Almost everything depicted on screen in 'Cleopatra' happened behind the scenes as well - politics, sex, intrigue, adultery, ego, passionate outbursts, physical abuse, shameless excess, a suicide attempt, and an empire teetering on the brink of financial ruin. According to director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the 1963 version of 'Cleopatra' was "conceived in panic, shot in confusion, and wound up in blind chaos." And at upwards of $40 million, it was by far the most expensive movie ever produced to date. Legend has it the epic all but bankrupted 20th Century Fox and laid an elephantine egg at the box office, but truth be told, 'Cleopatra' was the year's top-grossing film, was nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Picture, and won four Oscars (for cinematography, art direction/set decoration, costume design, and visual effects [beating out Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds']). Although it didn't turn a profit until years later, the film instantly turned moviegoers' heads, and 50 years after its initial theatrical release, a titillating aura still swirls around 'Cleopatra,' seducing us like its tantalizing heroine.
Originally envisioned as two separate three-hour movies - one chronicling the Queen of Egypt's relationship with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and the other spotlighting her tempestuous romance with his right-hand man, Marc Antony (Richard Burton) - 'Cleopatra,' per studio edict, was ultimately "condensed" into one four-hour-and-six-minute film. (Its two halves are separated by an intermission.) Yet even at that "trimmed-down" length, it's still way too long (I recommend watching it over two nights), often plodding, and mired in pretentious dialogue. Such faults, however, don't diminish the impressive nature of Mankiewicz's grandiose production, which remains oddly fascinating and, at times, mesmerizing. Sumptuously shot, with dazzling costumes, museum-quality sets, and a ravishing leading lady, 'Cleopatra' is a sexy spectacle, but its beauty is not entirely skin deep. Solid performances and substantive themes lift this historical drama high above the garden variety sword-and-sandal epic. It ain't 'Ben-Hur,' but it's far from the debacle it's often purported to be.
Three different versions of 'Cleopatra' exist - there's the 246-minute cut, a 192-minute cut, and another somewhere in between. Luckily, the edition that's been restored - and appears on this Blu-ray release - is the longest one, which originally premiered in New York and Los Angeles, and was recently shown in theaters nationwide. (Film aficionados still hold out hope all six hours of original footage still exists somewhere in the world, but the likelihood of discovering it at this stage is rather slim.) Even more so than 'Ben-Hur,' this version of 'Cleopatra' favors intimacy over pageantry, with heated confrontations and romantic tête-a-têtes superseding big battle sequences. Mankiewicz, who co-wrote the screenplay (and won Oscars for such interpersonal dramas as 'A Letter to Three Wives' and the peerless 'All About Eve'), always favored matters of the heart and brain over physical action, and his cerebral approach to 'Cleopatra' was unique for the period. Though the language is plain English, there's a Shakespearean aroma to this film that often makes it feel stuffy and artificial. The trademark Mankiewicz wit is unfortunately in short supply here, and one can't help but rue its absence. A few more playful exchanges and pointed quips would certainly lighten the cumbersome feel of this epic and make it more accessible.
Starring Elizabeth Taylor and her ample cleavage, which is showcased to glorious distraction throughout the film, 'Cleopatra' is a tale of political skullduggery, illicit romance, personal manipulations, and ultimate despair. Mankiewicz's script respects the history and tries its best to honor it, but so many competing elements vie for our attention, it's often easier to focus on surface details, such as Taylor's outlandish outfits and thousands of boisterous extras, than the deeper issues of politics and power struggles that drive the story. Alliances between Rome and Egypt, and Caesar's blind ambition are small potatoes when compared to the breathless desire consuming Antony and Cleopatra, or their 'Romeo and Juliet'-like final farewells.
Of course, 'Cleopatra' is best known as the production that brought Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton together, igniting an affair so combustible it wrecked both their marriages, incited a charge of "erotic vagrancy" from the Pope, and was dubbed "le scandale" by a voracious international press hungry for every lascivious detail. Though it fueled the picture's publicity machine and undoubtedly increased its box office take, the liaison overshadows the finer aspects of 'Cleopatra.' Burton only appears in the film's first half for about five minutes, and maybe that's why I prefer it to the messier second act. While the mating dance and battle of wits between Taylor's Cleopatra and Harrison's Caesar is quite believable and entertaining, the film's latter portion unintentionally evolves into a Liz and Dick showcase. The palpable potency of the pair's chemistry lights up the screen, but all the off-screen subtext is somewhat distracting, at times making it difficult to concentrate on their characters instead of their real-life personas.
Though Taylor's two best parts remain Maggie in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' and Martha in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' (for which she won her second Best Actress Oscar), Cleopatra is without question her most famous - and notorious - role. Sadly, though, it's not her best work. In this case, though, beauty, sensuality, and style eclipse acting, and her captivating presence more than compensates for her largely one-note performance. Harkening back to a time when women had figures and curves were desirable, this Cleopatra is a male fantasy come true, and few actresses today could rival Taylor's sexiness in the part.
Harrison, who received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal, is appropriately regal, and Burton brings plenty of Welsh angst to his tortured and lovelorn Antony, while Roddy McDowell as Antony's rival, Octavian; Martin Landau as Antony's friend and ally, Ruffio; and Hume Cronyn as Cleopatra's tutor, Sosigenes, all provide excellent support. It's also a hoot to see the future Archie Bunker, Carroll O'Connor, don a toga and speak the queen's English as one of the Roman senators who conspire against Caesar.
