Cleopatra is not only a supercolossal eye-filler (the unprecedented budget shows in the physical opulence throughout), but it is also a remarkably literate cinematic recreation of an historic epoch.
Director and co-author Joseph L. Mankiewicz and producer Walter Wanger’s most stunning achievement is that they have managed to tell a story of such scope and complexity in such comparatively brief terms. The film covers the 18 turbulent years leading to the foundation of the Roman Empire, from Cleopatra’s first meeting with Julius Caesar until her death in defeat with Mark Antony. The result is a giant panorama, unequalled in the splendor of its spectacle scenes and, at the same time, surprisingly acute in its more personal story.
This is due not only to the quality and focus of the screenplay, but to the talents of the three leading players. In the title role, one of the most difficult ever written, Elizabeth Taylor is a woman of continuous fascination. Though not fully at ease as the child-queen of the film’s first part, she grows as the story progresses to become the mature queen who matches the star’s own voluptuous assurance.
Rex Harrison is superb as Caesar, shrewd, vain and wise, formed somewhat in the image of the G.B. Shaw conception, but also unexpectedly ruthless and ambitious. His are the film’s most brilliant lines, and something is lost with his assassination, which closes the film’s first half.
Richard Burton then comes to the fore in the second half. Oddly he does not seem the romantic figure expected and plot-implied, partly perhaps because as a lover he is visibly overweight. The role is of a man of military competence consumed by envy of Caesar’s genius and exposed in the end as self-pitying and drunken by the demands of Cleopatra’s needs for a man in a larger sense than boudoir. Ironically some of the weakest moments in the film are the love scenes between Liz and Dickie.
Happily, however, the film sweeps along with a very real sense of time and place, building to a climax that is one of inevitable, tragic relief. Responsible to no little extent is the quality of the ‘big’ scenes – Cleopatra’s triumphant entry into Rome, a dazzling display of color and sound and ancient pageantry; the grandeur of Cleopatra’s barge, sailing into Tarsus; the crucial Battle of Actium, recreated on a scale perhaps unmatched in any spectacle.
The long windup of the story has Cleopatra taking longer to die than Camille. That Fox may still excise more footage is likely, and the second half is the place to do it. [The film was cut by 21 minutes very early in its New York run. No scenes were eliminated in their entirety, but cuts were made to shorten scenes and bridges.]
The real star of Cleopatra, however, is Mankiewicz, who brought order out of what had been production chaos. As Caesar observes to Cleopatra, early on: ‘You have a way of mixing politics and passion’. So does Mankiewicz.
1963: Best Color Cinematography, Color Art Direction, Special Effects, Color Costume Design.
Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Rex Harrison), Editing, Original Music Score