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CLEOPATRA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, Martin Landau
Director:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.0, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  248 Minutes
Release Date:  April 3, 2001

Film ***

“How strangely awake I feel…”

Cleopatra is a name that has become synonymous with extravagance, mismanagement and waste…so much so that its $44 million price tag (well over $270 million by today's standards) nearly sank the then struggling 20th Century Fox studios.  They went into the 1963 Cleopatra production conceiving it as an inexpensive remake of their popular silent classic starring Theda Bara.  What went wrong?

For starters, Elizabeth Taylor's incredible asking price of $1 million to star (the first time an actor's salary had reached that level)…by the film was finished, with its numerous delays and production problems, her overtime pay would bring her check to a staggering $7 million. 

There were location problems as well…Liz insisted in her contract that the movie be filmed abroad, and to fulfill that obligation, the production initially took up home in England.  Expensive sets were built, actors were cast, costumes were designed…but two insurmountable difficulties would force the film's relocation to Italy:  the incessant rain in England, and Liz's bout with pneumonia that almost took her life.  In the end, nearly a year was spent at the British location.  Millions had been spent by a studio who really couldn't afford it.  The end result?  Approximately ten minutes of useable footage.

By the time the production moved to Rome, significant casting changes had to be made:  the actors playing Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony had spent a year on the film, and now had other commitments.  Though this turned out to be even more of a strain finance-wise, much more prolific actors were given the roles:  Rex Harrison and Richard Burton respectively.  Burton proved a rich and viable talent with Liz on screen.  Off screen?  Well, the rest, as they say, was history.

Toward the end, Cleopatra had become a fiscal nightmare of garish proportions.  With all monies just about gone, director and co-writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz was forced to cut corners during the filming of some of the movie's critical battle scenes.  No other film was in production at Fox; therefore all studio expenses whether related or not had to be charged to the picture.  A five hour film was finally presented for release.  Mankiewicz thought that two picture could be made from their material instead of one:  Caesar and Cleopatra and Anthony and Cleopatra.  After all, both Shakespeare and Shaw told them as separate stories.  But newly restated studio head Daryl F. Zanuck felt they had to capitalize on the Taylor/Burton affair while it was the hot gossip talk of the day:  a final cut, at just over four hours in length, was at last released.

So much has been made about the behind-the-scenes spectacle of Cleopatra that over the years, people have tended to forget that the film didn't exactly buckle under the weight of it all.  It may have strained in some places, but it never collapsed.  Despite the excesses and problems, Mankiewicz offered up a superb and visually stunning achievement with Cleopatra, one that impresses and inspires awe even to this day.  It is said not all of the $44 million spent made it onto the screen, but one viewing will convince you that at least most of it did.

The sets and art direction are impeccably detailed, as are the costumes and lighting.  There are scenes of unequalled spectacle in the movie, from Anthony's ill-fated sea battle with Octavian (McDowall) to Cleopatra's triumphant entry into Rome, as memorable a sequence in film lore as the Odessa staircase one in Battleship Potemkin.  “Rome has never seen an entrance like this since Romulus and Remus,” one remarks…and it could be said that Rome hasn't seen an entrance like that since Elizabeth Taylor.

As Mankiewicz indicated, the picture does indeed play like two films.  Part one, on the first disc, is the story of Julius Caesar, who, fresh off of his victory over Pompey in the great Roman civil war turns his attention to the strife within Egypt.  Wanting a joint rule by siblings Ptolemy and Cleopatra, the beautiful queen proved too ambitious for her brother's taste, who in turn banished her from Alexandria.  Using her charm, her wits, and her undeniable sex appeal, Queen Cleo persuades Caesar to use his influence in putting her solely on the throne.  Eventually, her ambitions become his:  supposedly a Republic, she convinces him that he is beloved enough of Rome to ask for a coronation as emperor.  That ambition ended very badly for Caesar on the Ides of March.

His longtime companion Marc Anthony soon takes up where Caesar left off…in Cleopatra's bed.  The Roman empire is divided up between himself and Octavian, but when Anthony's loyalties are questioned by the citizens of Rome, another civil war brews.  This leads to the aforementioned sea battle, and the eventual dooms for both Anthony and Cleopatra.

