Cleopatra (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)

Having read a review a few years ago that suggested viewers skip this film and just watch Carry on Cleo, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this. It's best watched on the biggest TV screen you can find, particularly for set-pieces like Cleopatra's entry into Rome, but the three performances at the heart of the film hold it together and stop viewers from getting lost in the spectacle, including Taylor. Playing Cleopatra more as a desperate survivor with a fondness for Roman soldiers and less as a femme fatale may have gone over less well, but she's actually a more human Cleo than most, even if she has lost some of the historical Cleopatra's political know-how (though she doesn't do too badly there either - especially next to Mark Antony, who as usual has all the political know-how of a five-year-old).

One of the nicest things about this film for me was that the writers really know their stuff. There are a few howlers of course - Octavian shouldn't be in the senate, he was a teenager, Caesar and Cleo weren't married in any way, Octavian takes the name Augustus far too early, and Romulus and Remus didn't enter Rome, they founded it. Cleopatra and mark Antony's three children are also written out all together, with the focus entirely on her child with Caesar, Caesarion. I suspect most of these are deliberate though, particularly as regards Octavian - trying to explain his youth and what he was going to become afterwards would make an already extremely long film even longer. Generally speaking, these characters seem truly steeped in their world, reading Catullus, dressing some of the dancers who accompany Cleopatra into Rome in wings reminiscent of the goddess Isis, with whom she identifies, and so on.

Of course, this film is infamous for two things - bringing Taylor and Burton together, and nearly bankrupting Twentieth Century Fox. The huge spectacles are certainly impressive, and it's great actually to see the Battle of Actium for once. This battle is so often talked about in television and Shakespearean versions of this story, but for practical and budgetary reasons, we hardly ever get to see it - it's brilliant to finally see Antony's downfall as it happens (and Octavian's seasickness is both historically accurate and highly amusing). There are too many huge scenes, though, and the film doesn't really need them. Cleopatra's wink to Caesar at the end of her ridiculously overdone entrance into Rome is beautiful and you can see the point - she certainly makes an impression as a Queen and the film makes its mark as an epic. But it's too much, and it goes on for too long. Ultimately, the film would not only be cheaper, but better without it (or with a pared-down version anyway).

I'm not sure how I feel about the scene where Cleopatra sees Caesar's death in the fire, in a vision from Isis. On the one hand, this is a very effective way of showing a scene that is vital to the plot and well known, but which does not involve Cleo - this method both involves Cleo in the scene, watching it happen, and gets through it more quickly, since the vision highlights only the most necessary parts of the scene. On the other hand, this is basically fantasy. Even a dream would be better than the fire - I would find it hard to buy a dream, but I'm a big fan of ghost stories and, as a religious person, a believer in some elements of the supernatural, so I could just about suspend my disbelief enough to imagine that Cleopatra saw what happened to her lover in a dream, but in a fire? No.

This is a film of two very distinct halves (the montage of Caesar and Cleopatra's relationship halfway through was strange, but kind of sweet). Huge scenes with thousands of extras aside, I think this actually works better as a TV mini-series than as a movie. It's two halves cover well over 10 years and although the cast of main characters is relatively small, there's a lot of development of both plot and character to get through. (If only Rome had been able to do this story more fully... sigh).

I found the first half of the film rather more satisfying that the second, both in terms of Cleopatra's characterisation and the central relationship that drives the story. At first, Cleopatra seems to be using a constructed image to get what she wants, deliberately posing as the immoral Bath Queen and, although she appears to feel genuine affection for Caesar, always keeping an eye on her political aims. In the second half, as she messes around in her huge bath while Antony's envoy is stuck behind a screen talking to her, she seems to have become the facade, and slipped into being merely the popular culture representation of herself, rather than the a real person. The changed hairstyles in the second half make her look older, which is good, but they do also look more 1960s - suddenly, you're not watching Cleopatra, you're watching Elizabeth Taylor. The fact that these are the scenes with Richard Burton doesn't help. Her little hissy fit after Antony marries Octavia is all very dramatic, but I'm pretty sure in real life they'd considered such a possibility - or, at the very least, she would have understood it. Suddenly, the careful politician of the first half has become a lovesick girl.