As a spectacle, 'Cleopatra' ranks up there with Hollywood's best. The sets, costumes, pageantry, scope, cinematography, and meticulous attention to the smallest details make this four-hour epic an often thrilling and unforgettable cinematic experience. And though fine acting and a literate screenplay complement the film's stellar technical elements, an air of ennui hangs over the production that even the steamy passion of Taylor and Burton can't clear. Static direction, languid pacing, and a bit of self-indulgence knock 'Cleopatra' off her pedestal, but unlike the proverbial asp nibbling at her breast, they can't kill her. As long as movies exist, 'Cleopatra' will survive and continue to beguile generations of filmgoers, many of whom will be dazzled by her considerable charms.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50th anniversary edition of 'Cleopatra' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a glossy sleeve. (A digibook edition is also available, but was not sent for us to review.) The movie, which contains an intermission, is spread across two 50GB dual-layer discs. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Once known as the most beautiful woman in the world, Elizabeth Taylor deserves a breathtaking transfer for her most scandalous role, and she gets it with this stunning restoration of 'Cleopatra.' Fox pulls out all the stops in this vibrant 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering that features exceptional clarity, spectacular contrast, perfect color balance, and a sensual lushness that honors both the title character and the actress who portrays her. Nary a speck or errant scratch sully the pristine source material that looks as if it were minted yesterday, yet despite the slick appearance, the image maintains a warm, film-like feel that makes this larger-than-life epic accessible.
From the vividly illustrated opening credits to the expansive exteriors and intimate close-ups, this transfer brings 'Cleopatra' to brilliant life. The picture, shot in the Todd-AO format and featuring Oscar-winning cinematography by Leon Shamroy, is so sharp, individual faces in the massive crowd sequences are easy to discern. Details in the soldiers' breastplates, the intricate weavings of costumes, Cleopatra's heavily glittered eyelids, complex tapestry designs, and intricate wall etchings are all exquisitely precise. Despite the wide aspect ratio, depth remains palpable, allowing us to drink in the richness of Cleopatra's palace, the expanse of the battlefield, and the pageantry that accompanies Cleopatra's arrival in Rome. Inky black levels complement Cleopatra's raven-colored hair and cast a lovely sheen over nocturnal scenes. Shadow detail, however, is never compromised, and crush is never an issue.
Colors pop beautifully, from the deep reds of carpets and gowns to the lush azure blue of sky and sea, and from the bright gold of Cleopatra's headdress to the array of pastels that comprises much of the women's wardrobe. Though the palette is varied and bold, hues are never overplayed or over-pushed, so the image always flaunts a pleasing naturalness even in the face of staggering opulence. Fleshtones are spot on, too. Taylor's creamy complexion is often on full display, thanks to her revealing wardrobe, and it contrasts nicely with the ruddy skin tones of Burton and Harrison.
Close-ups are sparingly employed, despite the allure of Taylor's beauty, but they wield incredible impact. Facial features are well-defined, individual strands of hair are visible, and the craftsmanship of the jewelry and headdresses that often adorn Cleopatra is strikingly evident. In fact, the picture is so crisp, even in medium shot, it's easy to pick out Taylor's scar from the tracheotomy she was forced to undergo during her near-fatal bout with pneumonia in the very early days of shooting.
No banding, noise, pixilation, or other annoyances disrupt the presentation, and no enhancements, such as edge sharpening or noise reduction, rear their ugly heads. Say what you will about the content of 'Cleopatra,' but there's no denying this is one beautiful film starring a breathtakingly glamorous actress, and this exceptional transfer reverently honors them both.
'Cleopatra' comes equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, in addition to a compressed Dolby Digital 4.0 track. Unless you're a purist, the lossless option is preferable, and from the opening strains of the overture, it's immediately evident this is a high-quality effort distinguished by superior fidelity, subtle nuances, and marvelous tonal depth. Alex North's majestic, Oscar-nominated score has never sounded more full-bodied and robust, and the wide dynamic scale handles the blaring brass, soaring strings, and heavy percussion with ease. Not a hint of distortion creeps into the audio, even during the most cacophonous scenes, and no age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, or crackles, crop up either.
Surround activity isn't particularly pronounced, but crowd noise does penetrate the rear speakers, and the music score nicely fills the room. Solid stereo separation across the front channels adds some directional enhancement to the dialogue and widens the overall soundscape. Accents like footsteps and swordplay are crisp and distinct, and conversations are always properly prioritized and easy to comprehend, even when spoken in hushed tones. Not a lot of bass works its way into the proceedings, but what's there possesses good weight and blends into the audio fabric well.
'Cleopatra' isn't as bombastic as some epics, so it's soundtrack isn't very showy, but the presentation here is well modulated, clean, and smooth. And for a 50-year-old movie, you can't ask for much more.
A fine supplemental package, spread across both discs, significantly enhances the 'Cleopatra' experience.
Fifty years after its initial release, 'Cleopatra' remains a fascinating film specimen. Flawed, yet breathtakingly beautiful, this massive production is a stunning tribute to meticulous craftsmanship, epic vision, and grace under pressure. Hollywood moviemaking rarely gets any bigger than this, and though at times the story stalls and the speeches sound affected and self-important, 'Cleopatra' continually casts a seductive spell, immersing us in the opulence of ancient kingdoms, the passion of unrequited love, and the complex machinations of history. The on-screen fireworks between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton may not seem as explosive as their off-screen publicity, but their chemistry is palpable and Taylor's allure undeniable. 'Cleopatra' may not dazzle you with its story or performances, but it's definitely something to see, especially in the splendor of 1080p. Fox's restoration is fit for a queen, featuring impeccable video and robust audio, while the substantive supplemental package covers this spectacular production from almost every angle. Though 'Cleopatra' will continue to divide audiences and critics alike, no one can dispute the quality of this superior Blu-ray release, which comes highly recommended.