‘Cleopatra’ — Everything that could go wrong did go wrong
The spectacle is impressive, but the 1963 film’s troubles are just as evident
By Todd Hill
Train wrecks — no film studio has gone without them. From a distance, all runaway movies look more or less the same.
Production snafus multiply. Costs climb and then climb some more. Actors, screenwriters and directors — or some combination thereof — come and go. Release dates are repeatedly pushed back, and the critics begin to circle like sharks smelling blood. The films are proclaimed bombs before anyone has even seen them, which inevitably become self-fulfilling prophecies.
There are a few, select exceptions to this phenomenon. James Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997) showed every sign of being a train wreck, only to become one of the biggest motion pictures in Hollywood history, that rare blockbuster to rank as both a huge popular and critical success. We may never see the likes of it again.
Far more common is the trajectory shared by films like 1980’s “Heaven’s Gate,” “Ishtar” (1987) and “Waterworld” (1995). But if there is such a thing as a train wreck template, it stands to reason that it had to have been established by the biggest cinematic train wreck of all. That title has to belong to 1963’s “Cleopatra.”
The bulk of this essay will expound on what such a template looks like, courtesy of “Cleopatra,” but the question of whether revisionism is in order concerning this picture also has to be addressed.
The movie was the biggest hit of 1963, no doubt in large part because of the publicity generated by the love affair two of its stars — Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — embarked on during the shooting of the film. No doubt audiences wanted to see if their obvious chemistry was apparent on screen too. Perhaps it was apparent to the picture’s editors; it wasn’t to me.
Film critics of the time were mixed on “Cleopatra,” despite the fact that it had train wreck written all over it. Watching it today, particularly the terrific Blu-ray restoration that came out in 2013, it’s impossible not to be wowed by the spectacle of it all. Simply put, the movie looks great, and there’s quite a bit worth showing off. It’s easy to imagine the critics of 1963 coming away with a similar impression.
The negative reviews were penned by those who took the trouble to look beyond all the glitz at what was left of the film’s acting and narrative development. What they found was a motion picture that cost $44 million to make ($360 million in today’s dollars), making it the most expensive movie ever made. But while the ambition of the picture’s producers, directors and writers was impossible to miss, and perhaps easy to admire, it was this overwhelming ambition that became “Cleopatra’s” undoing.
Director Joseph L. Manciewicz, brought on after his predecessor Rouben Mamoulian was fired, had in mind two pictures, the first focused on the romantic relationship of Roman emperor Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison, who would go on to deliver the best performance of the movie) and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Taylor), while the second would dwell on the later love between Cleopatra and Mark Antony (Burton).
Twentieth Century Fox said no to two movies, but Manciewicz’s six-hour-long finished product was utterly unworkable if the studio wanted to make any money at the box office. Consequently, the movie that hit theaters was a little more than three hours long (the 2013 restoration crosses the four-hour mark). Fox kept in the spectacle, of course, it was determined to show how all its money was spent, but gone was much of the character motivation and necessary plot detail. The cuts serve to really do in the film, even at four hours.
Shortly after watching “Cleopatra” I read a detailed plot synopsis of the film, and was fairly shocked to learn that so much had happened in the picture. Despite sitting through it just hours earlier, I seemed to have missed quite a bit. Had I, or did it just not make much of an impression on me? I suspect the latter.
For the record, “Cleopatra’s” screenplay, adapted by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman from a book and several ancient histories, most notably that of Plutarch, hews fairly close to the facts, to the extent that we know them. There are political machinations aplenty, interminable discussions about the seizing and exercise of power, various Roman legions marching hither and yon, and late in the film a battle at sea from which Antony disgracefully slips away because he’s so infatuated with Cleopatra. The movie ends with a very “Romeo and Juliet” vibe as Antony, thinking Cleopatra dead, falls on his sword, while Cleopatra, after Antony dies in her arms, commits suicide via asp.
This is a motion picture with a making-of story that’s more interesting than anything that appears on screen, although an extended sequence focused on the arrival of Cleopatra and her son in Rome is certainly memorable, featuring as it does dozens of trumpeting soldiers astride white steeds, a portable sphinx that appears to be several stories high, and several very scantily clad dancers.
This scene, which cost $1 million to shoot, was shot in Rome, although the picture initially began production in London, where $7 million was spent over 16 weeks for just 10 minutes of footage, which ultimately wasn’t even used. As it turned out, the weather in London wasn’t appropriate for scenes set in what was supposed to look like Egypt (go figure). It was so chilly that the actors’ breath could be seen. The weather also made Taylor very ill, or so it was said, which brought the picture’s production to a halt.
That was in 1960. A year later, as work on “Cleopatra” began once again, in Rome, Taylor got sick once more, and more seriously this time, nearly dying. And again, production was shut down, costing Fox millions of additional dollars. For the record, Taylor would in the end make $7 million on the film, an astounding sum at the time for an actress, in addition to finding yet another new husband in Burton. But the heated mess that “Cleopatra” ultimately became should by no means be laid solely at Elizabeth Taylor’s feet.
Mankiewicz, who was more of a military general than a film director on this project (one scene included 7,000 extras), never managed to get ahead of the production, and routinely found himself writing the next day’s scenes at night following a full day of shooting. That’s rarely how great motion pictures come into being. Indeed, the further the film’s production skidded off the rails, the more money the studio just threw at it in hopes that would fix it, which only made the mistakes that were still to come that much more costly. “Cleopatra” became a snake (an asp?) eating its own tale.
Once you get past the scores of white-robed Roman senators (including Roddy McDowall and Carroll O’Connor) striding around stiffly with one hand resting on their chest and generally looking as pretentious as possible, “Cleopatra” features three high-profile performances on which the movie either sinks or swims.
Rex Harrison’s somewhat formal acting manner never varied much from film to film, but it suits his interpretation of Caesar fairly well here. In marked contrast is the naturalistic style of Richard Burton, which serves to render Mark Antony twice the man that Caesar is. But oddly, the movie — or more specifically, its ruthless editors — later diminishes Burton’s stature just as he should be making a greater impression.
And then there’s Liz. “Cleopatra’s” mess of a script forces Taylor to play angry for nearly the entire picture. When she should be seen seducing first Caesar and then Antony, she’s instead shown sniping at them for not being as ruthless and power-hungry as she is. Anyone who’s seen Taylor do anger opposite Burton in 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” knows that white-hot fury was very much in her wheelhouse. She seems overwhelmed in “Cleopatra,” but who wouldn’t be sharing a scene with 7,000 extras?
Taylor got one thing precisely right, however. After sitting through the movie at a premiere, the actress rendered her verdict. “It should have been about three large people, but it lacked reality and passion,” she said. “I found it vulgar.”
Ditto that. While film historians should be applauded for finding and appending an hour of discarded footage to “Cleopatra” a few years ago, the movie’s remaining two hours of footage appear to be lost for good. That may be just as well, as I for one certainly would prefer not to sit through this marathon motion picture again in my lifetime.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.