elevates this work, and what I’ll always remember about it, is that smartly utilizes its setting, the human body. It’s not just used as cool window dressing; it takes each detailed section and employs it as part of the action. They face-off against corpuscles one minute, while siphoning out air from oxygenated blood cells the next. The “villain,” aside from he traitor among them, is a series of realistic threats one could actually encounter when injected into the bloodstream: antibodies, white blood cells, intensely magnified sound waves, etc. And all he while, the film celebrates the achievements of the body – through some of Duval’s dialogue, much of the film plays like a reverie to anatomy. I’ll not soon forget mediation on the wonder of respiration, where all life is sustained, and how the simple act of trading carbon dioxide for oxygen takes on great import when witnessed in epic scope. If the film’s goal was to make me appreciate how ineffably amazing it is that so much goes on inside of us, every day, then it succeeded without question.

And something else amazed me too – the amount of visible human labor that must’ve one on to bring this work to screen. Voyage, made in 1966, is from a period I like to call the “handcrafted” era of moviemaking, a time before digital imagery in which all effects, art design, set decoration, costume, makeup – everything – had to be done right there, with only a few optical effects done in post. I loved noticing how the platelets, for example, looked like small balloons behind hurled across the ship, and I delighted in seeing how he antibodies that attacked Raquel Welch looked just like plastic, clingy stuff. Sure, it as only narrowly convincing, but I didn’t care, because the spirit and the labor and the good writing were there. And all that 60s-era technology, what with he ginormous cathode-ray monitors and the flashy computers wit illuminated big buttons? Just icing on the cake.

The script was pretty smart to have Grant as the main protagonist. Realistically, he has no credentials which would get him a job on board the Proteus (the script just explains that he’s a good communications officer). But dramatically, he serves as the audience’s entry point, a character we can identify with to guide us through this netherword, amid info-spewing scientists. And like a everyman, he solves some f the ships problems with his workaround knowledge, like mending the laser with a radio transistor. And who is first to spot Dr. Michaels as the traitor? That’s right – the ordinary Joe, who’s got the people-smarts none of the other eggheads have.

Much was made of Raquel Welch’s presence, and to the film’s credit, she’s not exploited, at least not very much. No, she doesn’t have a whole lot of significant dialogue, but she’s credible in her role. And how can you go wrong with reliable character actor Donald Pleasance, as Dr. Michaels? I suppose it’s pretty guessable that he’s the real culprit, but I think that’s only because he plays the turncoat role so well.

All told, a fantastic film, and a classic of its genre. And it holds up remarkably well.

Rating:  ****

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Sound of Music (1965) 

The Sound of Music was the last of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to hit the big screen; it was undoubtedly the biggest, raking in over 100 million at the BO, and was, in my own humble opinion, the best. Hell, it’s probably one the best musicals of all time for that matter. And really, who could argue?

Oh, so I’m not entirely unbiased in my appraisal. The Sound of Music was the second musical I ever acted in (you knew there’d be a story, didn’t you?), playing Kurt in a local community theater way back in 1983. Looking back, I’m amazed at how vast the undertaking was – it required several sets and background scenes (including the Austrian alps), multiple costumes (including the Von Trap playclothes, meant to look like reused drapes); many complex songs, several sung in harmony; loads of dialogue; multiple dance scenes; a large ensemble and an lnger-than-average running time, even for a musical. Of course, I was only Kurt, the younger of the two boys, and so I was oblivious to much of the frantic goings-on that occupied actors of greater stage-time and the creative talents that worked their butts off 24/7 during most of that sweltering summer.

And now, looking at the movie again after all these years, I can now fully appreciate what a mammoth undertaking that must have been. By 1965, Fox had four Rodgers and Hammerstein smashes under their belt; it was certainly a no-brainer to bring the duo’s last collaboration, and Broadway hit, to the big screen. Reams could be written about its long journey from page to Panavision, but suffice to say it wasn’t easy, and it didn’t help matters much that its genre, the epic musical, was a bit passé by the mad-sixties.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Sound is that fit right in to this new era quite nicely. It was hardly a cinema verite feature, but under the lens of director Robert Wise it looked different from the showstoppers of the 50s. Just as in South Pacific, the movie features actual locales, not soundtages, and acting that feels more “realistic,” as opposed to the booming, hammy-theatrical styles which characterized most Hollywood performances from the 50s and ere.  And that ubiquitous score that always seemed to underlie every scene in those old movies was now gone, replaced by – gasp – birds and trees and cars in the background. What a concept!

