Cleopatra (1963)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 22 July (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The sad passing away of Omar Sharif compelled me to rewatch perhaps his most famous film role, his playing of the title character in David Lean’s sprawling Doctor Zhivago. It’s a title that’s had its fair share of adverse criticism over the years, particularly upon its initial release when it was seen as excessive, bloated, meandering and packed with unlikable people, not least the passive Zhivago and Lara. Personally I love it and I’ll defend it to the hilt, even whilst nodding at many of the brickbats. For me, nothing looks quite like Doctor Zhivago. It really is a ravishing picture and its use of colour is almost unmatched. Despite filming in Spain, it makes an excellent stab at recreating Russia during the early twentieth century, both the patrician pre-Revolutionary Saint Petersburg and the less salubrious backwaters of the film’s second half. I also think Sharif’s pretty good as the Doctor. Whilst the censure of his character being pretty much an observer is fair, I would argue that as a poet that’s exactly what he ought to be. Still, there’s no denying that whenever Rod Steiger’s on the screen he owns it entirely.

The point, which I’ll make in more detail when the good Doctor is scheduled, as surely it will be in light of Sharif’s death, is that I think it’s a really great work, far more deserving of praise than it’s received. Here, I want to make the comparison with a film that does actually deserve to be criticised for its excesses. There’s something fascinating about Cleopatra, certainly, and I’ve watched it several times, but in my more recent viewings I admit I’ve been bored to tears. It isn’t the length – Cleopatra runs a little over four exhausting hours – so much as what they do to fill the time. Conversations between characters. Many conversations. Often about nothing. Gorgeously dressed characters, stood in similarly beautiful places that have the look of studio producers tearing their hair out over how much the bloody thing was costing, but on the whole half-assed stuff that hints at the reality of script pages being turned out on the hoof and making the whole thing disjointed and kind of thrown together.

I wrote about this one some years ago for Film Journal and I’m going to turn the rest of this piece over to those words. Basically, I don’t want to watch Cleopatra again, not just yet, maybe not ever. There just aren’t enough hours in the day and too many other things to see, so here goes…

My copy of Cleopatra has been gathering dust for a couple of years. A magnificent, three-disc special edition, I lavished a tenner on it, and have since noticed it on sale for even less. Is it worth the outlay? Certainly, it’s impossible to watch the movie now and not compare it to the HBO series Rome. This is inherently unfair. Certified ‘PG,’ there’s just no way it can accurately recreate the debauchery, depravity and degradations depicted so memorably in the more recent cable production. Additionally, Cleopatra is over 50 years old, and it must be considered that contemporary, working class audiences would have been dazzled by the sheer spectacle of it just as a CGI-friendly 21st century viewer might demand more.

Then again, if the film is a masterpiece, then it’s definitely of the ‘flawed’ variety. It has gained some degree of infamy for reasons that have little to do with the finished product. There was the unholy mess that was its production. Going vastly over budget (it cost $44 million, which when adjusted puts it beyond even the likes of Titanic and Waterworld), and suffering all sorts of disasters, it was a wonder the movie got made at all. Everything that could have gone wrong did exactly that, and by the time it was eventually completed, its director Joseph L Mankiewicz was foiled in his attempt to release it in two three-hour chunks. The result was an edit that reduced it to half its intended length for theatre audiences, a version that was disjointed and difficult to follow. This edition has had an hour’s footage restored, but somewhere in a vault the lost 120 minutes or so that would complete it are waiting to be rediscovered. Some much-needed positive publicity came with the on-set romance of its stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. After everything that had gone wrong, the producers no doubt jumped on this sensational spin, and the public duly lapped it up. For a time, Burton and Taylor were the world’s most famous couple, an impossibly glamorous pairing that was on a par with the hype surrounding current celebrity ‘royalty’ of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Indeed, I can’t help thinking that rumours of the pair’s chemistry on the set of the decidedly average Mr and Mrs Smith handed it more exposure than it warranted.

And ‘average’is indeed the word where the subject of this beautifully presented set is concerned. Like the talking points surrounding the movie upon its original release, the things that are good about it have little to do with the quality of the material. It’s not that Cleopatra is a bad film exactly, but it’s far from the best. Even within the epic genre (one it did a lot to kill off), there are more worthwhile pictures, near forgotten classics that deserve the restoration treatment. Personally, I’d happily pay to see a similar job done on The Fall of the Roman Empire, a project that remains distant and unlikely. The reality is that Cleopatra is a bit of a dog’s dinner. It’s given the five-star treatment here, but it isn’t a five-star movie.

