Victorious Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) pursues the defeated Pompey to Alexandria, where civil war is threatened between Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) and her brother, who are supposed to be harmonious joint rulers. Seduced by Cleopatra's allure, Caesar takes her for his lover and chooses her side of the matter. All would be settled, if it were not for the entrance of Marc Antony (Richard Burton) into the picture. Hours follow of engrossing court intrigue, romantic double crosses, barge seductions, and wars waged to appease the pride of spurned romance, all with the enigmatic Cleopatra at the center.
Cleopatra has existed mainly for its kitch value for going on 40 years. It's undeniable that a major part of its appeal is simply seeing the studio excess being doled out to honor and appease Elizabeth Taylor, one of the last of the classic stars from the Golden Studio Age, and also one of the most irrepressably spoiled. Stealing husbands cemented her image as a modern-day Cleopatra of Hollywood: unforgettably beautiful, and equally unopposable, like Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed. Once one gets over the spectacle of seeing Ms. Taylor appear quasi-nude, in revealing massage towels or diaphanous veils, the fact is Liz does a fine job with the character. The acting triumvirate is bolstered by a detailed and literate script, and should be commended for keeping things on the serious side. Rex Harrison does get away with a eunuch joke in the first half hour, however. The first half of the film does have more snap, just because Harrison's Caesar is a more interesting character than Burton's.
This was the height of popularity for both Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and there is definite chemistry onscreen between them that will please viewers who prefer to believe that soap operas are real. Several moments transcend the pagentry and the melodrama. Burton's playing is not embarassing or drunken, as sometimes reported. He does a creditable job of sustaining a brooding loss of nerve, in the film's somewhat overlong search for an ending.
The involved docu hypes the scale and enormous cost of Cleopatra, which in inflated dollars outspent Titanic by far. The docu itself is overlong, but has some fairly amazing outtakes, particularly of Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd in Rouben Mamoulian's aborted first try at filming Alexandria in rainy England. After this account of production started and stopped, directors replaced and filming resumed after Taylor's long illness, one would expect a mess as a result. The polished movie we see on screen reflects little or none of the reported strife. Given that it's an overblown epic where the stars are more important than the story, it succeeds in being very entertaining. The Oscar winning effects are very good (particularly some panning shots on paintings combined with live action that open the film), and the battles enormously mounted. After the underpopulated, cut-rate Gladiator, this epic looks like a real movie (Savant is not a fan of this year's Oscar contender).
The supporting cast is nigh perfect. Roddy McDowall, Pamela Brown ( of I Know Where I'm Going!,) Andrew Kier, Robert (Sherlock Holmes) Stephens, Martin Landau, Carroll O'Connor, Hume Cronyn - this is a classy stack of actors. Even the bit parts, if you check out the Cleopatra IMDB entry, have some pretty interesting surprises.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz spins a good story, but his direction is somewhat on the tame side, with too many static tableaus just sitting there instead of expressing much of anything. The weakest aspect of Cleopatra is this lack of visual helmsmanship. Too often the camera blocking is just wide masters and flat closeups. It was the style of the times, but the flat, bright lighting of practically every scene gets to be a bit much as well. Visual interest and depth effects seem to be handled more by color than by lighting itself; Egypt and Rome look to have been bathed in everpresent kleig lights. It's hard to find a shadow in the interiors - where's all that light coming from?
On DVD, this sumptous look is almost an asset - the picture practically pops off the screen, and with the extra detail of 16:9 enhancement, you can find yourself studying the tones of Taylor's skin or the perfect complexion of her face - the show looks that good. Fox has wisely put this four hour, eight minute monster on two discs, and it pays off with a good fat bit rate to keep the image from deteriorating. The third disc is chockfull of goodies for special edition fans: the new docu (to be shown on AMC for those of you disinclined to buy the disc), a featurette from the time of the film's release, premiere footage, commentaries by two Mankeiwicz' sons, Martin Landau and Jack Brodsky, and galleries of stills, design and costume concept art.
Savant remembers staring at a huge, tasteless color spread of Liz Taylor on the massage table in Look Magazine, all orange flesh and pouting lips. It was pretty educational to an eleven year old, wondering what such a woman would be like. Maybe Liz was simply too well-upholstered to approach the historical Cleopatra, but hers is the image that everyone remembers in the role, whether draped in Richard's arms or sitting atop a rolling cortege the size of the Lincoln Memorial. Cleopatra the Sensation has entered the culture as an unforgettable part of the '60s; Cleopatra the movie, in this lavish DVD presentation, is still a balancing act between good filmmaking and high kitsch.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Cleopatra: Five Star Collection rates:
Movie: Very Good (three disc set)
Supplements: Docu, featurette, commentaries, art and photo galleries
Packaging: Three disc oversize keep case
Reviewed: March 21, 2001