As one of the last of these period epics to be made in the golden age of Hollywood, Cleopatra was certainly a fine way to go out. Starring the incomparable Elizabeth Taylor as the titular queen, this romantic epic is a struggle between its ponderous weight and sumptuous vision of the ancient world bolstered by its magnetic cast. However, where it falters for me is its relatively light substance struggling to emerge through an inordinately paced but very visually arresting epic.
After the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, where Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has defeated Pompey the Great in a brutal civil war for control of the Roman Republic, Pompey flees to Egypt, hoping to enlist the support of the young Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O’Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). Caesar follows him to Egypt, under the pretext of being named the executor of the will of their father, Ptolemy XII. Much to his dismay, Caesar is given Pompey’s head as a gift, as the highly manipulated pharaoh was convinced by his chief eunuch Pothinus (Gregoire Aslan) that this act would endear him to Caesar.
Caesar stays in one of the palaces along with his generals Agrippa (Andrew Kier) and Rufio (Martin Landau), where a slave named Apollodorus (Cesare Danova) brings him a gift. The suspicious Caesar unrolls the rug and finds Cleopatra herself concealed within. He is intrigued with her beauty and warm personality, and she convinces him to restore her throne from her younger brother, warning him that Ptolemy has surrounded the palace. To gain control of the harbour, Caesar orders the Egyptian fleet burned. The fire spreads to the city, destroying the famous Library of Alexandria to the fury of Cleopatra, but in the heat of their quarrel their passion for one another grows. The next day, Ptolemy’s offensive collapses and Caesar is in effective control of the kingdom. With Ptolemy and his court deposed, Cleopatra is crowned Queen of Egypt. The two scheme to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great to rule the known world, and together have a son named Caesarion whom Caesar declares as his heir to both Rome and Egypt.
Appearing twenty minutes into her own film, Taylor is the life blood of the film; she’s sly, brash, elegant and majestic, filling every single scene she appears in with sensual grace, even when she has to let loose and her shouts fill the palace halls. Harrison is highly charismatic and entertaining as Caesar, and conveys the taciturn wit of a proud, tactical man. Coming into his own in the second half of the film, Richard Burton has an air of authority and dry dignity to his Mark Antony, and when he explodes into fury and passion it’s a powerful sight to behold. Gwen Watford has an emotional and sombre turn as Calpurnia, the spurned wife of Caesar. Roddy McDowall’s taciturn Octavian is suitably cold and ambitious, and despite having less screen time than Burton and Harrison he comes into his own with a masterful, savage performance. McDowall and Burton engage in the same levels of political intrigue and verbal sparring seen in Spartacus. Landau and Kier are dependable as loyal and strong Roman Generals. Jean Marsh’s brief turn as Octavia has an understated air of tragedy as the Roman noblewoman spurned by Antony. O’Sullivan is fittingly arrogant and bratty as the young Ptolemy XIII, same with Aslan as the grovelling character of Pothinus, making for a fine contrast against Cleopatra. Kenneth Haigh conveys a respectful and just Brutus as a man thrust into infamy by his peers, and Danova puts in a lot of character as the loyal servant to Cleopatra.
The realization of the city of Alexandria is remarkable, from the sprawling marketplaces, palace, temples and famous lighthouse. As one of the most expensive movies of its time, it certainly appears that every cent is on screen. This is one of the most immersive period settings I’ve seen. The sheer number and variety to the sets, filled with well adorned extras is a prominent feather in this film’s cap. Cleopatra’s arrival into Rome is a wondrous display of colour, vitality and the excess of Antiquity. The matte paintings and miniatures used to widen the city vistas still look great today. As a demonstration of opulence, the elaborate, nine-minute parade of heralds, chariots, dancers, soldiers and musicians passes by, culminating in Cleopatra’s entrance on a towering replica of a sphinx is still a sight to behold for its incredible scope.
The costumes and suits of armour are, mostly, up to a very high standard. With over sixty costumes allocated to Ms Taylor’s wardrobe, one can certainly admire the breadth of material befitting a Pharaoh of Egypt. I’m not wholly fond of Caesar’s golden breastplate as it looks rather cheap compared to his militaristic armour and imperial purple robes of state. The Roman shields are overdesigned in some scenes and don’t gel with the rest of the scene. The use of painted Roman frescoes to thread the events together is a stylistically appropriate device, and pays tribute to the artistic styles of the period.