The story starts on the battlefield of Phillippi. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has emerged victorious against Pompey, handing the former power that is virtually dictatorial, whilst his eminent opponent flees to Egypt. Caesar follows. Along with finding Pompey dead, he argues that the succession issue in Alexandria (practically a Roman vassal, ii is supposed to be ruled jointly between Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), but the situation has escalated into an internal conflict for sole control) could be resolved at the same time. Caesar is as good as his word. After a short battle, he ends the squabbling, places Cleopatra singly on the throne, and for good measure marries her. The trouble is he’s so captivated with his ravishing new bride that he spends too long in Egypt. Back in Rome, concerns are growing among those who feel he has too much power and is fashioning himself into a king. Though his deputy, Mark Antony (Richard Burton) sees things differently, and carries some clout, the might Caesar has within the Roman world – along with his taking of a ‘foreign’ wife – is getting to be too much for the hard-headed Republicans, led by the orator Cicero (Michael Hordern) and Brutus (Kenneth Haigh).

Sure enough, Caesar is summarily offed on the Ides of March, falling ironically at the feet of Pompey’s statue in the Senate. Cleopatra, quite literally left holding the baby (their child, Caesarion, a symbol of her ambitions to one day ascend to the pinnacle of Rome) is again in a precarious position, but takes up with Antony, who like his mentor is bewitched. However, Antony has problems of his own. Another power struggle has erupted in Rome, as the spoils of Caesar’s legacy are scrapped over by Antony and his main rival, Octavian (Roddy McDowall). Cleopatra sees this as her opportunity to renew Caesarion’s claims, and backs her man in an all-or-nothing scrap for hegemony.

History lesson over, and on the whole Cleopatra follows the main swing of the Roman Republic’s final days closer than most. Not only does it cover the main events, it also nails the characters of its major protagonists. You can see why Caesar commands the level of authority he does – shrewd and charismatic, he’s one of those rare historical instances of someone deserving the ‘Superman’ epithets lavished upon him. Capable of doing more in a day than you or I might manage in a month, and allowing for bouts of epilepsy, he’s the right man in the right place at the wrong time (though only just). Too brilliant to be held in check by the trappings of a Republican government, his enemies have to go so far as to murder him in cold blood in order to take him out of the picture. Antony, on the other hand, is a fine military commander but a drunken boor of a man. Bereft of Caesar’s subtle touch, it’s obvious he’s no intellectual match for Cleo. Once he’s under her spell, it’s more or less the end for him. As for the other main Roman, Octavian, McDowall plays him to near perfection. Slight, bookish, and without Antony’s massive presence, the man who would become the first Roman Emperor is no warrior. One scene finds him taunted by Antony and left to fester in his tent while the fighting rages on outside. However, Caesar knew what he was doing when he adopted Octavian. His battlefield is the Senate, and he possesses all the guile and political cunning to turn it against Antony. By the time he’s finished speaking, his opponent is public enemy number one. Once, the pair carved up the empire between them as equal partners. Now, not only does Octavian have the political machine under his belt, but he’s turned his personal crusade into that of Rome.

Watching McDowall in Cleopatra is a joy. In the early stages, he’s a bit-part player, under Caesar’s wing and seemingly without a hope of rising much further. It’s only when his adopted father is killed that he takes on a more central role. And yet it’s another minor character in the grand sweep of affairs whom the film elevates into the focus of the entire narrative. By all acounts, Cleopatra was very much a shrewd player, yet her corner was limited and Egypt was carried along with the rest of the Empire as Rome underwent its own transformation. In the movie, she’s far from a political pawn; indeed, her beauty is enough to reduce great men like Caesar and Antony to lapdogs, though you suspect the former has the measure of her. According to those historian spoilsports, the Egyptian queen was by no means a siren, yet Taylor, not plain by anyone’s definition, plays her as the image of almost supernatural loveliness, adding charm to her mystery, and surrounding her with the trappings of opulence and gaudy luxury. It’s in this that the film begins to fail as an historical epic. Fair enough, such movies never painted themselves as slavish records of factual events, but it does undermine the ring of truth that surrounds so much of it.

