“Cleopatra” (1963) is a very good movie- in fact it’s basically two very good movies. When director Joseph L. Mankiewicz tried to convince the big-wigs at Twentieth Century Fox to split this into two separate films, he was probably on the right track. Epic doesn’t even begin to describe the overall production; in fact there isn’t a word that accurately describes the production of this film. That is why today, when a movie has a grandiose feel- or even when the making of a movie gets out of control, we instantly begin to compare it to “Cleopatra”.
So what went wrong, and why is this film regarded by many to be a waste of time? Is this really such a bad film, or is it just a long one? When you look- and I mean really look at this film, what is it that is so bad? When examining (or re-examining) “Cleopatra”, the first aspect that must be dissected is the story itself. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) his been victorious in his campaign over Pompey. Caesar pursues Pompey upon his retreat to Alexandria, where Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O’Sullivan) and his sister, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), are vying for the throne. Caesar, displeased that Ptolemy has had Pompey killed, ends up siding with Cleopatra and disposing of Ptolemy.
With the throne hers, Cleopatra sets her sights higher by producing a son and heir for Caesar, one who could rule absolutely, above all others. Of course, as virtually everyone knows, the Roman Senate, and even Brutus himself, cannot allow this to happen, and on the Ides of March, 44 B.C. Julius Caesar is murdered.
Caesar’s loyal friend, Marc Antony (Richard Burton), along with Caesar’s nephew, Octavian (Roddy McDowall), begin a campaign to destroy all those involved in Caesar’s death. After they are victorious in their righteous endeavor, the land is divided, but there is also bad blood between them, yet to be sorted out. Antony needs help and knows that Cleopatra could be his answer. Unlike the relationship between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra that seems to be mostly based on status and mutual gain, Antony and Cleopatra have an attraction and chemistry that blindly leads Antony against all reason and good judgment. His decisions become based on his desires, thus causing the downfall of himself, and his chance to be victorious again.
Well you can’t fault anyone on the story aspect of this film because it is about as intriguing as they come. It also happens to be one of the most accurate life to screen adaptations in memory, and we known how hard that is to do when Hollywood gets involved. “Cleopatra” isn’t filled with a bunch of fake scenes involving epic battles that didn’t really happen or subplots that never existed. This is what happened. These are the real events. With the exception of a few minor, mostly insignificant deviations, we are given the real story of the life and times of the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra.
So if there is nothing wrong with the story, what about the acting? Among the nine Academy Awards for which “Cleopatra” was nominated, only one was for acting, and that was a Best Actor nomination for Rex Harrison. Perhaps it was the heated, public affair of Burton and Taylor that caused their omission from the nominees that year, but I for one can’t believe that it was because their performances weren’t considered great. Burton’s ferocity as Antony shows off some of his best work in a role that is unlike many others in his career. His passion exudes from within, filling the screen with both emotion and heartache. Elizabeth Taylor plays the role of Cleopatra with a confidence and inspiration that few actresses have ever possessed. She is magnificent to behold, with the beauty and elegance of a queen, effortlessly combined with the sting of a femme fatale from a 1950’s film noir. The lack of nominations for both of these screen icons, is an unforgivable oversight, but as bad as their omission is here, they are not the only ones. Roddy McDowall gives a stellar performance as Octavian, and was also deserving of recognition, but due to an “oversight”, he too was denied a nomination. It seems (for some ridiculous reason) that McDowall was submitted as a contender in the Best Actor category, instead of the more obvious, and better suited Best Supporting Actor category.
“Cleopatra” did however secure other nominations and victories at the Academy Awards. It won four awards for Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. I don’t think any of these categories need defending, as each and every one (especially the costumes with 65 different ones for Cleopatra alone) are as near to perfection as it gets.
So I ask again, why is this not a great film? I have come to the conclusion (despite my previous claims) that it is a great film. Sure you can point out that the production was plagued with problems, both physical and financial. Yes, it lost money and nearly destroyed one of the most prolific movie studios in the world, but I for one refuse to judge (or at least try not to judge) a film by anything more than what I see on the screen, and I can find very little to complain about while watching “Cleopatra”.
So then we have finally arrived at the topic that people most like to discuss: the film’s running time. Yes, 248 minutes makes for a long movie. I see no need to argue that there aren’t scenes that could be deleted, or areas that could be trimmed. As I said at the beginning of my ramblings, this would have made two excellent movies. What it comes down to is that if you tried to take out enough of the story to cut the film down to 170 or even 190 minutes, it would appear (and rightfully so) thrown together and incoherent. The story needs these scenes and dialogue, it needs the slow-paced story to increase the drama and intensity. What is doesn’t need are long, drawn out battles sequences every thirty minutes, because those (quite honestly) aren’t important to this particular story on any level, which is why they were left out, thus opening countless arguments that “Cleopatra” is boring. This is not just an epic, it’s a romantic epic that is reliant on the dialogue carefully written and performed, and the passion that is expressed between the films stars. Nothing else is needed.
If someone doesn’t want to sit through 248 minutes of romance, betrayal and drama, then obviously this is not the film for them, but to write off “Cleopatra” simply because, “It’s too long,” is unfair and a mistake. Sometimes being patient does pay off in the end. Besides, if you don’t like sports movies, you don’t watch them, right? If you find gangster movies to be too violent, you avoid them. So if you know that long movies aren’t your thing- just know to keep your distance on this one.