A legend of Hollywood, the 1963 production of Cleopatra has so much curiosity surrounding it I hardly know where to start. It was budgeted at $2 million and eventually cost (up to) $44 million to produce -- close to $300 million in today's dollars. Liz Taylor almost died during the filming and was given a tracheotomy to keep her alive. The production was forced to move from Rome to London and back to Rome again. Two of its stars fell in love (Taylor and Burton) on the set, ruining both of their marriages. 20th Century Fox essentially went bankrupt, leading to the ousting of its chief. The first director was fired after burning $7 million with nothing to show for it. The second director (Mankiewicz) was fired during editing, only to be rehired when no one else could finish the picture. Taylor threw up the first time she saw the finished product. Producer Walter Wanger never worked in Hollywood again. And the original six-hour epic was cut to a little over three.
The first American cut -- a bit over four hours -- is finally released on DVD, an exhaustive three-disc set that provides as much information about the movie as you could possibly want... at least until they unearth the rest of those hours of footage for an eventual Ultimate Edition of Cleopatra, I'm sure.
But enough of the gossip -- the movie itself is hardly the best film ever made. Its first half, tracing Cleopatra's dealings with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison), dealings which ultimately lead to his downfall, is a great bit of cinema. It's a tight 1:50 and tells a powerful tale of greed for power and duplicity in politics. On the famed Ides of March, Caesar gets his comeuppance, and Mark Antony (Richart Burton) becomes the focus of the film. His love affair with Cleo is a sick monstrosity, an inexplicable mess of gluttony and gaudiness that would make Tammy Faye Baker look underdressed amidst its splendor. Part II of Cleopatra is best left unseen, frankly, and even though the return of Cleopatra to Rome in a monumental procession is one of the centerpieces of grandiose filmmaking, there's just no story being told, at least not one worth watching. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that most of the movie was shot without a real script by a director receiving daily injections just to keep on working.... Better yet to skip over all this nonsense and head straight to Octavian's rule in I, Claudius.
Cleopatra ruined so many careers it's amazing that it's still remembered mostly fondly by Hollywood insiders and movie fans. The two-hour documentary (produced in 2000) included on disc three of the DVD is actually far better than the actual film, laying out every gory detail of Cleopatra's reign. It's asp-tastic.
Box Office Worldwide: $57M
Production compaines: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, MCL Films S.A., Walwa Films S.A.
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Producer: Walter Wanger
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Richard Burton as Marcus Antonius, Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar, Roddy McDowall as Octavian - Caesar Augustus, Martin Landau as Rufio, Hume Cronyn as Sosigenes, Andrew Keir as Agrippa, Kenneth Haigh as Brutus, George Cole as Flavius, Pamela Brown as High Priestess, Francesca Annis as Eiras, Grégoire Aslan as Pothinus (as Gregoire Aslan), John Doucette as Achillas, Michael Hordern as Cicero, John Hoyt as Cassius, Carroll O'Connor as Casca, Andrew Faulds as Canidius, Michael Gwynn as Cimber, Peter Grant as Palace Guard (uncredited), Michael Hordern as Cicero, John Hoyt as Cassius, Marne Maitland as Euphranor, Carroll O'Connor as Casca, Richard O'Sullivan as Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII, Gwen Watford as Calpurnia, Douglas Wilmer as Decimus