Cleopatra takes place during one of the most disturbing periods in antiquity, one punctuated by war and strife. A number of spectacular conflicts changed the course of western history decisively, making for a movie rich in battle, involving the de rigeur thousands of extras. However, with the focus on Taylor, we don’t get to see a lot of action. What we have instead is talking. A lot of talking. All the time. I’m no hater of movie dialogue, but for it to work, it has to have some substance, and more importantly be well written. Unfortunately, it rarely sparkles here. Few signs of the vaunted chemistry that was supposed to have lit up the stage between Burton and Taylor exist when they’re churning out line after yawning line of hackneyed words, words that are intended to be worthy of Homer and instead just drag. Caesar and Cleopatra’s initial flirtation, leading to full-blown romance, feels as though it’s played in real time, with scenes lasting far too long and the conversation going precisely nowhere. It’s as if Mankiewicz was so much in love with filming his actors, dressed beautifully amidst superb sets, that he didn’t know when to say cut. Because of this, Cleo is a bore. What makes it worse is that whenever McDowall is on the screen, particularly when he’s exploding at the Senate, you get glimpses of the film at its best. Here’s a master actor barking out lines that deserve to be barked. It happens too infrequently to have any lasting effect.

Mankiewicz seemed to have felt there was little point portraying battles when there were more intimate scenes between his characters to insert. The result is interminable build-ups to conflict, with the actual action taking up little screen time, which is a shame. Epics were called epics for a reason, one of these being the spectacular set pieces that called on armies of people dressed in contemporary costumes going at each other as the trumpets on the score shifted into overdrive. These were scenes that reeked of money, the kind of thing that demanded the likes of Cinemascope technology just to fit in all those wide shots of expensive battles raging across the width of the screen. There isn’t much of that here. When they do occur, they’re dealt with quickly, presumably so they can move on to another lengthy moment involving yet more banter. This is never so much a letdown as during the climactic conflict at Actium. Antony and Octavian have been heading towards this moment since Caesar’s demise, but it’s resolved in minutes, the whole thing turning on the former’s critical error as though that was all it really amounted to. Whilst watching Cleopatra, I longed for a good fight, something to dilute the endless babble. I didn’t get it.

Perhaps there was a good reason for all this. When that year’s Oscars were doled out, Cleopatra was a clear winner in the design categories, and it’s not hard to see why. The costumes are exceptional, especially the variety of dresses, ceremonial get-ups and sometimes not much at all that adorn Taylor. Not only does the camera love her, she also happens to appear in some lovely outfits, reflecting the ornate richness of Hellenic Egypt. The effect is stunning. All this is matched by some stupendous sets, never better than in the harbour of Alexandria. You can almost see where the millions went when you look at the design work and graft that’s gone into it, the effort at creating something that really does look authentic. Aesthetically, Cleopatra is a thing of beauty. This is never better demonstrated than in the Queen’s entry into Rome, a parade that lasts several minutes and includes the appearance of dancers, slaves, masked demons, smoke, thousands of pigeons and a 30-foot high Sphinx that’s pulled by an army of slaves. It’s hard not to get the impression that the film is in love with itself, vainly roaming over the incredible sets, building and clothes in hopeless, self-reflective adoration. The script is the unfortunate loser. Apparently, Mankiewicz set to rewriting the entire screenplay once he was on board the project, redrafting constantly and often producing pages of work whilst on the set itself.

Knowing that two hours of footage were lost, it’s staggering to think of what Cleopatra might have been. The length on display is more than enough, and in the meantime certain other elements seem to have been cut unfairly short. This is certainly the case with Martin Landau, who plays Ruffio, right-hand man to Caesar and later Antony, and appears to have lost an entire character arc. Scenes involving his dealings with Cleopatra have been truncated so we never get to see his dynamic in these instances, whilst the cause of his death is excised altogether. The result is that Ruffio has little to do except stand around following orders, whereas there are suggestions in portions of his screen time that a much more interesting and detailed character lurks underneath.