Yet, ironically, it still received a critical pummeling, most notoriously from Pauline Kael, whose pan famously got her fired from McCall’s magazine. Despite its WWII-eve setting and occasional dark moments, particularly in the third act, it still got characterized as a hopelessly-happy, sappy bit of sentiment – sort of a sequel to the previous year’s Mary Poppins, also starring Julie Andrews. Only time has cured such errors; in the years since its Spring opening, The Sound of Music has been generally acknowledged a bona fide classic. Even those naysayers or anti-musical folk among us have embraced it as a camp classic, with usual high attendances at Sound of Music sing-a-longs and countless references in modern pop culture.

The story begins in Saltsburg, Austria, during “the last golden days of the 30s.” but things aren’t so golden for Maria, a novitiate nun. Her free-spirited, music-loving ways just don’t seem to gel with the abbey’s acetic MO, and she’s called onto the carpet, where the Mother Abbess suggest she take a leave of absence. She goes to become the governess for seven children – the Von Trapps – the widowed father of whom runs the household like the naval captain that he is. It’s not a family that keeps governesses, and Maria learns why: the kids are free-spirits themselves, and resentful of their dad’s mostly absentee authority. The would-be nun is a perfect fit, teaching the children how to climb trees, swim and play, but mostly how to sing, al of it much to the consternation of Captain Von Trapp, in whose eyes merriment is a grim reminder of happier times.

Enter two players – Herr Detweiller, a talent agent and producer who takes immediate notice of the Von Trapp’s recently unlocked talents, and the Baroness Schraeder, a formal, elegant woman from Vienna and the Captain’s love interst. Also in love – Lisel, the eldest daughter, with Rowlf, a messenger – but the Nazi annexation of Austria, the Aunchlauss, is looming, and people are changing. The Captain is keenly aware of the growing threat and adamantly opposes it; Detweiller isn’t necessarily a sympathizer but harbors a que sera attitude. And all the while the Captain and Maria fall in love, but she, wracked with guilt by the feelings, particularly after he announces his engagement to the Baroness, retreats back to the abbey in emotional confusion. After the Mother Abbess proclaims that human love can be just as sacred as divine love, Maria returns to her workplace, embraced by her new family, made official with her marriage to the Captain.

With the Aunchlauss official, all Austrian military officers are enlisted to serve for the Third Reich, and the Captain is no exception. Seeing this as no option whatsoever, but fully aware that refusal would be disastrous for himself and his family, he makes plans for a quiet departure to Switzerland. The zealous Herr Zeller stymies their getaway, forcing the family to perform at a heavily attended folk competition, under watch by Nazi officials. The singing septet actually wins the contest, but has already hightailed it outta there before the award can be bestowed. They take refuge at the abbey, and are nearly caught when now-Nazi Rowlf betrays them, but manage to elude the Germans long enough to exit their homeland afoot, crossing the alps into Switzerland with only backpacks… and the Sound of Music in their hearts.

There’s so much to say about this one. Historically, it could easily be classified as the last great musical, existing, anachronistically, at a time when the form was in its waning days, when New Hollywood was poised to take over and drive out the megabudgets and glossy production values. But if it is indeed the musical’s Lat Hurrah, then what a way to go out. The Sound of Music has so much going for it. It’s full of epic splendor, yes, and a towering score and an “important” setting ad theme, but In the ebd it’s just a very enjoyable film. At nearly three hours, it just seems to float right on by, with very few slow spots or bathroom breaks. Is it because I’m already familiar with the show? I don’t think so; the film’s continued popularity among young people may very well attest to that.

And the reason? I think there are several, not the least of which is the music. Not only is it good, but it’s frequent: I don’t think ten minutes elapse in this film without a song. It seems kike an obvious thing, but you’d be surprised how many musicals ignore this rule, letting full stretches of narrative go on and on without a note of music to break or liven it up. And of course, these are songs that stand the test of time, from the infectious “Do Re Me” to the sprightly “My Favorite Things.” Perhaps my favorite of them all is “Edelweiss”: it’s a charmer when the Captain croons it at home with his guitar but it’s positively tear-inducing when he croaks it out just before their Austrian egress, a symbol not only of his love for homeland but also a rueful farewell to it. It was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last song, fittingly from their best show.

I was also surprised at how good the romance is too. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (as the Captain) have extraordinary chemistry; their love is not rushed, but evolves quite naturally from initial animosity to mutual respect to finally infatuation. It, of course, follows the classic R&H formula (See South Pacific): a man and a woman, coming from two different worlds, meet and fall and love. But their previous worlds always come back to haunt them, either breaking them up (sad ending) or strengthening their resolve (happy ending). Oh yes, and then there’s a subplot of a younger couple, almost always ill-fated. (Yes, Rowlf and Lisel do part ways, but it’s all for the best, given his ultimate allegiance.) Maria and the Captain’s scene on the terrace, when he finally confesses his love, is a beautiful example of buildup and payoff, but never at the expense of character. He is allowed his firmness, while she keeps her emotional insecurities – they both have their checks and balances which make the whole thing work.

