Does "Cleopatra" Still Deserve to Reign as Hollywood's Most Extravagant Flop? Review

Cleopatra has earned the nickname of the most expensive film in Hollywood (though even with inflation many of the more recent blockbusters have far surpassed that price tag). It’s also known more for its off-camera scandals than for any of the content in its four-hour runtime. As the film turns 50 this year, Cleopatra finds itself back in the pop culture consciousness through Jess Walter’s popular novel Beautiful Ruins (which has a movie adaptation in the works) and the (much-derided) Lindsay Lohan film Liz & Dick. Yet even those works focus more on the infamous off-camera drama than anything related to the actual film. So, with this epic “flop” (it never made back it’s money despite being a top grosser for the year and scoring some Oscar statues) now on Blu-ray, is it worth revisiting?

The film spans about two decades and follows Cleopatra’s (Elizabeth Taylor) high profile love affairs with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Mark Antony (Richard Burton). The film was adapted from a book by Carlo Maria Franzero, and if screenwriters Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also directed), Ranald MacDougall, and Sidney Buchman had gotten their wish Cleopatra would’ve been two separate films (to chronicle each of the said love affairs). (If only it had been made in our current Hollywood culture of multiple films made for a single novel.) Despite this, Cleopatra remains a captivating film if only because of Taylor’s stunning performance.

The first half of the film chronicles Caesar’s political manipulations in Alexandria with Cleopatra. Caesar comes there to reunite the bickering brother-sister dignitaries Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII, but as he quickly learns, neither is intent on ceding power to the other. He sides with Cleopatra whom he has taken as a lover in what first appears as a classic misogynist Hollywood trope but turns out to be an affair of equals in that Cleopatra is using him just as much as Caesar is using her. She bears him a son, Caesarion, which his barren wife is unable to do, and hopes to expand her empire in the wake of Caesar’s death. But Octavian (Roddy McDowall) is named heir, and Cleopatra flees, biding her time.

The second half picks up with Cleopatra flirting for power with Marc Antony. As they become a formidable power couple, Octavian declares war against them. This second half is littered with more battle sequences, culminating in the tragic end for Antony and Cleopatra (reminiscent of those star-crossed lovers Romeo & Juliet).

The story wavers at points yet manages to enthrall even 50 years later. The long scenes depicting political machinations and manipulations between those battling for power is not unlike similar scenes in Game of Thrones (and it’s fun to debate which real people, if any, George R.R. Martin based his characters on). The more subtle moments in the film are just as rewarding as the stunning visual moments that the film boasts.

As one of the special features notes, the fourth star of Cleopatra is the production itself. Massive sets were constructed for the film, adding to the epic scale (and cost) of the film. Beautiful costumes were designed exclusively for Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a kaleidoscope of stunning sets, costumes, and sequences (including the iconic scene where Cleopatra arrives in Rome with much pomp and circumstance). Hence the film’s Oscar sweep in the visual categories—Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Visual Effects.

While that “fourth star” is certainly a great reason to see the film, the other three stars are equally attention-grabbing. Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal vacillates between powerful and campy in a very delightful way. Rex Harrison is fascinating as a smarmy and sarcastic yet endearing Caesar, making his half of the film fly by. And Richard Burton manages to be menacing and passionate in his portion, making the tragic ending feel actually tragic.

Cleopatra gets plenty of flack, a lot of it for its doomed production. It is by no means a perfect film (no four-hour movie ever could be); but I was glad to finally see this classic film—the crisp Blu-ray update certainly helped with that. And it’s great to see one of Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic performances (especially if you compare it to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). So is it worth revisiting this film 50 years later? Yes.

Bonus Features

As befits a 50th Anniversary Blu-ray, there is a slew of fascinating special features (if you want the inside stories on all the off-camera drama). “Cleopatra Through the Ages: A Cultural History” compares the film with its real historical context. “Cleopatra’s Missing Footage” tells the story of the lost footage and various extended cuts that the film went through. “The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence” documents the letters sent between Fox publicists Jack Brodsky and Nathan Weiss during the film’s tumultuous production.  “Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood” is a feature-length look at all the drama surrounding the film’s creation. “The Fourth Star of Cleopatra” focuses on the aforementioned “star,” the production. Courtesy of Fox Movietone News there is archival footage of the film’s New York and Hollywood premieres. And, lastly, there is a feature commentary by Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, Martin Landau, and Jack Brodsky.

"Cleopatra" is on sale May 28, 2013 and is rated G. Drama. Directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz. Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman. Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Martin Landau, Rex Harrison, Richard Burton, Roddy McDowall.

John Keith • Staff Writer

Writer. TV Addict. Bibliophile. Reviewer. Pop Culture Consumer. Vampire Enthusiast. LOST fanatic.


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