So what went wrong with Cleopatra? One way to find out is by watching Cleopatra: the Film that changed Hollywood, a two-hour documentary on disc three of the set that achieves the rare feat of being better than the movie it’s talking about. A Fox production, the documentary doesn’t go too far in criticising people, but it’s still a marvellous piece of work, as close as possible to being an honest account of the nightmare that summed up the film’s production. According to it, Cleopatra started as an exercise in churning out a moneyspinner, a cheaply made picture that would plough some millions back into the ailing studio’s coffers. How it went from that to the world’s most expensive film makes for excellent viewing. A mixture of wrong decisions, bad luck and Elizabeth Taylor, the production lurched from one crisis to the next.

Once Fox agreed to finance the film, Taylor was recruited for the title role. Legend has it that after screentesting Joan Collins, the studio contacted Taylor, then one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Joking, she replied ‘Sure, tell him I’ll do it for a million dollars.’ To her surprise, Fox had a contract drawn up, which was enough to generate some good advance publicity. It was a world record fee, but would to lead a string of unfortunate circumstances. Taylor suffered frequent bouts of illness, effectively halting work as her presence was required for most scenes. Taking enormous amounts of time off the project, the remaining cast and crew had little to do, which eventually saw off prominent members of the original team. Director Rouben Mamoulian resigned, citing work pressure and frustration. Also exiting were Peter Finch, recruited for the part of Caesar, and Stephen Boyd, who was to follow his role in Ben-Hur by playing Antony.

Another major headache was the choice of location. The Rome Olympics got in the way of the crew being accommodated in Italy, so they opted instead for the massive Pinewood Studiosin Buckinghamshire. Having built all the sets, and importing fresh Egyptian trees on a near-daily basis, bad weather put paid to any worthwhile filming, with fog and almost constant rain showers making Britain a predictably poor substitute for Alexandria. Eventually, and at risk of the entire production being shut down, the crew was able to de-camp to Cinecitta Studios (the location, incidentally, for the current Rome series), and with Mankiewicz in place, filming could finally begin. The film was hemorrhaging money already, but things went from bad to worse. Actors’ problems, industrial disputes, set worries and constant pressure from Fox led to more cash outlays, not to mention 24-hour working days for Mankiewicz, who resorted to a diet of injections in order to keep himself going.

All this and more is uncovered in painful detail by the documentary. Cleopatra was the subject of so much investment that it was impossible to stop proceedings after a certain time. Bad luck dogged it even after its release, when a clerical error by the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stopped McDowall from being nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, an award he stood a very good chance of winning. Ultimately, what the programme depicts is the making of a folly, a fool’s errand. There was little chance of Cleopatra making a profit, certainly in the short term, and the press gleefully depicted it as an unmitigated flop. It wasn’t, but it took Fox several years to break even on the movie, and it was thanks to other releases that the studio survived.

What makes all this so laughable is that the story of how the film was made is infinitely more interesting than the movie itself. Like Hearts of Darkness, the account of the madness that lay behind Apocalypse Now‘s production, this documentary is almost required viewing, and any film maker could do worse than catch this lesson on how NOT to do it before embarking on a new project. Sadly, Cleopatra doesn’t compare with Francis Ford Coppola’s labour of love. It’s not a disaster, rather miraculously given the circumstances, but for the money and sheer human effort that went into it, the end product should have been far superior to the expensive bauble that was released in 1963.

Cleopatra: **

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6 Replies to “Cleopatra (1963)”

  1. An epic article itself, Mike, and a fine analysis of what’s right and wrong with the film. I think that lengthy docu on the DVD set is great as well, really digging into the background of the movie and it’s a fascinating watch.
    As for the movie, I haven’t seen it for some time either – like you, I just don’t have the heart to wade through it again any time soon – but it’s good to see you say such positive stuff about Roddy McDowall, an actor I always liked and one whose work seems better as time passes.

    1. Thanks very much for making it all the way through, Colin! One of my main problems with Cleopatra is that battle scenes were among my favourites when watching epics – thousands of extras having at each other, etc, just the sheer scope of it all – and they didn’t really bother here, so that all those interminable talking scenes led to no spectacular pay off. I did like McDowall’s character though, and his performance, and it seems like one of those ill-fated quirks related to the film that he was not Oscar nominated. All of which is revealed in that documentary, an absolutely fascinating chronicle of everything that could, and of course did, go wrong.

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