And, as I hinted at earlier, director Robert Wise should not be undervalued – he truly opened up the play and turned it into something cinematically sensational. Knowing how much mileage he could get from the setting, he availed himself of all opportunity to do so, from the now-famous opening show in which we zoom in on a singling Andrews in a mountain-enclosed field, to the “Do RE Me” number, spanning every known Salzburg landmark and no doubt increasing the city’s tourism profit multifold. But of course, he never overdoes it, being mindful to keep musical numbers fully intact (wisely excising the Detweiller/Baroness number “No Way to Stop It”), and never intruding on quiet, personal moments. Like masters like David Lean, Richard Atttenborough and Cecil B DeMille, he knows how to stage a spectacle, while realizing that small human actions are the greatest spectacles of them all.

Just odds and ends now. I love how suspenseful the final abbey scene is – Wise knows how to turn the screws on a mere flashlight beam, inches away from a trembling child. And I was surprised at how I sympathized more with the Baroness, despite her heartless “boarding school” line (that utterance alone makes you root against her). I dunno, maybe I find her more attractive now than I used to. Her portrayer, Eleanor Parker, is quite the looker, even more so than the matronly Julie Andrews, but that’s another story.

‘Nuff said for now. If you haven’t seen it, what in Sam Hill are you waiting for? Head for the Alps, pronto!

Rating:  ****

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Zorba the Greek (1964)

After all the pomp and pageantry of the previous entry in the Fox 75th Anniversary Collection, Cleopatra, it’s refreshing to get back to a more indie-styled offering with Zorba the Greek, a wildly successful yet simple film about the unlikely friendship between a shy Briton and a lustful Greek. Yet for all its verite look and chick black and white photography, Zorba is really just a classic tale, a modern superego/id story that also manages a subtext about village intolerance and old-world prejudice.

We’re getting into some lengthy films now (the last few clocked in at well over 2 ½ hours), and this one is no exception. But we’re in the 60s now, and that was getting to be the norm. Also fashionable was Zorba’s setting – along with films like Never On Sunday, Topkapi, and the works of Fellini and Goddard, moviegoing America loved all things Mediterranean in the early 60s. With the Paramount antitrust act of 1949, along with the Miracle Supreme Court decision allowing First Amendment rights to cover movies, foreign films and indies seeped into theatres and art houses throughout the 50s, whetting the collective American appetite for the cinematic export. By 1964, people were ready, and Zorba’s deft, delicate touch, along with its memorable score and arty look, entranced filmgoers of al stripe, and to the tune of 23 million, a grand success back in the day.

We begin by meeting Basil, a transplanted Englushman, the recent inheritor of a lignite mine on Crete. Hoping to repair and reuse it, he accepts the offer of a scruffy transient to help – a Greek named Zorba – and from there the duo take a steamer to the beautiful island with the hopes of great success and profit. But almost immediately, differences emerge. Zorba is intrigued by an eccentric older woman, Madame Hortense, who has a heart of gold, a buried past and a bundle of insecurities. The two carouse until late at night, with Basil astonished by the antics f his new friend yet too reserved to partake. Zorba implores him to come out of his shell, even coaxing him into soliciting the attentions of “the widow,” a beautiful woman chastised by the village for not remarrying. (They tease her when she loses her goat; only Zorba offers help.) But Basil, a true, repressed Briton at heart, prefers his life of quiet desperation.

Meanwhile, Zorba inspects the mine and sees that it is dangerously dilapidated. The solution, he declares, is to bring timber down from the mountains to bolster it back up, but one problem exists: the mountains are owned by local monks. Zorba, in his usual, ingratiating way, moseys on up to the brothrrs, proceeds to get them drunk, and manages to seal the deal, unofficially at least. The next problem, how to get the timber down, is solved by Zorba’s half-cocked contraption – a long set of wires with a carriage to allow the logs to sail down to the mine via the force of gravity. Skeptical Basil is quietly optimistic; any doubts he might still harbor seem to be put to rest with Zorba’s dancing – a fiery passionate spectacle which Basil privately tries to emulate.