The DVD information notes that Manciewicz deliberately wrote Caesar and Cleopatra's relationship in the style of 'sophisticated high comedy', and Antony and Cleopatra's as more of a sweeping romance. The distinction is palpable, and although I'm not overly familiar with the genre of screwball comedy, it's clear that that's what Harrison and Taylor are aiming at. (Rex Harrison is brilliant, but he is basically playing Rex Harrison. I kept expecting him to burst into half-song, or start seeing the ghost of his dead wife). The only problem with this approach is that Caesar and Cleopatra's relationship, being based on an intimate relationship formed through conversation between two (almost) equals, feels much more real than Antony and Cleopatra's relationship. Despite the well-known advantage of what ought to be pretty fiery chemistry between the stars, Antony and Cleopatra's relationship is too much made up of sweeping decorations of love without showing us any satisfactory basis for that love other than some smoldering, and it pales in comparison to Caesar and Cleopatra's less romantic relationship, entirely free of the word love, but full of what feels like much more genuine emotion.

It's hard to pay much attention to anyone else when the film is so focused on the central trio (plus Octavian), but I have to spare a few words for Agrippa, who's fine, but who doesn't really match the Agrippa in my head. Partly this is because I have quite the thing for Allen Leech and I love his portrayal of Agrippa. To be fair to the film, Agrippa was older than Octavian and their portrayal makes perfect sense. But I just can't buy him as this grizzled old admiral, already leading Caesar's forces. Agrippa, Octavian and Maecenas were friends as teenagers - when Octavian was a teenager anyway - and although Agrippa was a brilliant general, I just can't picture him as a bearded old warrior. Not someone who was so close to the clever, psychotic but not exactly military Octavian. But as I say, this is probably just my weird little thing, and thoroughly influenced by Rome.

Talking of Rome, this film's influence over the series becomes increasingly obvious as you watch it (and not just because the DVD menu appears to have been designed by the same person with a fondness for pillars and bits of red curtain). Roddy McDowell's fantastic performance as Octavian seems a spiritual ancestor to Simon Woods', and certainly an influence on Woods' stylist (though Woods is spared from wearing quite such a ridiculous blonde hairdo - McDowell looks like he's trying to be Mad!Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Perhaps Octavian occasionally veers dangerously towards a two-dimensional bad guy. but if so, he pulls it back at the end in a scene which beautifully book-ends the film. Very near the beginning, we saw Caesar confronted with Pompey's head (somewhat unclearly unfortunately, since it was not so easy to show violence on screen in the 1960s, so possibly lost on any audience members not familiar with the story). We saw his horror at the mis-treatment of his enemy and his desire to honour a fellow Roman in death. This scene plays out again at the end, albeit minus the disembodied head, as Octavian rails at a subordinate who remarks rather carelessly on the death of Mark Antony. It is the first time in the film that Octavian really looks like he might deserve to be the heir of Caesar, and it's very effective.

The one character that really didn't work for me was Octavia. She's a right wuss. If the real Octavia had disappeared and started thinking about wine every time men talked politics, Octavian would never have given her such extraordinary privileges. It's as if the filmmakers couldn't conceive of there being more than one strong female character in one film. Still, the uncomfortable dinner scene between her and Antony gets the state of their marriage across quite effectively. When they're having dinner at opposite ends of a long table, barely speaking, all I can hear in my head is Richard Burton in Under Milk Wood, intoning that 'an icicle forms in the cold air of the dining vault'.

Random observations...  I like the way Caesar kind of seems to be losing it shortly before he's killed, going on about the eyes of statues. Burton's Mark Antony seems to be single-handedly bringing in the mini-skirt, aping Ben-Hur before him. The scene where Antony either drinks too much or is drugged (I wasn't sure which) at Cleo's boat party is seriously unnerving. The bit where Cleopatra makes him kneel before her after he's married Octavia is pretty cool. There's a fascinating conversation between Sosigenes and Cleopatra thrown in towards the end, about the wisdom or otherwise of building huge numbers of warships on the grounds that they are necessary to prevent war. Cleopatra, unlike Spartacus, isn't exactly known for its politics, but it definitely sneaks some in here.

