For many moviegoers, Cleopatra (1963) has long been lauded for its undeniable kitsch value. It’s the most epic of Hollywood epics, got co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton entangled in one of the most talked about love affairs of the 20th century, and nearly bankrupt 20th Century Fox. Oddly enough, once you get past all the tabloid hoopla, Cleopatra isn’t a bad film at all. Unfortunately for Fox, getting Cleopatra in the can would cost far more than any of the studio executives could’ve imagined.
At the dawn of the 1960’s, Elizabeth Taylor was a huge star, one of the last from the Golden Studio Age. She was given a then record-setting contract of $1 million. The amount eventually grew to $7 million as a result of various production delays, including Taylor’s near-fatal bout with illness. As part of her contract, Taylor was able to stipulate that the film be made using her late husband, Mike Todd’s 70mm process, Todd-AO, an expense that Fox undoubtedly could’ve done without. However, it just goes to show the amount of power Elizabeth Taylor had over the production. Add in the problems with sets, and locations, and Cleopatra’s budget ballooned from $2 million to 44 million.
Working from the screenplay from Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was apparently re-writing the original script between takes, the four hour film works surprisingly well. Mankiewicz wanted to release Cleopatra as two separate films—one focusing on Cleopatra and Caesar and the other Cleopatra and Anthony—that idea was shot down by the studio. Even so, that structure is present in the final film.
The story begins in the year 48 B.C., with the arrival of Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) in Egypt. At the time, Egypt was a territory of Rome. Caesar has come in search of his rival Pompey, and to settle an argument between Cleopatra (Taylor) and her brother Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O’Sullivan) over which of them should rule the kingdom. The dispute resulted in an Egyptian civil war. Caesar ends up falling in love with Cleopatra; they marry, and have a son named Caesarion. Caesar returns to Rome with Cleopatra’s idea that he attempt to build a worldwide empire, ringing in his ears. As the dictator of Rome, Cleopatra’s manner ruling by divine right proves all too tempting for him. Eventually, his enemies are inspired to rise up and assassinate him.
The second half of the film focuses on Cleopatra’s relationship with the second most powerful man in Rome, Marc Antony (Burton). Julius Caesar’s best friend, she convinces Antony to declare Caesarion, her son with Caesar, the Roman Empire, while also getting him to declare war on Rome. Antony is eventually defeated, and commits suicide in disgrace. So by the end of the film, Cleopatra has shared her bed with two of the world’s most powerful men, but ruined their lives in the process. Beautiful as she is, Cleopatra is perhaps a woman best avoided.
Cleopatra boasts a truly star-studded cast. In addition to Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall plays Octavian (later known as Augustus), Caesar’s successor as dictator of Rome; Martin Landau as as Rufio, Antony’s right-hand man; Andrew Heir as Agrippa, the admiral of the Roman fleet; and Hume Cronyn as Sosigenes, the queen’s most-trusted advisor.
For all the talk of Cleopatra being a disaster, it was the highest grossing film of 1963 earning $26 million at the U.S. box office. The film took a loss only because of its astronomical $44 million budget. Further, Cleopatra received nine Oscar nominations and won four of them—Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It was also nominated for Best Sound, Best Musical Score, and Best Picture. Cleopatra is a true epic that deserves to be seen at least once.
Apparently the same transfer that was used for last year’s U.K. Blu-ray release, 20th Century Fox has done a wonderful job here. Presented in the 2.20:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer is virtually flawless. The image is beyond gorgeous. Sharpness is top notch, with no edge enhancement apparent. Color saturation is spot-on with reds, purples, and gold’s really standing out. Flesh tones look a tad dark on a few occasions, but that could be due to the shooting conditions.
Split over two discs, the films audio is offered via a solid DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 4.0 sound mix. Much of the surround activity comes into play when Alex North’s score is used—via the fronts and rears. Panning effects are used occasionally throughout the soundfield, and dialogue is clean and clear throughout.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
The following special features are available:
- Commentary with Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, Martin Landau and Jack Brodsky: Part One: The Mankiewicz brothers (sons of Joseph), offer a treasure trove of information in regards to their father’s goals for the film, and behind-the-scenes information. Landau offers some nice tidbits about life on the set, and Brodsky offers some gossipy insight into the extremes of the filmmaking process.
- Cleopatra Through the Ages: A Cultural History (HD, 7:51) A look at how Cleopatra has been depicted throughout history.
- Cleopatra‘s Missing Footage (HD, 8:12) Fox’s Shawn Belston discusses the various versions of the film, and the efforts to locate missing scenes which have so far proven unsuccessful.
- Fox Movie Channel Presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman (29:29, SD) A solid overview of Cleopatra‘s legendary production history.
- The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence reprints some astonishing letters and memos sent during the film’s extremely long shoot.
- Commentary: Part Two
- Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood (SD, 1:59:07) A feature length documentary on the film. Truly everything you wanted to know and a must-watch.
- The Fourth Star of Cleopatra (SD, 9:06) A vintage featurette on the making of Cleopatra.
- Fox Movietone News (SD, 6:19) Various snippets related to the film.
- Theatrical Trailers (SD, 10:03) All three trailers.