But Zorba’s passion can overextend. When he goes to town for supplies, he spends his money carelessly on women and wine, inciting Basil’s anger, especially after he is forced to lie to the Madame in order to cover up Zorba’s debauchery. But Basil himself has trouble too; he finally gets the nerve to “be” with the widow, but the word spreads throughout the village, and is laid intentionally upon the ears of a young admirer, who subsequently commits suicide. The widow is blamed, and when she tries to attend the boy’s funeral, her throat is slashed by the boy’s father. Basil regrets being powerless to save her, but his grief is allayed, just a bit, when Zorba agrees to marry the Madame, knowing she will die the next day of pneumonia. She does, after their “I do’s,” and he offers her comfort as she dies, after seeing how the vulterous village women are all set to ransack her house. All that’s left now is Zorba’s ambitious lumber machine, but it too has a sad end, collapsing after only three logs are sent down. Basil and Zorba’s response? Eating… and dancing. They will go their separate ways, forever, but each life enriched immeasurably by the experience.

Zorba is by far not a perfect film. As I mentioned, f follows nearly by rote the formula of the introverted vs. outgoing personalities, and puts them “on the road” (perhaps the beginning of that subgenre, a la Scarecrow and Planes, Trains and Automobiles). And again, we have the outgoing one usually overcompensating for something – in this case, a troubling past that includes a deceased child and some pretty harrowing war experiences. Basil, as played by Alan Bates (before he became a shaggy weirdo), is the introverted one, but he’s a bit too mannered, too wide-eyed and reticently amazed. I was constantly aware of the performance, and I wasn’t particularly intrigued by the character, even if it is the film’s entry point. For that matter, there are too many scenes of gaping onlookers, be it in a boat or village center, as if it’s the director’s method of building suspense. Ultimately, it does all build up to the film’s climax, the Widow’s murder (too telegraphed, by the way), but it’s such a tragic event it’s hard to come down from it, sort of the same problem Dead Poet’s Society ran into – a horrible death! Ah, well, seize the day, mourn quickly and live your own life to the fullest.

But most of this is fairly easily overlooked by one thing: Anthony Quinn as Zorba. He encapsulates the role as only a handful of actors have been able to do in the history of American film. From his clingy, invasive entrance on the boat, nattering away to Basil with quips and quotes, to his final, somber dance on the beach with his newfound friend, he embodies this thing called life like no other actor either dared or successfully accomplished. Put him up there on the list of other memorably infectious free spirits – Holly Golightly, Rande McMurphy, Arthur Bach, etc.. – he’s earned it.

And in the end he’s the real reason Zorba has remained such a magical work – a little touch of joie de vivre, the European spirit of taking time to enjoy life. It’s that theme that transcends all else in the film, and a theme most desperately needed as the 60s rolled on, into the most tumultuous and chaotic era of recent times.

Rating:  ***1/2

Monday, January 2, 2017

Cleopatra (1963)

Of course, we come to one of he most notoriously colossal films of all time – renowned for several reasons, not the least of which being that it marked the beginning of the end of the classical Hollywood system, with all its pageantry and grandeur, but also its excesses an indulgences. With a whopping 30-million dollar budget, unheard of for its time, it put a chink in Fox’s armor as the studio lost a boatload and didn’t recover economically until its release of The Sound of Music two years later. It also sidetracked he career of legendary director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who didn’t return to form again until 1972’s Sleuth, a two-character mystery that couldn’t any different from Cleo’s cast of thousands.

And yet, judging the film entirely on its own merits, it isn’t half bad. It certainly isn’t a great film, but it is indeed a very good one. Theres something breathtaking about a scene like the one in which Cleopatra enters Rome after wedding Caesar – filled with costumed soldiers hailing her procession, dancers filling every inch of space from here to the horizon, a fantastic chariot-float inching across toward the Roman arcade, to the strains of a thundering orchestra… a Cleo herself, Elizabeth Taylor, in costume change #27, peering across the mis-en-secene with bold, blue eyes and a thousand watt dose of pure tar power. That’s what the movies were back then, and will never be again.

But in 1963, the year the film was released, that sort of spectacle was already  anachronistic. For all its splendor, Cleopatra must have seemed to the avid moviegoer a relic from ten years ere. It features, despite classically trained actors Richard Burton and Rex Harrison, the same sort of overripe, theatrical acting styles popularized by the Bible epics from the 50s, and those ubiquitous quasi-British accents everyone used in historical dramas no matter the time period or place. It all seems especially dated coming so close after the previous Fox collection entry The Longest Day, which features all characters speaking in their respective native languages (using subtitles).

