Some epics improve over the years, others wither on the vine; Fox’s 1963 “Cleopatra,” splendidly revived on DVD in its original theatrical version of 243 minutes (plus music), has curiously hung in limbo, with the same strengths and weaknesses as on first appearance.
For all its visual opulence, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s movie has size but little stature, and is two separate movies rather than a cohesive whole. Elevated by Rex Harrison’s commanding perf as Caesar but diminished by Richard Burton’s wimpy Antony, it starts as a Shavian exercise in political-sexual irony and gradually morphs into sappy melodrama.
Elizabeth Taylor, the titular lead, neither drives the drama nor fully engages in it. Seemingly uncertain how to pitch her perf, she ends up as a bodacious beachball tossed hither and yon by stronger supporting players.
Despite much well-turned dialogue by Mankiewicz, the real stars are John De Cuir’s clean-lined, early ’60s production design and Leon Shamroy’s brightly lit but untextured lensing, both of which were honored in the pic’s four Oscars (not five as the liner notes claim), all technical. Though a fine writer, Mankiewicz gave the movie little directorial energy or style, content to let the camera play conventionally on the actors, sets and costumes.
“Cleopatra” brought Fox to its knees only to eventually help revive its fortunes, but in sheer profligacy it made most other historical dramas look like B-features. Initially budgeted in 1959 as a $2 million backlot quickie, it had ballooned to over $40 million when shooting finally wrapped in early 1963. (The mighty “Ben-Hur” had cost a mere $15 million.) Between times, veteran director Rouben Mamoulian had blown $7 million on a 16-week shoot in the U.K. that was capsized by bad British weather and Taylor almost dying of pneumonia.
When Darryl F. Zanuck had returned to the Fox helm in summer ’62, he took one look at Mankiewicz’s 320-minute cut and ordered up a four-hour version (with reshoots), anxious to get the picture into theaters to capitalize on the Burton-Taylor headlines.
The whole story is meticulously recorded in Brent Zacky and Kevin Burns’ fascinating two-hour docu, “Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood,” a treasure trove for epic aficionados and the highlight of Fox’s three-disc DVD set. Extensive extracts (letterboxed, but mute) from Mamoulian’s footage are shown for the first time, with Peter Finch as Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Antony, as well as De Cuir’s sets, essentially smaller versions of the final result.
Reviving fascinating memories, both here and on the commentary track to the movie, are actor Martin Landau, Mankiewicz’s sons Tom and Chris (who worked as a.d.s), and Fox publicist Jack Brodsky. (Taylor herself does not, alas, contribute any commentary.) All rightly bemoan the loss of Mankiewicz’s original version; but Zanuck did finger the prime weakness of the picture — Burton’s Antony is simply not a strong enough character to carry the picture after the death of Harrison’s Caesar.
Main weakness of the docu, to be aired on AMC April 3, is its lack of historical perspective: No mention is made of earlier examples of Hollywood profligacy, nor of other butchered movies like “Greed.” One small factual slip is that Taylor was the first actress to sign for $1 million, not the first thesp (William Holden had nabbed the same amount for the 1957 “The Bridge on the River Kwai”).
CBS/Fox’s 1990 Laserdisc was good for its time but Fox’s new transfer leaves it in the dust, with bright, solid colors and pin-sharp detail that replicate the impact of the original 70mm prints. Visible image on a widescreen TV only slightly clips the original Todd-AO aspect ratio of 2.2:1, and the Dolby Digital soundtrack even manages to preserve the astringent clarity of the original magnetic sound.
Only with the extra music does Fox drop the ball. Surprisingly, the gorgeous Exit Music (included on the 1990 LD) is missing and, in a particularly boneheaded decision, the Entr’acte comes at the end of the first disc, under a distracting picture montage, rather than at the start of disc 2.