The biggest epic of them all – and one of the most infamous – is a mess but at times entertaining
Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Mark Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), Roddy McDowell (Octavian), Pamela Brown (High Priestess), George Cole (Flavius), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes), Cesare Danova (Apollodorus), Kenneth Haigh (Brutus), Andrew Keir (Agrippa), Martin Landau (Rufio), Robert Stephens (Germanicus), Francesca Annis (Eiras), Isabelle Cooley (Charmian), Jacqui Chan (Lotos), Andrew Faulds (Canidius)
One of the most legendary epics of all time – for all the wrong reasons. Cleopatra is the mega-budget extravaganza that nearly sunk a studio, years in its shambolic, crisis-hit making that turned its stars into a celebrity brand that changed their lives forever. Painfully long, it’s a rambling, confused film that feels like something that was filmed before anyone had the faintest idea what the story they were trying to tell was. Then, just when you consider giving up on it, it will throw in a striking scene or intelligent performance and you’ll sit up and be entertained. Just never quite enough.
In its four hours it covers eighteen years. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) arrives in Egypt after victory over his rival Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus. There he quickly becomes enamoured with Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), the cunning, intelligent witty sister of bratty Pharoah Ptolemy XIII (Richard O‘Sullivan). Caesar takes Cleopatra’s side in the civil war for the Egyptian throne and takes her as a second wife, having a son (and potential heir) with her. Made dictator for life, he and Cleopatra return to Rome – where is assassinated. A friendless Cleopatra finds herself drawn towards Caesar’s deputy Mark Antony (Richard Burton), the two of them starting a passionate affair that will tear the Roman world apart and lead them into a civil war against Caesar’s politically astute but coldly realpolitik nephew (and official heir) Octavian (Roddy McDowell).
Cleopatra’s shoot – and the hullabaloo of press interest around it – is almost more famous (and perhaps more interesting) than the film itself. After a long gestation, filming started in London under the direction of veteran Rouben Mamoulian, with Taylor on board (for a bank-busting fee) with Peter Finch as Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Antony. Then it all fell apart. Taylor caught meningitis in the cold conditions, nearly died and the film nearly collapsed. The script was rewritten (again), Mamoulian, Finch and Boyd all left. Joseph L Mankiewicz came on board to write and direct, London filming (and all the sets) was junked and production moved to Rome. This all took a year.
In Rome, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton joined the cast as shooting began again practically from scratch. The planning however had been so laborious that Mankiewicz hadn’t been able to finish the script. So, instead, he decided to start shooting what he had and write the rest as he went. Sets were built for unwritten scenes and money continued to pour down the drain. This also meant a huge amount of hanging around for all concerned, spare time Burton and Taylor used to start a tabloid-filling affair which became the talk of the world. After nearly two years of filming, the studio ended up with millions of feet of film, a feud over whether to release two films or one long one and no-one with any real idea why they had made the film in the first place.
And God you can tell watching it. Cleopatra is an over-extended, rather unfocused mess that feels like the compromise product it is. What is this film trying to say? No one seems to know, least of all Mankiewicz. Is this an elegy to the loss of the Roman republic? Hardly when Caesar is presented as sympathetically as he is. Was the film looking to explore Antony and Cleopatra as tragic lovers or deluded would-be emperor builders? God alone knows. Is Cleopatra a temptress or a genius, a chancer or a political genius? No idea. Her infinite variety here is basically to be whatever the scene requires at the time, all wrapped up in Taylor’s effortless charisma.
Mankiewicz’s script – presumably written and then filmed almost immediately in many cases – falls back onto what he was comfortable with. Dialogue scenes are frequently over-written and over-long, so intricately constructed it was impossible to cut them down and still have them make sense. The man who rose to the height of his profession directing witty conversation pieces in rooms, tried to do the same with his three leads in these massive sets. Acres of screen time stretch out as combinations of three leads spout mountains of dialogue at each other, often to very little dramatic impact. To keep the pace up, the film is frequently forced to take huge time-jumps.
Empires rise and fall in the gaps between scenes, armies assemble and are defeated in the blink of an eye. At one point Caesar and Cleopatra find a murdered character in the garden – the impact rather lost on the audience as this character is never mentioned before or after this. Years fly by and characters swiftly report off-screen events of momentous import, from Antony’s marriage and peace with Octavian to Caesar’s victory over Ptolomy. Caesar himself is murdered – Kenneth Haigh leads a series of stalwart British character actors in glorified cameos – in a silent ‘vision’ witnessed by Cleopatra, that cuts to Antony’s briefly shouting (unheard) his funeral oration (this at least means we don’t need to hear cod-Shakespearean dialogue in either scene).
The other thing that couldn’t be cut was the film’s epic scale. Cleopatra’s entrance to Rome plays out nearly in real time, a never-ending procession of flights of fancy parading into the capital capped with Taylor’s cheeky grin at the end of it at Cleopatra’s panache. The battle of Actium looks impressive – with its boat clashes, flaming ships and colliding vessels – so much so that you almost regret we don’t get to see more of Pharsalus and Philippi than their aftermaths. The huge sets are striking, as are the legion of costumes Taylor has to change into virtually from scene to scene.
Of course, what people were – and always are – interested in is how much the fire off-stage between Burton and Taylor made it to the screen. I’ve honestly always felt, not much. Perhaps by this point both actors were too fed up and punch-drunk from the never-ending project. Perhaps they simply didn’t have any interest in the film. Burton falls back on grandstanding – he confessed he felt he only learned how to act on film from watching Taylor. Taylor is undeniably modern in every frame, but she somehow manages to hold a rather loosely defined character together, so much so that you forget she’s fundamentally miscast.
Of the leads Rex Harrison emerges best as an avuncular Caesar whose well-spoken wit hides an icy interior overflowing with ruthlessness and ambition. The film loses something when he departs just before the half-way mark. (It’s a mark, by the way, of the film’s confused structure that Burton only appears an hour into the film – and that for an inconsequential “plot update” chat with Caesar’s wife Calpurnia). There are decent turns from Cronyn as Cleopatra’ advisor, Pamela Brown as a Priestess, Andrew Faulds as a gruff Agrippa and even George Cole as Caesar’s trusted, mute servant. Best in show is probably Roddy McDowell’s ice cold Octavian – like a version of Harrison’s Caesar with all charm removed – who would have certainly been an Oscar nominated if the studio hadn’t screwed up his nomination papers.
Cleopatra still ended up with multiple Oscar nominations – even some wins – but took years to make back the money blown on it. At four hours, it bites off way more than it can chew and vey rarely comes together into a coherent shape. Scenes alternate between too short and way too long and three leads with very different acting styles struggle to make the best of it. You feel watching it actually sorry for Mankiewicz: it’s not really his fault, the scale of this thing would have sunk any director. Cleopatra has flashes of enjoyment, but much of it drags for the viewer as much as it did for those making it.