- Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
- June 12, 1963
- Based on the 1957 book The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero, and the histories by Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian
Cleopatra uses all her means to protect Egypt from the imperial ambitions of Rome.
They just do not make them like Cleopatra anymore. Large casts without egos. A sense of epic grandeur. And a film that is as much art as it is an engaging story. This is epic storytelling with a massive cast.
The music they use accentuates the grandeur and lavishness of the production we get. You are pulled into something great and epic. It is something you get from an orchestra and not one person working alone. The language is flowery and verbose. But these characters do not speak just to be heard. The actors are not showing off. Rather the dialogue expands upon the characters while also coming off as almost Shakespearean. These can be extended exchanges that manage to hold you.
The characters are amazing here. Each is a distinct individual. From the most minor character to the most important. Each one has a clear personality. That is because Cleopatra is filled from top to bottom with strong characters. And none are strong because those around them are weak. Rather they’re strong and those around them are strong as well. They are perceptive and fully realized individuals.
Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) is an insightful and intelligent thinker. He sees the greater picture and is intently perceptive. He is witty and charming. Harrison makes him a person you could see develop a following. But he was not just nice. He was also ruthless.
Cleopatra is strong willed and intelligent. She is bold and brash and continually plotting. Elizabeth Taylor gives her version of Cleopatra an intelligence and keen insight. She comes on and more than stands her own as a character and as an actress against all the others that share a scene with her. She makes it believable that the men that surround Cleopatra can be bent to her will because she knows how to align her interests with theirs. She doesn’t manipulate them but rather what they want and what she wants can connect.
Mark Antony (Richard Burton) is the major player other than Cleopatra in the story. He is a man convinced that Rome is being led by a fool. He is intrigued by Cleopatra and filled with desire for her. She uses that to align her needs with his. His major flaw is that while a capable leader he is blinded by his passions which undoes his goals.
It certainly helped the film that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton started a relationship. That chemistry bled into their own screen performances and gives the relationship a realism two people with simple chemistry could not have. Her husband at the time probably wasn’t happy though.
But as much as they praise the relationship between Mark Antony and Cleopatra gets, there is something to be said about the relationship between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Cleopatra asserts her will over Marc Anthony more than she does with Julius Caesar. She’s more seductive and more teasing with Julius Caesar. It’s most certainly a different approach with him than with Mark Antony. She pushes Mark Antony to do this or that rather than working with him.
Roddy McDowall is perhaps the best of the supporting characters as the eventually victorious Octavian. He is interested in power but disinterested in getting his hands dirty or in the ways of getting it that Julius Caesar or even Mark Antony have done. He is not above having others do it and placing himself in a position to use their work for his benefit. He is as insightful and perceptive as Cleopatra and his only benefit in the conflict is that he is familiar with more of the players than Cleopatra is so he can better strategize.
Two equally matched foes in a film? That is one of the things that makes Cleopatra so great. The two sides are equal and even though we know the ultimate end via history, this equality places some doubt in the outcome.
Many of the alliances, while determined in the script by history, come about because of the characters. They develop views on things or personal interactions with a character push them in a particular direction. Words and interactions clearly cause dislike for one individual so naturally that character aligns themselves with another. It’s a rather brilliant element that brings this more to life.
The story covers all the well-known elements of the Cleopatra story such as being rolled in the carpet in order to meet Cesar or Cleopatra’s love child or Mark Antony’s marriage meant to keep them in Rome and away from Cleopatra. As with any historically based film, this should not be taken as fact, but as a starting point to learn more.
Plans and alliances fall apart because that’s how it’s supposed to be but in the story they show how things fall part. Mistakes are made and people react with emotion rather than thinking through their actions. For example it’s clear that if Mark Antony had just stayed at the battle rather than racing to be with Cleopatra who thought him dead things would’ve been very different.
And the Battle of Actium at the end, which is the fall of everything Cleopatra has worked for, is just unlike anything else. But you see very little of it in comparison to what is implied. Interesting in my opinion. Much of what you think you’ve seen is actually explained on the board that they have with the burning ships. An interesting narrative technique.
Cleopatra is something that you could turn the sound off and just enjoy the visuals. And that is because of when it was made. You could certainly re-create much of what they did here with modern CGI, but it just wouldn’t look as good because here it is all real and not an illusion. That is art.
At nearly 4 hours this is not something you pop in and casually watch. This is something you have to sit down and invest some time in but it is worth it. There’s so much packed into this and it moves so smoothly and quickly that the passage of time almost goes unnoticed. It’s an engaging film that is a classic.
Cleopatra is a great bit of historical romance. It has love and passion and excitement and great dialogue and despite its length is engaging from start to finish. This is a must see for the general movie goer as well as those of classic film.