When one recalls the large-scale epic, there's a good chance the name Charlton Heston will pop into their head. Throughout the late 50s through the mid 60s, Heston was attached to some of the biggest epics of all time, most notable "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments." 1972's "Antony and Cleopatra" is perhaps the culmination of both Heston's association with the epic as well as the role of Marc Antony, one he had played on the big screen in 1950's "Julius Caesar" and the 1970 adaptation of the same name. It's no secret that Heston had great respect for Shakespeare both as an actor, artist, and fan. Living up to his large than life image, Heston chose to tackle not only playing Marc Antony for a third time, but also assuming the role of screenwriter and director, both for the first time in his career. In the end, "Antony and Cleopatra" is a flawed labor of love, that I would compare in many aspects to Shatner's "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," only much more classy.
The most refreshing revelation to come from "Antony and Cleopatra" is to find that the one director who could keep Heston's proclivities to overacting was Heston himself. The screen icon's great presence is felt every moment he is on screen, but choosing to cement the respect for the source material, Heston plays Antony as the complex character Shakespeare created. I'll confess to not having read the original play, so I can't speak for how well Heston adapted the material, but after browsing through some somewhat detailed plot summaries, it's apparent time and budget constraints forced a number of changes and abridgements, resulting in an often unevenly paced film. The film is structured around Antony's role in the rule of Rome following Julius Caesar's execution with Octavius (John Castle). Sidetracking this power play, Antony is tasked with handling the pirate Pompey (Freddie Jones) while pressures to marry Octavius' sister loom. Further complicating matters is the film's second titular character, Cleopatra (Hildegard Neil), a (no pun intended) snakelike manipulator of Antony.
Heston's direction takes a leisurely pace throughout the first two-thirds of the film and it's here where many viewers are likely to be lost. While I can't fault Heston's adaptation of the dialogue and the cast at large, who handle their roles quite well, the director shoots for the stars in terms of production design and falls very short. The film has the general look of a period epic, but the end product feels more than a little cheap and worst of all, Heston lacks the armies of extras that added so much life and spirit into the films of DeMille, Wyler, and Mann. It's a shame that such a noble effort is irrevocably hampered by an aspect the average moviegoer takes for granted until it isn't there. To make a long story short, when "Antony and Cleopatra" ventures to exterior locations or grand set pieces, it feels like a mildly classy B-film, not an emotion that should be attached to Shakespeare. Where Heston does succeed is on the small, personal level.
The film's final act is very much, small and personal and is easily the highlight of "Antony and Cleopatra" allowing both Heston and Neil to deliver deeply personal speeches and demonstrate the careful understandings of their characters. It's in these small moments that I made the odd connection to "Star Trek V," where Shatner (pun partially intended) shot for the stars and stumbled when it came to grander set pieces, but provided some magnificent, quiet character moments that are likely underrated by most fans of the series. Fortunately, the final act of "Antony and Cleopatra" is so strong and memorable that the ultimately lacking scenes of the Battle of Actium will fade from memory, as will Heston's odd attempts at being avant garde early in the film, most notably staging a key expository scene against the backdrop of two gladiators engaged in mortal combat. Heston amateurishly intercuts shots of Antony's rival in-between moments of violence, telling audiences something they can already pick up on due to the fine performances of the actors on screen.
Heston's role in the production for the film in the end, is a metaphor for the journey of Antony himself. Like Antony's blind passion for Cleopatra, so is Heston's blind passion for bringing the play to the big screen in a grand format. His "Antony and Cleopatra" is one-third near masterpiece set-up by two-thirds a lacking, exuberant set-up, consisting of long buildups to disappointing resolutions in the action department. It will never be confused for a definitive adaptation of the original play, nor a quality entry into the historical epic genre, but instead as a legend's blood, sweat, and tears to pay homage to another legend and personal hero.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is rough to say the least, with print damage being evident (in a minor but still noticeable way) and interior scenes holding up much better than exterior shots. There's quite a bit of noticeable grain/noise anytime the camera ventures outside the confines of a set and detail often drops a notch here too. Interior shots often look a little oversaturated in the color department, while detail is more in line with a catalog title of the same era.
The Dolby Digital English mono soundtrack often results in supporting character dialogue sounding a tad muffled, while the score and action packed sequences result in minor distortion. The soundtrack definitely doesn't portray an epic feel and worst of all, there's an audible hiss present at all times. I eventually tuned it out, but when a scene becomes deadly silent, I couldn't help but notice it yet again, a crushing disappointment from Warner to say the least. French subtitles and English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
The lone extra is a moderately interesting making-of-featurette that enlists filmmaker and son of Charlton Heston, Fraser Heston to share insights into this flawed but personal adaptation of Shakespeare's play.
The disc cover art sports a 2011 copyright date while the disc itself says 2005, so I suspect this might have originally been quickly rushed to production for release alongside the mega 4-disc release of "Ben-Hur" that same year, but shelved at the last minute. If that's true, it's a shame at least a minimal clean up of the picture (and audio) wasn't done, because this final product cheapens the look of an already lacking production.
I'd give "Antony and Cleopatra" a minor recommendation if it weren't for the shoddy technical presentation. Instead I can only recommend a rental, even for the most devoted Heston fan (who will probably buy this anyway). An A-level story of emotion trapped inside of a B-film. Rent It.