The cinematography by Leon Shamroy, capturing the vast vistas of the Egyptian desert and Alexandria, is beautiful to behold. The battle scenes are elaborate but not as epic in scope, focusing on a few battalions at a time. Even in unexciting scenes we have a huge amount of things to see within the frame, especially in exterior scenes where Cleopatra is welcomed in Rome and a great procession is held in her honour. The action scenes, though there are not that many in the film, are well shot and well-choreographed. The breaking of the Siege of Alexandria is a fine demonstration of the Roman army. The Battle of Actium is another epic treat of military set pieces, with the model ships and optical effects shots blending well with the real ships. All this mayhem and death is contrasted by the shots of Antony despairingly giving into drink.
At nearly four hours long, pacing issues are abound. There is no doubt of this film’s epic scope but it just feels a tad excessive in showing off every slow yet visually impressive scene, and as sluggish as the slaves dragging the sphynx replica into Rome.
Alex North’s score takes on a more exotic flair, while still largely based on heavy use of strings and trumpets, it still retains enough of an Ancient Egyptian sound to it. There is still a lot of the militaristic drum beats and trumpets, as well as more haunting moments. It gets particularly dark and disturbing as Cleopatra witnesses the murder of Caesar by the senate.
The dialogue has a natural sounding Shakespearean tinge to it, with plenty of character exchanging snarky remarks or bursting with theatrical uproar. Unlike many historical epics where the larger than life characters seem unapproachable, there’s a refreshing naturalness to the portrayals in this outing which make Cleopatra rather improbably accessible, given its setting and opulence. All three main characters are portrayed as scheming, power-hungry politicians and warlords, seeking only personal gain with the masses as helpless or enamoured spectators and nothing more. This is matched only by the equally duplicitous antagonist Octavian. But the charisma of the actors and the fact that they themselves are easily undone in the end, revealing their humanity when they’re at their weakest, makes them more human in our eyes.
Amidst Cleopatra’s struggle to retain her power and the independence of her kingdom against the juggernaut of Roman power is the love she bears for two of Rome’s greatest men that drives this story on. We see a dynamic change of dynamics between the two men with the queen of Egypt; Cleopatra and Caesar do not get along at first when their enormous egos clash, and the jives and joking reminiscent of a quarrelling father and daughter gradually matures into something more classy and palatable despite the age difference. Both have poetic and shrewd minds, so it makes sense that they gravitate towards one another and their chemistry has both tension and sensuality to them. Her relationship with Anthony is more bitter and filled with ire, but also passion and carnal attraction. While Antony is not Caesar’s intellectual equal it makes him feel more out of his depth in the political world. He himself confesses that he is more a soldier than a leader. Despite his disciplined exterior, it is illustrated that Antony is more susceptible to his emotions and lust than Caesar, and that jealousy of his old master and friend helps to fuel his inevitable downfall.
The contrast between the two empires helps to drive the turbulent relationships between Cleopatra and her Roman suitors, and the destruction caused by such liaisons. At first, she is resentful of the idea of “Roman greatness built upon Egyptian greatness” as her city burns due to Caesar’s negligence. Divine comparisons and hypocrisy is touched on when cold Roman logic clashes against Egyptian spirituality, despite Caesar’s own claim of descent from a Roman goddess as Cleopatra claims to be the reincarnation of Isis. Over time, she starts to appreciate the idea that there is more to the world than just her beloved Egypt. It’s fitting that when Caesar is stabbed, he’s next to the memorial of Pompey, as it was in history, and serves as a divine vengeance for the fallen Pompey. The sense of despair and anarchy that sweeps Rome at Caesar’s funeral is of a frenetic sort, while the sombreness of the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra are more melancholic and resigned, reflective of the fates they chose versus the one Caesar fell to.
Compared to other epics that came before it, Cleopatra tries to be far more ambitious than it needed to be. In doing, the film becomes tedious in a few areas; however the performances should keep you involved. Ultimately, Cleopatra is a beautifully shot and well written romantic epic about three would-be empire builders and the world turning about to conquer them before they could claim it for themselves.