It's a film that makes you hate the rich and powerful, and there's no character we can seem to identify with or get behind. He characters are all removed from human empathy. The performers do their job, the script and direction less so. Richard Burton is so perfectly natural as Marc Anthony, as is Rex Harrison 's Caesar.
The film becomes an exercise in predictable circumstances that have little merit beyond getting on with it's conventionally epic glamour.
Overall, nice effort, incredible to look at, but mired in tired, epic movie cliches, it's missable.
The end result is watchable. The battle scenes are rightfully glorious and no expense was spared on the production design or costumes. That's about where the praise ends.
The movie stumbles everywhere else. An air of self-righteousness infects every scene. Characters spout monologue after monologue like they're all auditioning for the same role. The hours mount as they spell out every little piece of subtext. It's exhausting, workmanlike, and utterly boring. You realize that Fox's too-big-to-fail attitude worked its way into the script.
If someone had the nerve, foresight, or plain common sense to reign in this picture, it might have been something that saved Fox (instead of nearly bankrupting it). But because so much was thrown at it, it became a bloated mess that rightfully sank. It's saying something that "Cleopatra" was the highest grossing movie of 1963 and still went down as a horrific box office disaster. 5.1/10
Anyway, he should never have been rehired, that's the other tragedy of this film, an artistic tragedy. What he finally delivered and what we see in theaters is probably the most boring, soporific film of all time. It takes a special talent to take the most fascinating character of all time and make the most sleep inducing film of all time.
Now that doesn't mean this film doesn't have anything good in it. Elizabeth Taylor is stunning and gives one of her best performances, the chemistry with Richard Burton is magnificent, and the luxury is great. The rest of the cast, beginning with Rex Harrison and his "I'm so hot, so manly, never mind my decrepitude" attitude are among the worst performances I have ever seen, as well as the rest of the cast. What little good is in it, mainly Liz & Dick is unfortunately buried under the rubble of inexplicable directorial choices made by a man who was on drugs the entire time of production:
Joseph L. Mankiewicz had the most beautiful woman in history in front of him, in luxurious color, and what does he do?? Shoot her in medium shots. Not a single close up in the entire film. Not one. But he doesn't stop there. He chooses to shoot, outside of very minimal and far in between medium shots, the entire film in long shot, including the battle scenes. I wonder how did this not bomb at the box office with such a poor and bone crushingly tedious cinematography? And it even won an Oscar?? It boggles the mind.
He also decided to focus the entire film on the men. This is not a Cleopatra movie, this is a "Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Octavian, Roman Politics and the life of every single male character in Cleopatra's life" biopic. Where is Cleopatra?? Where is she? Whatever little we get of her, she gets blamed for Caesar's ambition, Antony's destruction. She is conniving and ravenous, and a cliché to be honest. Elizabeth Taylor makes it mesmerizing, but his take on her is sexist, contrived, predictable and boring. His insanity is further attested by the fact that he had to write a plot for every single male character, no matter how irrelevant and inconsequential he is. This is evidenced by the original shooting script(which is online), it was page after page after page of scenes that were shot about Appollodurs' love for Cleopatra, Flavius devotion to Caesar, Cleopatra's sculptor, Rufio's life, Titus the money lender and several other garbage characters. The original film also consists of ill humor, completely unnecessary. Is it any wonder the budget blew up to 40 million when every single one of this sequences were actually shot? And this is the precious lost footage people want to find, well, there is nothing even remotely memorable in it, it's the visual equivalent of pompous rambling.
But still, as the movie was shot in sequence and edited on camera, it proved impossible to do away with these unnecessary characters and Mankiewicz's childish, reductive humor. For instance, the reason why Antony was upset at Cleopatra's appearance at the barge is because before that there was a good 20 minutes of back and forth taunting as to who would appear first. Cleopatra's wit over Antony had already been demonstrated by her arriving to Tarsus on her ship proclaiming it to be Egypt, but Mankiewicz still thought it clever to further repeat the point on the actual banquet. Of course, because of time, the first part of the joke got cut, but still Mankiewicz felt he had to include the second part of the joke, which of course, flew over the audience's head. It's like going on stand up and just saying the punch line. He was an Academy Award winner and he didn't know the result of doing such a thing? That it would be a mess?