As a political figure, Cleopatra is the stuff of legends.  Her ambitions, they say, altered the course of civilization by bringing irrefutable strife within the Roman empire.  Her beauty is equally legendary, as she seduced two of Rome's most powerful leaders, but died before she would accompany a third, Octavian, back into Rome.  It's no mistake that Elizabeth Taylor was needed for the role, even over the likes of Joan Collins or Audrey Hepburn, and even with such a price tag attached.  Fresh from her Oscar winning role in Butterfield 8, Liz's unparalleled looks brought the Egyptian queen to smoldering life on screen.

Even more impressive is Burton:  brash, bold and authoritative, he brings Anthony to life with all his braveries and fears, ambitions and apprehensions.  His chemistry with Liz was something very few actors shared, and it would repeat itself in later films like Taming of the Shrew and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 

The film is too long, to be sure…at least for a single night's setting.  If broken up over consecutive nights, treating them like the two separate pictures Mankiewicz had envisioned, it becomes much more palatable and easier to lose oneself in the movie (though the second part with Burton is, in my opinion, much stronger and more engrossing).

Despite the problems, Cleopatra serves as a landmark epic film when epic films were truly taken to extremes.  It's a dazzling, enthralling production with sumptuous visuals, savory performances, and a juicy back story to discuss long after the credits have rolled.  It may not be entertainment at its best, but certainly entertainment at its most complete.

Video ****

Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous!  Let it clearly be stated that Fox has officially raised the bar for pre-1970's movies on DVD.  From the opening moments, I found myself in a state of euphoria over how flawless the transfer looked, and I waited nervously for the inevitable breaking of the spell.  It never came…not once in the entire four hours.  Light scenes, dark scenes, it didn't matter.  The coloring and detail in every frame was superb, from the subtle shade differences within scenes to the flesh tones, to even the nighttime coloring.  The skies and waters were impeccably blue, the fields deep green with tiny but distinctive differences in tone, and the gold shimmered with spectacular flair.  The sharpness was incredible, as many scenes were constructed to lead your eye further and further back into the scene…nothing ever became soft or hazy or lacking in definition.  Low light scenes have remarkably equal strength, with no grain, shimmer or image breakup, and no murkiness to spoil the beauty of the images.  Even the print was remarkably clean…I would say no more marks or spots than you would see watching a DVD of any brand new release on disc.  Cleopatra marks the new apex of DVD quality for classic films.  Absolutely enthralling!

Audio ***

Though the box indicates 5.1 surround, this is actually a 5.0 mix (with standard 2 channel surround included).  It's a good listen, but the film shows its age a little more here, with occasional thinness to the audio.  Dialogue is crystal clear throughout, and Alex North's score is potent and forceful, and the 5.0 track definitely offers more openness and dynamic range than the 2 channel one.  Certain scenes, like the interior of Cleopatra's tomb, make good use of surround for word echo and reverberation.  Apart from that, there's not much in the way of noticeable distinctness from the rear stage.  This is still a quality listen for an older film, but not quite up to the superiority of the visual transfer.

Features ****

Fox outdoes themselves yet again with a remarkable three disc package.  Discs one and two contain the commentary track, which features Chris and Tom Mankiewicz, sons of Joseph L. and quite the experts on their father's work and style.  Also included are Martin Landau and Jack Brodsky.  The track is occasionally a little sparse, but still filled with good information.

Disc three's only problem comes in the form of packaging:  in order to include it, it comes in a little cardboard sleeve attached to the DVD booklet.  When I took it out, my fears were confirmed:  the disc was horribly scratched and presented some navigational difficulties as a result.  The content on disc three is superb, however, starting with one of the best movie documentaries I've ever seen on disc:  Cleopatra:  The Film That Changed Hollywood.  This two hour special is a terrific evening's entertainment in its own right:  filled with detail, gossip, information, behind-the-scenes stories and photos and unused footage, this film chronicles everything that truly was and has since come to be known about Cleopatra.  A second featurette is contemporary with the actual movie:  The Fourth Star of Cleopatra…also good, but not quite as much as the former.  There are numerous trailers, Movie Tone newsreels about the film's New York and Hollywood premieres, and a large stills gallery that includes photos and set and costume sketches.  All three discs also boast attractive and appropriate animated menus.

Summary:

Before there was Waterworld or Titanic, there was Cleopatra, still by modern standards the most expensive and arguably most troubled production in Hollywood history.  It's an overly long but still largely enthralling visual spectacle that manages to preserve the human drama amidst the most impressive sets, locations and costumes ever captured on film.  Classic movie fans should definitely give this three disc set a curiosity spin, if for no other reason than to see the most beautiful DVD transfer of a pre-1970's movie yet presented and the excellent features package.  Fox scores yet another unqualified triumph.