I Finally Watched: Cleopatra (1963)

by Mark Searby on 28/02/2013

cleopatra 1963

Cleopatra (1963) clocks in at a whopping 248 minutes. A running time that crawls to just over four hours doesn’t sound enjoyable these days, regardless of the film’s subject matter. Of course, an epic length is not the sole reason I have never seen this Hollywood epic.

History passed into legend with regards to the tale of Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), who married the Roman leader Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and then after his murder turned her affections second-in-command, Mark Anthony (Richard Burton). The political alliance displeased the Senate in Rome – led by Caesar’s nephew Octavian (Roddy McDowall), a man that set out to destroy this new relationship in a bid for succession to his uncle’s seat of power.

Cleopatra comes with such a huge reputation as both artistic folly and for the whirlwind romance between Taylor and Burton whilst making the film. Joseph Mankiewicz’s film nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox and had the temerity to flop spectacularly upon release. (It finally broke even ten years after release and that was down to a $5 million sale to US television).

The plot, twinned with that running time, might suggest a sluggish narrative but the film manages to keep all storylines perfectly in check and I never felt lost in amongst the colossal sets or characters. It’s testament to the skill and determination of Mankiewicz, who keeps his behemoth film moving at a good pace.

The first thing that hit me about Cleopatra was the size of the production – the sets are strikingly beautiful and of such great style that you can’t help but be amazed at the work that went them. All in the days before CGI rendered set design from a physical presence to a digital backdrop.

The Battle of Actium has possibly the largest boats ever used onscreen, all with different intricate designs to tell them all apart. It seems a tragedy in itself that a great many of them get destroyed – all for the camera to savour as spectacle. The most amazing set is Cleopatra’s palace – the gold dazzles and outside has huge statues that seem to touch the sky. Also her first entry into Rome, on a sphinx pulled by hundreds of slaves, is completely jaw-dropping, even on a standard-sized TV screen.

Cleopatra may look wonderful, but it would be nothing without its lead actors. Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar gives his character a certain pompous air. Richard Burton’s Mark Anthony is a man that slowly grows in stature throughout the first hour of the film until finally coming into his own. Elizabeth Taylor’s performance as Cleopatra is perhaps the show stopper. Her steely determination is so captivating that it has shades of a dominatrix – witness the scene when she first meets Julius Caesar and makes him almost beg to be associated with her. Taylor looks incredibly beautiful in countless outfits and oozes sex appeal. It’s very clear to see what made Burton fall for the British-born actress.

The word ‘epic’ is used too often these days, but Cleopatra truly deserves such a tag. Is it one of the greatest films ever made? I would say it is and the film’s reputation needs reappraisal. I’m pleased I finally watched it.

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