Perhaps this film was simply out of its time - it seems almost made for home cinema. Watched on a big TV in at least two sittings, it works rather well as the sort of Roman soap opera that later TV series would do so well, but with all the advantages of a huge budget, so that we can actually see some of the central battles and other set-pieces. It's certainly not as over-long and dull, viewed in this way, as it's reputation suggests, even if it does drag a little towards the end, and seems to have more endings than The Return of the King. Recommended for long winter evenings.


  1. The rough cut that Mankiewicz screened for Zanuck and Fox executives was just under 6 hours in length. Mankiewicz wanted to release two films of about 3 hours in length each: Caesar And Cleopatra followed a year or so later by Antony And Cleopatra. But Zanuck was having none of that. Besides, the Fox publicity department wanted to cash in on the Taylor – Burton affair while it was still hot. They could not wait a year or more. So Mankiewicz cut his film again to a still epic 243 minutes. This is the version that premiered in New York on June 12, 1963. It was subsequently re-cut several times but has, thankfully been restored to the full 243-minute length. This is the version currently showing on the Fox Movie Channel. In fact, there is talk of finding the missing elements and restoring the film to Mankiewicz’s original 6-hour cut. So far a few minutes have been found, but this is a task that will take Fox many years to complete.

    Contrary to popular belief, the film did not bankrupt Fox, or even come close to doing so. Although the film did cost $44 million, Fox had taken out insurance on the production and received payments of over $13 million bringing net production costs down to $31 million. Still, despite being Fox’s highest grossing film of 1963 the studio did not make a profit on Cleopatra until 1966 when ABC paid the then hefty price of $5 million for the broadcast TV rights. As of 2005, Cleopatra has enjoyed a US Box Office take of $435 million (in 2005 adjusted dollars).

  2. I've never seen this one! Must find the dvd some day... Ben Hur was on tv I don't know how many times, but this never (at least to my knowledge, in a time/place I could have seen it)

  3. Agrippa was only a year or so older than Octavian, so Rome has it much more correct. He certainly couldn't be a grizzled old veteran considering he lived for another 20 years or thereabouts and was an active general for most of that time. Not to mention marrying Octavian's daughter and fathering at least one child.

  4. I've always liked the scene where Ceasr and Cleo discuss Catullus: - "He doesn't approve of you" "But I approve of him!" That always seems to me to capture the historical relationship between the two.

    This movie is, of course, the second time Mankiewicz had directed the assassination of Caesar, after Julius Caesar a decade before.

    Very few adaptations of the story ever give Octavia anything much to do. Many in fact drop her entirely. Others, like I Claudius gloss over her in favour of more interesting women. Rome is about the only thig I can think of that's actually interested in her.

  5. Great review. I haven't wanted to watch this for many reasons but your overview makes me lean toward it a little bit.

  6. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would!

    I have Agrippa's exact age written down somewhere, goodness knows where. He and Julia had at least 4 surviving children but then, Pavarotti fathered a child in his 60s so that doesn't mean much! I'm pretty sure he, Maecenas and Octavian should all be about the same age and met during their tertiary education though, so I think I'm right in thinking he should be substantially younger than Caesar.

    Poor Octavia does seem to get ignored most of the time - I vaguely remember her being slightly less annoying in the Shakespeare play, but not getting much more to do. And since those 10 years always get squished up, Antony's children by both her and Cleopatra tend to written out all together! I, Claudius took a mild interest in her, but I think she died fairly early on in that show (and offscreen).

  7. In the movie,who's Isis??

  8. I recently rewatched it (looks fantastic in the remastered version) and found a surprise Ensemble Darkhorse fave in Rufio. Poor guy deserves an award for putting up with everyone's bullshit. Also, I wish Antony listened to him. He's giving good advice, he's loyal, and Antony is a dick to him. I teared up when he died.


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