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We love movies and television shows as much as the next person, but we drop everything whenever we come across something regarding Ancient Rome. For better or worse, we are going to watch it all so we have a reference for future reviews.
This American made film chronicles the struggles of Cleopatra VII, the young Queen of Egypt, to resist the imperial ambitions of Rome. It was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and co-stars Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, and Martin Landau.
After the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, where Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has defeated Pompey the Great in a brutal civil war for control of the Roman Republic, Pompey flees to Egypt, hoping to enlist the support of the young Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O’Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). Caesar follows Pompey to Egypt, under the pretext of being named the executor of the will of their father, Ptolemy XII.
Much to his dismay, Caesar is given Pompey’s head as a gift. The highly manipulated pharaoh was convinced by his chief eunuch Pothinus (Gregoire Aslan) that this act would endear him to Caesar, but it did exactly the opposite.
As Caesar stays in one of the palaces, a slave named Apollodorus (Cesare Danova) brings him a gift. When the suspicious Caesar unrolls the rug, he finds Cleopatra herself concealed within.
The older Roman is intrigued with the young Egyptian’s beauty and warm personality, and Cleopatra convinces Caesar to restore her throne from her younger brother. Soon after, the young pharaoh has surrounded the palace with Caesar and his soldiers vastly outnumbered.
Counterattacking, Caesar orders the Egyptian fleet burned so he can gain control of the harbor. The fire quickly spreads from the harbor to the city, thus destroying the famous Library of Alexandria.
Cleopatra angrily confronts Caesar, but he refuses to pull troops away from the fight with Ptolemy’s forces to quell the fire. In the middle of their spat, Caesar forcefully kisses her.
The Romans hold, and the armies of Mithridates arrive on Egyptian soil, causing Ptolemy’s offensive to collapse. The following day, Caesar is in effective control of the kingdom and Cleopatra is crowned Queen of Egypt.
For arranging an assassination attempt on Cleopatra, Caesar banishes Ptolemy to the eastern desert. This is essentially a death sentence for Ptolemy since he and his outnumbered army would face certain death against Mithridates in the desert.
Cleopatra begins to develop megalomaniacal dreams of ruling the world with Caesar, who in turn desires to become King of Rome. They marry, and when their son Caesarion is born, Caesar accepts him publicly, which becomes the talk of Rome and the Senate.
After he is made Dictator for Life, Caesar sends for Cleopatra. She arrives in Rome in a lavish procession and wins the adulation of the Roman people.
Lepidus receives Africa, Octavian gets Spain and Gaul, while Mark Antony (Richard Burton) will take control of the eastern provinces. However, the rivalry between Octavian and Antony is becoming apparent.
Cleopatra is angered after Caesar’s will recognizes his adopted son Octavian (Roddy McDowall) instead of Caesarion as his official heir, and angrily returns to Egypt.
While planning a campaign against Parthia in the east, Antony realizes he needs money and supplies, and cannot get enough from anywhere but Egypt. After refusing several times to leave Egypt, Cleopatra gives in and meets him in Tarsus.
Antony becomes drunk during a lavish feast, while Cleopatra sneaks away. The war is decided at the naval Battle of Actium on 2 September 31 BC where Octavian’s fleet, under the command of Agrippa, defeats the Antony-Egyptian fleet.
Cleopatra assumes he is dead and orders the Egyptian forces home. Antony follows, leaving his fleet leaderless and soon defeated.
Several months later, Cleopatra manages to convince Antony to retake command of his troops and fight Octavian’s advancing forces. However, Antony’s soldiers have lost faith in him and abandon him during the night.
Rufio (Martin Landau), the last man loyal to Antony, kills himself because of the odds turning in favor of Octavian. Antony tries to goad Octavian into single combat, but is finally forced to flee into the city.
Octavian and his army march into Alexandria with Caesarion’s dead body in a wagon. Octavian has taken Caesarion’s ring, which his mother gave him earlier as a parting gift when she sent him to safety.
When Antony returns to the palace, Apollodorus, not believing that Antony is worthy of his queen, convinces him that she is dead, whereupon Antony falls on his own sword. Apollodorus then confesses that he misled Antony and assists him to the tomb where Cleopatra and 2 servants have taken refuge.
Octavian seizes the palace and discovers the dead body of Apollodorus, who had poisoned himself. Octavian receives word that Antony is dead and Cleopatra is holed up in a tomb.
After some verbal sparring Octavian promises Cleopatra that her life will be spared, her possessions returned, and she will be allowed to rule Egypt as a Roman province in return for her agreeing to accompany him to Rome. Cleopatra then observes Caesarion’s ring on Octavian’s hand and knows her son is dead.
Believing that Octavian’s word is without value, Cleopatra agrees to Octavian’s terms sworn on the life of her dead son. After Octavian departs, she orders her servants in coded language to assist with her suicide.
