Cleopatra (1963) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

 There are three stories about the making of Cleopatra that are more important news than the cheesy film itself:
  • The film that might have been. Director Joe Mankiewicz originally screened a six hour cut for the studio. By the time of the premiere, it had been reduced to four hours, but this was still too long because that running length didn't permit two showings per theater per day. The final theatrical cut was 3:14.
  • The ordeal of making the film. 
  • The Burton-Taylor romance.

What might have been

The DVD includes the first theatrical cut, which is about four hours long. The missing two hours from the pre-theatrical screening have never turned up despite an exhaustive search that has lasted for decades. Many of those involved in the production hope that the original version will some day be restored. The cuts resulted in a truncation that destroyed much of the narrative. It is impossible to tell what happened to Marc Antony's men before the final battle, and it is not possible to tell how Rufio died, or why.  (His suicide is implied in Antony's own suicide scene, but was clearly spelled out in the original.) The studio also cut off funding near the end of the production, resulting in a movie which has lavish production values in some scenes (Cleopatra's barge alone cost about two million in today's dollars!), while other "battles" are filmed with a handful of people or with one man riding off amid a symbolic litter of fallen helmets and swords. 


The film on the DVD is rated G, if that gives you any idea. Still, there are a couple of near misses.

Taylor shows most of her buns in a massage scene. She was not in good physical condition.

In the procession scene, a dancer shows her breasts except for tassels, and she jumps and shakes with enthusiasm.

Mankiewicz wanted to cut the film into two separate three-hour movies released in sequence. Darryl Zanuck, then head of 20th Century Fox, didn't object to that in theory, but he was a guy who knew how to make a buck. The public curiosity about the film was tied in with the whole Burton-Taylor adventure, and he was not about to issue a film in two parts when the first part had almost no Richard Burton. The film probably would have been two separate movies if Burton had been cast as Caesar rather than Antony, but such was not the case, so it ended up as a single film, eventually truncated dramatically.


Making the film

The film began production with one studio chief approving the work of a producer and director. By the time it was completed, all three of those men had been replaced. The second director was fired during post-production, but re-hired when they couldn't find anyone else who could make sense of all the footage. The original Caesar and Antony (Peter Finch and Steven Boyd) both left because of other commitments that could not be reconciled with the dragging production, and all of their footage was wasted. The original sets, built in England, were razed completely, and rebuilt in Rome. Elizabeth Taylor nearly died during the production (an emergency tracheotomy saved her life), causing one massive delay, and there were several others caused by weather and personnel shifts.

On top of everything else, one of the battle scenes (the opening of the film) looked so cheap and ragged, that they reassembled much of the cast months later to shoot one more scene in Spain!

Miss Taylor signed a contract guaranteeing her an unprecedented million dollar paycheck, but that would only be a fraction of her final payday. The contract also stipulated that she would be paid $50,000 per day if the production went past a certain deadline date. Because of the various delays, Taylor collected $7 million for the picture - $40 million in today's dollars. By the time Mankiewicz hired the new cast and moved production to Rome, the film had already cost seven million dollars (Consider that forty million to relate to it properly. Multiply all amounts times six to estimate current dollars), and there was nothing at all to show for it.

The final tab for the film was $44 million dollars, which translates to a quarter of a billion in today's dollars, more than Titanic. Twentieth Century Fox now claims that the film is five million in the black, but that is phony self-serving accounting which ignores the time value of money. If you spend $44 million in 1961 and get $44 million in 2001, you have not broken even. In fact, counting the value of inflation and imputed interest, you have lost about 90% of your original investment. So it went with this film.

Still, it caused lines at the box office, and was the most talked about film of its time, perhaps of any time. 


