Bloated, ungainly and rambling, but not without compensations. Perhaps the most sobering aspect to Cleopatra’s preposterous profligacy is that, just occasionally, it advances an engagingly louche performance or rash of sparkling dialogue, offering a glimpse of what might have been had all its ducks been in a row. Such moments in no way makes up for the four hours the movie takes up, but they ensure it’s a less arid journey than, say, The Ten Commandments.
One might have reasonably assumed Cleo’s disastrous excess put the kibosh on epics for a while, given their propensity for budgets spiralling way beyond the level grosses would sustain. And given audiences’ tastes were far from guaranteed to remain the same. Certainly, the sword-and-sandals picture’s days were numbered, but there’d still be The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Bible: In the Beginning… to come, the latter a last gasp for the Biblical picture (the second biggest hit at the US box office that year, but then, does anyone remember Hawaii, which beat it?) By the end of the decade, even the musical, the sure-thing of ’60s cinema, was too creaky to sustain, with both Hello, Dolly! and Doctor Doolittle victims to similar out-of-control costliness.
If the problem were simply the price tag, however, Cleopatra would have long since undergone a rehabilitation. It was, in truth, an unwieldy behemoth on every level. Original director Robert Mamoulian was fired after the production shutdown in 1961, with Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd replaced by Rex Harrison and Richard Burton respectively. Elizabeth Taylor was so unwell (including an emergency tracheotomy) that a replacement was considered (Joan Collins tells it that she originally had the role, if only she promised to sleep with the head of the studio). And Burton and Taylor’s affair made more headlines than even the production woes.
Cleopatra eventually came in at six hours, before being cut to four. It was then reduced to three in order to satisfy theatres, much to the chagrin of replacement director Joseph L Mankiewicz (the other Mank). His envisaging of a two-parter, Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra, was reportedly nixed on the basis that no one would be interested in part one, absent as it was one half of the scandal sheets’ darlings.
It was also said that Fox boss Darryl F Zanuck was unimpressed at Mank’s handling of the battle scenes. Which I can believe. For such an expensive movie, Cleopatra is a very static one. It might be commendable that it’s so talky, were that talk gold. What this epic undoubtedly has to spare are sumptuous sets, though. Epic ones, even. So in that sense, it is undoubtedly a spectacle. Not a vibrant one, however. And ironically, given Zanuck’s concerns, the picture is by far at its most engaging during the first half, thanks almost entirely to Harrison’s witty Caesar. You might almost believe he had his own scriptwriter.
Agrippa: What happens at dawn?
Caesar: I thought you knew. The Sun comes up.
Caesar arrives in Egypt rather like the Empire on Coruscant, with a troupe of stormtroopers in tow. “You look so impressive, any one of you could be king” he merrily mocks, and proceeds to show how unimpressed he is with everyone, including Gregoire Aslan’s chief eunuch (“An exalted rank. Obtained, shall we say, not without certain sacrifice”). He’s not having any of Cleopatra’s nonsense either, a demanding brat he believes has “escaped the nursery” and is deluded by her own irresistibility (“I’m not sure I want to be rubbed at all by you, young lady”). The unfortunate side effect of this is that Caesar’s inevitable intoxication with Cleo is entirely unbelievable, even to the point of his kneeling before her (“not only bony, but unaccustomed to this sort of thing”).
This isn’t helped any by the simple fact that Taylor’s an all-too-ordinary Queen of Egypt. Whatever may have gone on off screen, she can’t convince as a scheming seductress; even her wink at Caesar lacks the necessary sly sauce. One might have expected this to change when Burton enters the fray as Mark Antony, what with both couple’s famous frisson. Unfortunately, despite his experience with the period epic (The Robe, Alexander the Great), Burton lacks the initial noble vigour that might underscore his fall from grace.
He isn’t haughty enough for Alexander’s best lines (“Why did you bring Agrippa? Were you expecting rain?” He asks of the unwelcome arrival of the head of the navy). He also looks rather debauched from the off – apparently, he had a hangover on his first day on set, so that isn’t so surprising. Which also means we’re not remotely surprised that Antony spends most of the last third of the movie pissed out of his head. During the Bacchus dance he makes a convincing inebriate, undone by lust and liquor, but because he has form, and because Mank is rather overwhelmed by the scale of it all, his going into battle with a goblet in his hand should be a grander folly than it is. Antony experiences his downfall in a rather lethargic way.
It’s only towards the end – a long time to wait for too little reward – that there’s a stirring of drama, with the Shakespearean fake-out death of Cleo (Apollodorus lies to Antony) and Octavian being hoodwinked so she can be bitten on the asp. But the back and forth between Antony and Cleopatra is more like watching a warm up for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than titans setting to against an epic tapestry. It smacks a little too much of the squalid.
There’s little sense of organising principle either, again unsurprising since this was being rewritten on the fly. If none of the spectacles are that spectacular, the plotting is also routine. Antony or Caesar does something iffy, cut back to the Senate. Stir and repeat. There are intermittent rewards in the supporting cast, as you might expect. Even though they’re on screen quite frequently, I didn’t recognise either Robert Stephens or Francesca Annis in their roles, owing to how young they both look. However, I did recognise Richard O’Sullivan as Ptolemy; you can’t help but wish he’d had more scenes, as he both looks and sounds like a Goscinny and Udezo character. George Cole is cast against type as someone who can’t talk. Andrew Keir, later of the best Quatermass, is Agrippa. Martin Landau makes a memorable Rufio, Michael Hordern gets about two scenes, and Hume Cronyn is sympathetic as Cleo’s advisor Sosigenes. Rather unkindly felled by a spear to the chest hurled by Roddy McDowall, firing on all cylinders as Octavian, and undoubtedly stealing the last half of the movie from its stars.
McDowall received an apology from Fox for messing up his awards prospects through putting him in the lead rather than support category. It’s easy to see that he would have been nominated, as his is a very Ustinov-type role. The picture won four out of nine Oscars nominations, including Cinematography, Art Direction and Visual Effects, beating The Birds (no noms for writing or directing, while Rex was nominated for lead actor despite dying halfway through).
As told by Anthony Holden in The Secret History of Hollywood’s Academy Awards, the New York Times didn’t hold back with the justified cynicism of its unearned awards recognition, following as it did in the suspect footsteps of the previous year’s The Longest Day and joined by fellow nominee How the West was Won that year: “If either Metro or Fox spends a great deal of money on a movie, the members of the Academy may feel an obligation to reward those studios”. At $381m all in (inflation-adjusted) Cleo nearly bankrupted Fox, and with further examples that decade (Doctor Dolittle, Hello, Dolly!), such sentiments towards purchasing Oscar recognition would be valid for the foreseeable.
Amid all this, any overtures toward historical authenticity are, of course, irrelevant. That’s assuming the historical Caesar or historical Cleopatra bore any relationship to the ones popularised over the last couple of centuries. The main onus, as ever, was to make an entertaining piece of artifice. Fox failed spectacularly, but since Cecil B De Mille previously had a Cleopatra both Best Picture nominated and the most successful film of its year, it’s unsurprising Angelina Jolie and most recently Gal Gadot have been circling another incarnation.