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Cleopatra

D: Joseph L. Mankiewicz / 248m

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Pamela Brown, George Cole, Hume Cronyn, Cesare Danova, Kenneth Haigh, Andrew Keir, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall, Robert Stephens, Francesca Annis, Isobel Cooley, Richard O’Sullivan

Cleopatra, the movie that nearly ruined Twentieth Century Fox, has been given the 4k restoration treatment, and was shown at London’s BFI IMAX cinema on 24 November 2015 as part of the BFI’s season of movies about Love. Watching the movie on such a huge screen – now the largest in Europe after the one in Spain burnt down – it’s even more incredible the amount of detail that can be seen in each frame, and how magnificently crazy the whole project must have been to make at the time. The grandeur, the size, the ambition – it all comes across in a movie where the massive budget is defiantly there on screen, and for all to see. In these days of overwhelming CGI, it’s sobering to realise that, some poorly processed inserts, some matte painting, and some modelwork aside, everything was built both to scale and to impress (and not to mention twice). And even after fifty-two years, whatever else you can say about Cleopatra, it’s still a movie that impresses.

It’s interesting to wonder what the movie would have been like under the stewardship of its original director, Rouben Mamoulian, and if the production had stuck to its proposed $2 million budget. Or if the original cast had stayed on board: Peter Finch as Caesar, Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony, and briefly, before Elizabeth Taylor was cast in the title role, Joan Collins. Alas, we’ll never know, but one thing we can be sure of is that we wouldn’t be talking about that version anywhere near as much as we talk about this one.

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The production was almost doomed from the start. Shooting began in London in 1960, but soon ran way over-budget thanks to the elaborate sets and costumes. After sixteen weeks, Mamoulian was fired; seven million dollars had yielded around ten minutes of footage – none of it usable. At the same time, Taylor, who was being paid an unprecedented $1 million, fell ill and had to have a tracheotomy (the scar can be seen in many of her scenes). Production was suspended while the studio worked out what to do next. They approached Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who agreed to write and direct; he had hopes of making the movie in two distinct parts, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Antony and Cleopatra. Each part would run three hours.

With the British weather hampering continued production, and Taylor’s recovery taking longer than expected – so much so that Finch and Boyd had to leave to honour prior commitments – the studio decided to relocate to Rome. Production resumed in 1961 with all the London sets being rebuilt (some would be built a third time), and Mankiewicz finding himself being pressured into providing a script that was being written each day for the next. As the production continued, it also continued to experience delays and problems due to the sheer size of the project. Filming in Rome was eventually completed in 1962, with the final leg of production taking place in Egypt.

Mankiwicz was unceremoniously fired by new studio head Darryl F. Zanuck during post-production, but he had to be re-hired when Zanuck realised that only Mankiewicz knew how all the footage fit together. Re-shoots were filmed in early 1963 – by Mankiewicz – but his early cut lasted six hours (in line with his idea of releasing two separate movies). Zanuck baulked at this, and decided to re-cut the movie himself. The result was the four hour version that was released in June 1963. The movie received mixed reviews, but was surprisingly a commercial success, becoming that year’s highest grossing earner at the box office. However, due to the spiralling costs of making the movie, over $31 million, it failed to make a profit, only breaking even in 1973.

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But what of the movie itself? Well, yes, it is bloated and arguably in need of some judicious editing, but it is a fascinating viewing experience, with so much to recommend it that it’s a shame it lacks an overall shape to hold all its various elements together. Mankiewicz was a writer who didn’t lack for a great turn of phrase – “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” was one of his, for All About Eve (1950) – and he doesn’t disappoint here, but amid all the declamatory, theatrical-sounding dialogue, there’s too much that sounds rooted in modern day psychology. Antony has a great speech after the disaster of the Battle of Actium that is an actor’s dream, but you have to wonder if Antony himself would have been quite so self-analytical. And Taylor has some of the most florid speeches about love you’re ever likely to hear.

The casting is one reason why the movie works as well as it does. Taylor and Burton, who famously began an affair during filming, transfer that newly-found passion to the screen in such a way that there’s no doubt that Antony and Cleopatra are bound together forever (even if he does marry Octavian’s sister – for political reasons, of course). Taylor gives one of her best performances, and Burton matches her for intensity, even though Mankiewicz’s script has him marked out as a self-pitying drunk for much of the time. As Caesar, Harrison is autocratic and ambitious, though a tad reliant on adopting a pedantic uncle approach to the character in his early scenes with Cleopatra.

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The supporting players are a mixed bunch but they’re spearheaded by a magnificent turn by McDowall as Caesar’s successor Octavian. His speech about Mark Antony’s death is worth the price of admission alone, and he makes the final hour all the more thrilling purely because he doesn’t look intimidating or savvy enough to be a match for Antony and Cleopatra put together. Danova is an intimidating presence as Cleopatra’s loyal servant Apollodorus, Keir is a growling, battle-hardened Agrippa, Cronyn is quietly authoritative as Cleopatra’s advisor Sisogenes, and Landau is Antony’s patient, loyal lieutenant, Rufio. All add lustre to the acting talent at the head of the cast, and add different textures through their performances that help lift the movie out of some occasional doldrums.

So, is it a good movie? Overall, yes it is. It’s clearly got its faults – the Battle of Actium, fought on water, suffers from having very little money spent on it – and some of the spectacle is there just because it can be, but it does have depth, and Mankiewicz is adept at navigating the political nuances of the era, making them accessible to the layman when necessary. In the director’s chair, Mankiewicz, along with DoP Leon Shamroy, creates a visual world for his cast to act in front of that feels both real and organic, and he keeps things moving with a great deal of style and purpose, which, considering the production’s problems, is a fantastic achievement. It’s never going to top any Top 10 Movies of All Time lists but it doesn’t have to. It’s a tribute to the folly of epic moviemaking, to studio perseverance in the face of an apparent disaster, and a monument to what can be achieved on a practical level when a production’s back is against the wall. Simply put, it’s a triumph over adversity.

Rating: 8/10 – much, much better than many people will tell you, and with a reputation for being bloated and unwieldy that just isn’t the case, Cleopatra is an event movie in more ways than one, and manages to achieve much of what it aspires to; with efforts being made to find the rest of Mankiewicz’s six-hour cut, let’s hope a fuller appreciation of this unfairly maligned movie will be available soon.

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