Liz and Dick

Like them or not, you can't deny that the Burton-Taylor love story was one of the epic romances of the twentieth century. It was played out in public, they made several movies together, they broke up and reunited tearfully and passionately. They were married to each other not once, but twice. They enacted passion at a height that we average mortals will never know because we will never have our fights and reconciliations broadcast across the world for all to share. And it all began right here on this film, unexpectedly, adding yet another tabloid headline to a film that was a living headline even before they became an item.


So how is the film?

Depends on what you like. It has some merit. The Caesar portion of the film moves a lot better and is a lot more charming than the Antony portion. 

The cropping from six hours to three and the last-minute budget tightening caused some problems. They fixed the opening battle scene by going back to film that extra footage in Spain, but other battle scenes still look cheap. Ragged cuts make the film's finale hard to understand - it isn't clear why Antony's men deserted, or even that they did desert.

The acting is old-fashioned and rhetorical. In other words, think cheese sandwich. Burton's Antony is a spineless bellowing drunk, while Rex Harrison and Roddy McDowell weren't really as butch as you might expect from such powerful men as Caesar and Augustus. Harrison, in particular, looked mighty uncomfortable in those kissing scenes. Taylor is absolutely dreadful. She turned Cleopatra into a spoiled housewife who has never had anybody say "no" to her.

But some scenes are a wonder to behold. Let's be honest here, who cares about the frigging actors and script? You don't go to a movie like this for historical accuracy, human emotions, and poignant, clever dialogue. You go to a spectacular to see a spectacle, and there is plenty to see here. Cleopatra's barge, the naval battle, the Egyptian palace, Rome and Alexandria, and especially Cleopatra's procession into Rome are opulent and breathtaking. Even the routine conversations between Harrison and his men in Egypt take place amid a backdrop of wondrous sets and dramatic lighting. The scenes that look great look much better than Gladiator or Spartacus or Ben Hur, or any of the other comparable ancient spectacles. Of course, they are probably unrealistic. The Cleopatra costumes and hairstyles seem like 1960, not 30 B.C., for example, but I'm no expert.

But whatever they are, they are impressive.

Here's my advice to you: watch the first twenty minutes to set the stage, then click on the FF and keep forwarding until you see something interesting to you. Stop for a while, look at the most impressive spectacles, then continue your ff journey. Take about an hour to scan through the four hour movie. (It's on two DVD's)

Then pop in the third DVD and watch every minute of the two hour documentary called "The Film That Changed Hollywood'. That is, by far, the best film on the three disk set, and I was absorbed by every detail, especially Martin Landau's comments. Marty Landau is such a warm, open, honest, sentimental guy, that it's a shame he didn't really learn to bring all those parts of himself into his own acting until he was an older man. In the film, he's mechanical and businesslike, almost robotic, and too rapid in his body movements. But he's fascinating in the interviews. When he talks about the film, you could listen to him for hours. He also joins in the full-length commentary on the feature, no mean task for a four hour flick.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • a TREMENDOUS two hour documentary on the making of the film

  • various other featurettes and still galleries

  • Full-length commentary by various cast and crew

  • The usual trailers and Movietone ads

That documentary also includes deleted scenes, scenes shot with the original cast, and even the Joan Collins screen test for Cleo!

After you watch the documentary, go back and watch the parts of the film you're curious about, but this time turn the commentary on.

At least that's my advice. If not, you could spent 12 hours on this. There's a four hour film, then there's four hours of commentary, then there's three to four hours of bonus material. By the way, the DVD transfer looks great, and is reasonably priced at twenty bucks for three disks. Although it is kind of a cheesy film in general, I recommend the package heartily - to see the parts of the film that are worthwhile, and for all the inside Hollywood stuff in the bonus materials. 

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 2/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.3, 
  • With their dollars ... over the years, various rights and rentals have actually put this famous film into the black, al least by certain accounting standards. According to the documentary, it is now showing a $5 million profit.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Cheesy script, cheesy acting, cheesy dialogue, but magnificent sets, lighting, and costumes. The documentary I mentioned is an A. If you like movies at all, you have to see it.

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