Sunday, 19 November 2006

Cleopatra (1963)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 24th June 2006.

CleopatraCleopatra is still, forty-three years after it was released, the most expensive movie ever made, at least if inflation is taken into account. The story of the troubled production, a shoot that lasted five years, and one that nearly bankrupt 20th Century Fox is fairly well documented in film history. As is the fact that this is the movie where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor first fell in love. Those facts alone make it a movie well worth seeing.

I think I may have seen this epic as a child, perhaps when broadcast on TV, but most of it seemed new to me. Critics were fairly dismissive of the film on its initial release in 1963, and one can see why - it's a long movie and a rather slow moving one. But it lives up to the word 'epic' in a way that modern movies don't.

Director Joseph E Mankiewicz allegedly wanted the six hour edit he originally put together released as two separate movies, and effectively disowned the movie he almost died for when Fox insisted on trimming it back - first to just over four hours in length, and then, on its worldwide release, to just over three hours. Even Elizabeth Taylor complained to anybody who would listen that the severely truncated commercial release was not the film she had made. With an intermission 90 minutes in, the film certainly does come over as two separate stories - the first featuring Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra and Rex Harrison's Caesar up to the time of his death, the second featuring Cleopatra's love affair with Richard Burton's Mark Anthony. Alas, much of that original footage appears to have been lost (how can that happen?!) and so we're unlikely to see the original six hour version that Mankiewicz wanted us to see.

The movie is certainly a feast for the eyes, and Taylor and Burton positively sizzle on screen. Rex Harrison turns in a creditable performance, but Roddy McDowell is probably the stand out in a very strong cast indeed - an oscar-winning performance if ever there was one, albeit one that wasn't recognised because of an administrative error that was made by the studio when submitting nominations!

Even in its truncated form there's a lot to like about this film, and it has a 'reality' that is severely lacking in more recent attempts to recreate such epics with the over-use of CGI that just feels hokey, Troy perhaps being the worst recent example.

The DVD transfer is excellent, and this is a classy digital restoration - not perhaps quite up to the benchmark standard set by the recent special edition of Ryan's Daughter, but not far off it, and pretty remarkable given the film's age. On the three disk set that comprise the currently available 'Special Edition' there's an excellent two hour documentary on the making of the film which is, truth be told, more gripping than the film itself. It tells the all-too-frequent story of shattered dreams, studio excess, and people working so hard they damage their health only to find themselves stabbed in the back as their dream project nears completion. All-in-all the movie and accompanying documentary are essential viewing for anybody interested in the cult of celebrity and the inner workings of Hollywood, and at a currently available online price of £16 for a deluxe packaged product, it's a steal.

Cleopatra screencap

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