Apart from this movie being recommended to me by a co-worker who’s got a very similar taste in movies to me, I came into this movie almost completely blind. Not only have I never seen this movie before, but I don’t know much about Cleopatra other than the fact that she ruled Egypt towards the end of the Egyptian Empire, and that it’s said that she committed suicide via. a poisonous snake.
The production behind 1963’s Cleopatra actually faced numerous difficulties and delays that are just too fascinating not to explore. Just like The Ten Commandments was director Cecil B. DeMille’s last film, Cleopatra is producer Walter Wanger’s last film. His career went back to the early days of cinema, working as a producer through the 1910’s and 20’s. He long wanted to produce a film about Cleopatra, having first read about the Egyptian Queen in college, but only decided to start working on it after seeing Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951). Of course, getting the film started got delayed after he shot his wife’s agent, believing they were having an affair. That led to a 4-month sentence in prison. These difficulties led to the movie’s record breaking budget of $31 million, a record it held until 1978’s Superman.
Wanger first pitched it to RKO Pictures (the original distributer behind Disney movies) in 1958, but they declined. Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox found themselves in financial trouble after three of their movies bombed, all in 1958. The Barbarian and the Geisha, A Certain Smile, and The Roots of Heaven to be specific. They decided that they needed a big picture to reverse the studio’s fortunes. One of their executives suggested a remake of 1917’s Cleopatra, which was very controversial upon its original release, and even judged too obscene to be shown after the Motion Picture Production Code came into play. That film is considered to be lost since, the last known prints destroyed in a studio fire in 1937, and only brief fragments are known to survive.
In the fall of 1958, Wanger entered an agreement with 20th Century Fox, with four pitched movies. They accepted three of them, the first would be Cleopatra. Wanger then purchased the screen rights to Carlo Marlo Franzero’s biography, The Life and Times of Cleopatra. They also bought the original script for the 1917 version, believing it only needed minor rewrites, although most of the script contained instructions for camera setup. Multiple writers were hired to write different versions of the scripts, eventually landing on a script co-written by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman. Alfred Hitchcock was approached to direct the film, but he declined. Rouben Mamoulian then signed on as the director.
Although Taylor had already been contacted about the role, Fox was hoping for a relatively cheap production of $2 million, with one of Fox’s contract actresses in the lead role. Wanger instead envisioned a much grander scale. Eventually, Taylor agreed to a then record setting $1 million, plus 10% of the profits. Her contract also specified that the film would be shot in Europe, and in the Todd-AO format, developed by her late husband. He specifically set it up so that she’d get royalties from that format, which would earn her even more money on top of the profit shares. On that note, of the eight husbands she had, he was the only one she didn’t divorce.
At first, most of the filming would take place in London, with early construction of the Alexandria exteriors already underway before they chose every location. Several complications arose early on, including the 1960 Summer Olympics potentially interfering with some of the film locations in Rome. There was also a recently released foreign language film about Cleopatra, which the studio paid money to in order to prevent an American release. Then one of the executive producers died of cancer. Taylor brought in her personal hair stylist, which led to the British hairdressers’ union threatening to leave production on September 20, 1960, the first day of filming. On one day when they filmed in 40 degrees Celsius, Taylor felt sick. She was unable to film for two weeks, so they had to focus on scenes without Cleopatra. This cold progressed into a lingering fever, and she was eventually diagnosed with meningitis. This postponed shooting at least until Taylor’s health recovered. In the middle of that pause, they rewrote the script again, focusing mainly on the first half and Cleopatra’s relationship with Julius Caesar, similar to DeMille’s Cleopatra from 1934.
Neither Mamoulian nor Taylor liked the new script, so they hired Paddy Chayefsky to write yet another version. In the meantime, the film had been shooting for 16 weeks and already cots $7 million, yet the crew only produced 10 minutes of film. That’s expensive even by today’s standards. After 20th Century Fox blamed the director for exceeding the movie’s budget, he resigned. Taylor than announced she would either approve George Stevens or Joseph L. Mankiewicz, both of which she’d worked with before. Mankiewicz first declined, but later agreed so long as he could also be involved in writing the new script.
They planned to resume filing on April 4, 1961, but after Taylor was hospitalized again for pneumonia, the film got delayed again. She even needed a tracheotomy to recover, and one news agency mistakenly reported that she died. The production was then suspended, and the sets were dismantled at the cost of $600,000. The original actors for Mark Antony and Julius Caesar soon left the production, forcing a recasting. After an extensive search, Richard Burton joined the cast as Mark Antony, while Rex Harriston joined as Julius Caesar. Filming finally continued in September of 1961.
Taylor and Burton filmed their first scene together in January of 1962, and news of an affair between them soon emerged. Since they were both already married to others at the time, this brought bad publicity to the already problematic production. They would later marry each other, and divorce each other, twice, with a total marriage time of 11 years, her longest relationship. Most of the production finished by late May, yet the remaining sequences were not small by any means. They still needed to film the Battle of Pharsalus, Cleopatra’s arrival in Tarsus, and Mark Antony’s confrontation with Octavian’s legions. Some of these were shot in Egypt.
Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox reported financial losses for the year of 1961, and they blamed Cleopatra’s troubled production for their losses. They threatened to halt production, cut Taylor’s salary and fire Wanger, which led to further disputes. They also cancelled Marilyn Monroe’s Something’s Got to Give film, rendering the film unfinished. Monroe died before they could even decide to finish the film, leading to a complete redo the next year. Cleopatra’s production rushed to finish what they could with the agreed extension to Taylor’s shooting days, finishing her time on set with her arrival scene. Three days later, then studio president Spyros Skouras resigned.
The post production wasn’t easy either. The editorial team was left with 120 miles of film footage. They prepared a rough cut that ran 5 hours and 20 minutes, hoping to release it in two separate installments. Multiple editing groups jumped on, and then quit, as the studio demanded a single film release. Mankiewicz was even briefly fired as the director, before they brought him back in to help with the final edit. In February of 1963, several members of the cast, along with 1,500 extras, were called back to reshoot the Battle of Pharsalus, and eight new scenes were filmed with Burton, finally finishing the filming on March 5.
The film ended up earning $40.3 million worldwide upon its initial theatrical run, which actually left it $3 million short of making a profit off its $31.1 million budget. They made up for that loss when they sold the television broadcast rights that year for $5 million, which was then a record for a single film. Later re-releases brought the theatrical earnings to just short of $60 million domestically.
The critical reception was all over the place. The New York Times called it “one of the greatest epic films of our day”. The Los Angeles Times review said of the movie, it’s “a surprisingly beautiful film and a drama that need not hide its literate, intelligent face.” Variety’s review wrote that Cleopatra is “Not only a supercollossal eye-filler, but is also a remarkably literate cinematic recreation of an historic epoch.” Time Magazine on the other hand was fairly harsh, saying “As a drama and as cinema, Cleopatra is riddled with flaws. It lacks style both in image and in action.” The Hollywood Reporter was a bit gentler, stating “Cleopatra is not a great movie. But it is primarily a vast, popular entertainment that sidesteps total greatness for broader appeal.” The Chicago Tribune called the movie a “huge and disappointing film.” That review praised Harriston’s portrayal of Caesar and Burton’s Mark Antony, but said “all of it is focused on Elizabeth Taylor, hopelessly out of her depth as a fishwife Cleopatra.”
As for myself, I went into this movie blind. Overall, I think this movie is pretty good, but a bit too long for its own good at times. It’s clearly ambitious, with large sets, a wide variety of costumes for Cleopatra (many of which look expensive), and a grand scope of a story. In fact, Taylor set the record for most costume changes in a single film at 65, a record that was later beat by Julia Andrews in 1968 in the film Star!, with 125. The most impressive sequences involve either Cleopatra showing off her wealth to Rome, Octavian (the first emperor of Rome) addressing his armies, or the naval Battle of Actium. That said, outside of the lavish costume designs for the Egyptians, and the very impressive set design, none of the crowd scenes were more impressive than what we saw in The Ten Commandments, nor was the naval battle as impressive as the battle in Ben-Hur.
The acting is very good overall. No further comment needed. Where this movie suffers the most is in the pacing after the Battle of Actium. We already know that both Mark Antony and Cleopatra are to die, but the movie really drags on at this point, spending too much time on political offers, deception, and melodramatic speeches. There are other moments where the movie feels a bit too long for its own good. Keep in mind I watched the original 4-hour version that’s the most available version now, but the TV broadcast is generally just over 3 hours, and there is a German VHS release at exactly 3 hours. I’m not going to hunt those versions down, but I’m mildly curious about what they cut out.
I cannot comment on the overall historical accuracy of the film, but when I briefly looked up some of the battles and events in the film, it does appear to be fairly accurate. There are conflicting reports as to whether Cleopatra committed suicide, or if she was ordered executed. Also, a lot of the costumes and hairstyles were more based on 1960’s fashion than they were Ancient Egyptian.
Cleopatra ended up nominated for 9 Academy Awards, winning 4. It won for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Special Effects. It received the nomination for Best Picture, Best Film Editing, Best Music Score (Alex North composed the soundtrack), and Best Sound. Rex Harrington received a nomination for Best Actor for his role as Julius Caesar. The movie originally earned a second nomination for acting, for Roddy McDowall’s performance as Octavian, but a clerical error made it a Best Actor nomination instead of a Best Supporting Actor nomination. It was declared ineligible, and couldn’t be corrected in time for the ceremony, otherwise the movie would have probably been nominated for 10 awards.
Cleopatra is overall a really good movie. It’s clearly ambitious with its sets, costumes and scale. It’s a visual spectacle of a movie that’s also for the most part, very historically accurate. It would have worked better if the ending was cut down a fair amount, as the ending does drag on a bit, but otherwise the movie is fairly well paced. Cleopatra is worth watching for fans of classic Hollywood Epics, or those interested in learning more about both the rise of the Roman Empire, and the fall of the Egyptian Empire.
Next up will be Spartacus, one of Stanley Kubrick’s early major successes, and also one of the inspirations behind Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. After that, I’ll finish off this month with a much more recent film, which happens to be directed by someone who was good friends with Kubrick. That’s the only hint you’re getting for now. Next month, I’ll be looking at either four Tom Hanks movies, or four Bruce Willis movies. On the one hand, Hanks would be more interesting as his career is far more varied, but on the other hand, with Willis’s recent retirement and announced diagnosis, it feels like this would be a good time to have some sort of tribute for his career.