But the good thing about those epics, dated or not, is their fidelity to history – there’s no scarcity of historical information here, and Cleopatra does put the viewer to work in its education. Our story begins as Julius Caesar (Harrison) is engaged in a great battle against rival Roman general Pompey, a man who flees to Egypt for safety, only to be beheaded that country’s current ruler, Ptolemy XIII, a member of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian dynasty, thinking it would please the great toga-togged one (it doesn’t). Caesar, in fact, would much rather have Ptolemy’s sister, Cleopatra, installed as head honcho, so he ges after her with his legions and sets her up in court, while at the same time falling in love with her and fathering her child, Caesarius. With the union of two empire’s monarchs, it looks like the Mediterranean Sea just got that much smaller – what could go wrong? Ceasar’s assassination, that’s what, spurred, in no small part, by his self-proclaimed dictatorship and fatherhood of a so out of Roman-recognized wedlock.

Control of all Roman provinces passes to the triumvirate: Octavian, Lepidus and Marc Anthony, the latter given control of the middle east, including Egypt. But Antony, too, is beguiled by Cleo’s charm and ravishing beauty, and he confesses his envy, not of Caesar’s leadership skills or military holdings but of his total love for her, a requited love that this time may unify the two cultures. Octavian, though, has different designs -  he forces Antony to marry his sister, Octavian, to help unify the empire, but Cleo is enraged, receiving a heartbroken and resource-deprived Antony only under conditions that she seize one-third the Roma Empire. Octavia rejects the deal and forces sea war upon Antony, who abandons his losing troops to chase after Cleo, returning to Alexandria. He is enraged at her for abandoning him, and at himself for abandoning his follow soldiers – a pale shadow of a man, living only for a woman also hating life these days. Knowing Octavian warns them alive to parade them, they commit suicide, he with his own sword and she with the bite of an asp.

And I could have written ever more, truthfully; at a decidedly immodest 4-hour-running time, Cleopatra is nothing if not comprehensive. Part of the reason for its TRT is that it aims to cover both phases of Cleo’s rule in equal, lengthy measure: her relationship with Caesar and that with Antony. (I sort of see it as a two-part miniseries in this regard.) And this, of course, was made at a time when writing was king – the special effects for the day were dialogue and story structure. Mankiewicz’s screenplay deftly navigates between thick, info-heavy passages and the more emotional, conversation-based notes, typically between Cleo and her beaus, that added a human factor to the astutely histrionic proceedings. (A balance Warren Beauty utilized so well his his historical romance Reds).

This practice is abetted particularly well by our retroactive knowledge of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s offscreen romance, and enlivens Cleo’s second act, at exactly the time when it needs it most. I particularly remember their first squabble, full of power maneuvering and spiteful harangues, and I can still clearly recall their first big rift – when Antony marries Octavia – and the oh, so icy shoulder Cleo gives him in the aftermath; you can practically imagine the real life couple similar posturings, sans toga and gold robe. And then there’s Burton’s phenomal confessional; after a half-hour or so of stony, self-pitying silence, he finally launches into a explanation for his breakdown, and how “love” is nothing that should be fought for. Taylor, herself, has a similarly shattering moment, when she muses, near death, on how her heretofore life felt like a dream, am she feels strangely wide awake. Again, fantastic writing, and its epic length seems to  add to the exhausting exhilaration of it all.

And there’s another thing that I must applaud the film for: having actual scenes. Those who regularly read this blog are aware of my habitual griping about today’s film/television, and its ignorance of actual narrative structural devices, like pause-filled lines, spatial clarity, sensible editing and, ah yeas. the art of the scene, who should necessarily have a beginning, middle an ending (and transition). Nowadays scenes bleed into each other without any demarcations, and narrative integrity becomes a shambles – a relic, almost, of the days when directors were trained with the basics. We are witnessing a generation of directors brought up on camcorders, and soon they’ll be the children of imovie and youtube. Storyboarding? Screenwriting? A thing of the past, who needs it. Well, I’ll take a bloated, 4-hour epic with classic writing over a sound-bite-friendly digital quickie full of pixels and light, signifying nothing.

Not much left to go over here, except how daring some of it is – particularly one first-act scene in which Cleo’s getting a face-down rubdown, with only a narrow towel covering her backside. (By ’63 the Hays Code was loosening up just a bit.) Later, she barely wraps herself in a towel and we get a good eyeful of Elizabeth Taylor’s (ahem) upper portions, as well as her finely fleshy legs. I’ve never thought of Eizibeth Taylor as particularly pretty (I know, I;m the minority), but she did have a fantastic body, particularly here, in her mid-thirties, when she was mature and svelte. Add to that an acting style that was not exactly Meryl Streep, let’s be honest, but had enough of a personality drive to make her eminently watchable. A fine performance.

A long haul, but worth it in the end. While not all consistently riveting, there are some good parts here, some very good parts. No problem awarding this...

 Rating:  ***1/2

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