She sends her servant Charmion to give Octavian a letter. In the letter she asks to be buried with Antony.
Octavian realizes that Cleopatra is going to kill herself and bursts into her chamber with his guards. Alas they are too late finding an ornately dressed Cleopatra already dead, along with her servant Eiras, while an asp crawls along the floor.
Charmion is found kneeling next to the altar on which Cleopatra is lying, and is confronted by Agrippa. She replies and then falls dead as Agrippa watches.
Cleopatra achieved notoriety during its production for its massive cost overruns and production troubles. Some troubles included changes in Director and cast, a change of filming locale (abandoning shoot in London to start again in Rome), sets that had to be constructed twice, lack of a firm shooting script, and personal scandal around its co-stars.
It received mixed reviews from critics, although critics and audiences alike generally praised Taylor and Burton’s performances. It was the highest grossing film of 1963, earning $26 million US ($57.7 million total; equivalent to $445.98 million in 2016), yet made a loss due to its production and marketing costs of $44 million (equivalent to $340.09 million in 2016).
This fact makes Cleopatra the only film ever to be the highest grossing film of the year yet to run at a loss. Cleopatra won 4 Academy Awards, and was nominated for 5 more, including Best Picture (which it lost to Tom Jones).
Taylor became very ill during the early filming and was rushed to hospital, where a tracheotomy had to be performed to save her life. The resulting scar can be seen in some shots.
All of this resulted in the film being shut down. The production was moved to Rome after 6 months as the English weather proved detrimental to her recovery, as well as being responsible for the constant deterioration of the costly sets and exotic plants required for the production.
During filming, Taylor met Richard Burton and the pair began an adulterous affair , which made headlines worldwide since both were married to others. Moral outrage over the scandal brought bad publicity to an already troubled production.
The original cut of the film screened for the studio was 6 hours long, but was cut to 4 hours for its initial premiere. The film was cut once more to just barely over 3 hours, to allow theaters to increase the number of showings per day and hopefully turn a profit.
As a result certain details are left out of the film, such as Rufio’s death and the recurring theme of Cleopatra’s interaction with the gods of Egypt. An unsuccessful attempt was made to convince the studio to split the film into 2 separate films, Caesar and Cleopatra followed by Antony and Cleopatra, in order to preserve the original cut.
The studio wanted to capitalize on the publicity of the intense press coverage the Taylor-Burton romance was generating, and felt that pushing Antony and Cleopatra to a later release date was too risky. The film has been released to home video formats in its 248-minute premiere version, and efforts are still under way to locate the missing footage (some of which has been recovered).
The music of Cleopatra was scored by Alex North. It was released several times, first as an original album, and later versions were extended. The most popular of these was the Deluxe Edition or 2001 Varèse Sarabande album.
American film critic Emanuel Levy said, “Much maligned for various reasons, […] Cleopatra may be the most expensive movie ever made, but certainly not the worst, just a verbose, muddled affair that is not even entertaining as a star vehicle for Taylor and Burton.”
Even Elizabeth Taylor found it wanting. She had said, “They had cut out the heart, the essence, the motivations, the very core, and tacked on all those battle scenes. It should have been about three large people, but it lacked reality and passion. I found it vulgar.”
Positive reactions came from such publications as American entertainment-trade magazine Variety, who wrote, “Cleopatra is not only a supercolossal eye-filler (the unprecedented budget shows in the physical opulence throughout), but it is also a remarkably literate cinematic recreation of an historic epoch.”
The film was shown as part of the Cannes Classics section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, to commemorate its 50th Anniversary. The film was later released as a 50th Anniversary version available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Unfortunately Fox had long ago destroyed all of the trims and outs from negatives to save costs years before, preventing the release of traditional outtakes. The home media packages did include commentary tracks and two short films “The Cleopatra Papers” and a 1963 film about the elaborate sets “The Fourth Star of Cleopatra”.
Overall, the film is fairly accurate to what was known of the story back in 1963. After watching the 243-minute version on Netflix, we would say the film is a production worth seeing at least once (maybe with an intermission or 2).
We thank you for stopping by today and hope you will give the feature film about these captivating real-life characters a chance. Check us out again soon to see what we have in store for you.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Atkinson, Nathalie. “Queen of the Nile: Inside 20th Century Fox’s restoration of Cleopatra”. National Post, 21 May 2013.
Burns, Kevin; Zacky, Brent. “Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood.” American Movie Classics. 3 April 2001. Television.
Hall, Sheldon; Neale, Stephen. Epics, spectacles, and blockbusters: a Hollywood history. Wayne State University Press, 2010.
Patterson, John. “Cleopatra, the film that killed off big-budget epics”. The Guardian, 15 July 2013.
“Cleopatra (1963)”. The New York Times.
“Cleopatra”. Rotten Tomatoes.