Another of the dubious distinctions of his work is the fact that he managed to make Elizabeth Taylor and Cleopatra, be desexualized and unerotic. An astonishing feat if you ask me.
At the end of the day, Cleopatra is the Greatest Movie that never was. Thanks to Mankiewicz's hubris, sexism and drug addiction. Tragic, and the legacy of this film is just to gather dust somewhere and in the shelves of people who actually buy it, which is interesting to me, is there even a market for it out there?? Who knows, all I know is this: People recoil in horror at the notion of actually watching it and I don't personally know anyone besides myself who actually has.
Rex Harrison is someone I could watch on film all day, but he never makes a convincing Julius Caesar. Every time he talks I just imagine Professor Higgins lecturing Eliza. Richard Burton is the shining star of this movie. His performance as Mark Anthony is nuanced, authentic, and results in him stealing every scene. Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that Elizabeth Taylor is downright dreadful as the titular character. She doesn't emote effectively, she always seems to be trying too hard, and her flat American accent sounds just stupid when juxtaposed with all the distinguished British actors surrounding her. There are several other fine actors in the cast, although I would have a terrible time trying to match their character names with their faces because there were so many names flying around in the dialogue.
I really appreciated the craft that went into this film. While it certainly reveled in excess, at least you could see every penny of that budget plastered all over the screen. The sets were gigantic, the props were enormous, and the costumes were elaborate. I also like historical films where the plot is more about the people and their relationships rather than the big sweeping moments you'd read about in a text book, and you get some of that here. The sad reality is that I think Cleopatra tried to have it both ways, though. On the one hand we have a story of love that drives men to do things they wouldn't ordinarily, and threatens to destroy kingdoms. But at the same time they are showing all these big military maneuvers and getting lost in the battles. It's not a terrible film, but it was too long and needed a more compelling lead actress. I might be willing to attempt watching the shorter cut of the film just to see if it feels more concise and focused, but since the run-time of that version is still quite long I don't know if I'll ever get the urge to make it happen. Can't say that I'd recommend Cleopatra but if you like big, brash, historical epics then this is one you cannot miss.
Disappointing epic of notorious Egyptian queen. Photography, sets, and costumes, all look great, but film is boring and loooooooooonnnnnnnnnngggggggggg. Good acting by Burton, Harrison, and McDowall, make do.
While this film does follow the life and accomplishments of Cleopatra, much of the time we are either focused on Caesar - the entire first half of the film - and Mark Antony, as Cleopatra was able to manipulate these men for her benefit, Antony more so than Caesar. For the film as a whole, I'd have to say that at most a third of the time is devoted to Cleopatra, so I am not convinced that this movie should be considered a character study for Cleopatra or that Elizabeth Taylor should be considered the sole lead. Though we don't see her as much as the title of the film insinuates, I suppose she is the driving force of the film, so it is a barely suitable title.
It is a little annoying that throughout the first half of the film, Caesar refers to himself in the third person, so it took me about half an hour to figure out that he was Caesar.
While I do enjoy epics, I don't think that this is one of the better ones out there, but it is still great for what it accomplishes. As I had stated in the first paragraph, it is impressive to see these films made in the era they come from since the production is massive and seems as though it couldn't possibly be done back in the 60's or even before then. That is what this film feels like - the action sequences are amazing and well-choreographed and very well-put-together in general. 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 Italy and it is more like a community-sized celebration than a simple welcome. It also takes good writing and execution to keep the audience's attention for just over four hours, and I while I had to watch the two halves on separate days it had my attention until the end.
This epic felt like it didn't need to be quite as long as other epics, but it was. In my opinion there could have been more improvement if Cleopatra was given more attention to obviously show she is what the film is all about, so the storylines of Caesar and Antony could have been cut down to give more room for Elizabeth Taylor's leading performance. I shall revisit this film eventually as I plan to revisit all epics I have seen - they are simply amazing films. A dream of mine if I were to become a filmmaker is to try to bring back the epic to the screen for modern audiences whether they can sit for four hours or not.