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...