Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Written by Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero, plus Plutarch and that whole gang)
The reputation of Cleopatra lies beyond "is this work of cinema good or bad?" It has become a historical and historiographical phenomenon, a symbol of everything that could not last forever: a film ending with the last of the pharaohs, dressed in her fineries for transport to her rest, that is itself one of Old Hollywood's last great monuments to itself, its own resplendent tomb. It's the wrong pharaoh, but it's the pair of vast trunkless legs in the desert, half-buried by time, now only a symbol of the vainglory of a bygone age. "Look on my works," it says, and though those works be vanished, they live forever in allusion, one of the foundational stories of the world. I wish, foremost, to treat this movie as a movie—a movie I adore—but I can't help but likewise treat it as a legend. It's legendary for a reason, a story about megalomaniacs blinded by ambition where it's easiest to assume that everyone who made it was too.
It began in 1958, comparatively simply—just one more ancient times epic for a decade defined by them, concluding with Ben-Hur, the most expensive movie ever made till that point in history but, by some metrics, the most successful. It seems remarkable that it took as long as it did for sword-and-sandalry to arrive upon Cleopatra VII Philopator, if not the single most famous female monarch in history, then undoubtedly the most famous to actually rule. Surely, she is exceeded by no queen in her totemic significance, such that still animates people today: you needn't look too hard to stumble across a furious argument over what demographic gets to claim as their own a cruel Greek colonizer, who forced a subjugated native population to worship her as one of their own ancient gods, and whose primary role in history was being a lousy admiral and fucking the two mightiest white men she could find. Do you think in two thousand years they'll argue over whether Victoria was Indian? Probably not: Victoria's much less fun to tell stories about. That Hollywood had not told Cleopatra's story since Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra all the way back in 1934 is curious. I can only imagine it had something to do with Britain's failed attempt by way of George Bernard Shaw in 1945's Caesar and Cleopatra, in its day also a contender for "the most expensive movie ever made" but also a huge flop, perhaps because it's a very shitty film adapting insanely-conceived source material where Cleopatra doesn't fuck anybody.
When Cleopatra began at 20th Century Fox, it wasn't supposed to be as big as that; nobody asked for another "most expensive movie ever made." The slide towards grandiosity began immediately, however, upon finding their producer William Wanger, who'd long held the story of Cleopatra dear, perhaps finding a personal resonance in its tale of three adulterers who all die (megalomaniac or not, he was a plain old maniac, having served time for attempting the murder of his wife's paramour, fellow film professional Jennings Lang—man, the times, they were different). This slide accelerated quickly once they chose their Cleopatra—I don't need to remind you that this was Elizabeth Taylor. She negotiated for herself Hollywood's very first million dollar salary, which might not capture half of her actual compensation for the film: besides a front-end points deal and hefty overtime fees, she even negotiated for the use of Todd-AO 70mm film, a wholly reasonable choice for this movie's purposes, but an odd request for an actor until you recall who'd widowed Taylor and left her his company. For rather more obscure reasons, perhaps tax reasons, Taylor also bound Fox to making Cleopatra in Europe. Fox's executives, apparently dolts (and also for tax reasons), settled on England to make this film set in the Mediterranean that required extensive exterior photography. You can guess how that worked out, and Wanger did, repeatedly warning Fox to no avail.
And thus did Fox spend $7 million on a film that, essentially, they abandoned. When they started over in 1961, it was from zero, with a new principal cast besides Taylor, as well as new, more appropriate countries to film it in (mainly Italy, with stops in Egypt and Spain), and without their original director, Rouben Mamoulian. Thus do we arrive upon our chief megalomaniac, though he didn't start out that way: Taylor, who also had director approval, forwarded Joseph L. Mankiewicz for the job. He didn't want it; he demurred; he made outrageous salary demands of his own that were immediately met; he wound up directing it, and getting really, really into it; finally, he got really in over his head. During the hiatus, he began rewriting a screenplay from scratch, which he never actually finished, so during the entire nine months of principal photography, they barely had a shooting script, despite a story he hardly had to conjure out of thin air. There would turn out to be advantages to this: for example, Taylor's scenes, which is most of the scenes, were shot largely in story order (and over a great deal of time), so that the contours of her face subtly change over the course of the film, which isn't a bad trick for a movie that encompasses eighteen years of a woman's life; it is, likewise, a very diligently written film, often clever, erudite, and amusing. Perhaps it allowed its principals to settle comfortably into their roles, while apparently not letting those roles get boring, even if the wait could be; at least two of its principals were making their own joy during this protracted shoot, and, in the most famous thing about this most famous film, life imitated art for Taylor and her Antony, Richard Burton.
This process also had well-attested downsides: Mankiewicz just kept making it, bringing Fox to the brink of bankruptcy and monopolizing their resources so thoroughly that eventually not a single other film was in production at the studio. Weirdly, he didn't even enjoy it; constantly jacked up on speed, he seems to have been simply compelled. At extreme length, Mankiewicz was finally put a stop to, by the return of Darryl Zanuck to Fox, who suffered Mankiewicz to finish principal photography, though he found himself authorizing new pick-up photography, bringing the film to its mind-boggling final cost, perhaps as high as $44 million (nearly $400 million today), in part because Mankiewicz had mismanaged the action scenes. This was predictable: Mankiewicz was a director of small dramas, like All About Eve or, more recently, the movie with Taylor that had earned him her allegiance, Suddenly, Last Summer. He was not a director of period epics, the closest he'd gotten being 1953's Julius Caesar, a Shakespearean adaptation featuring one impressively big crowd scene and a second-unit scene of guys marching through eastern Los Angeles. Julius Caesar also features an interesting fuck-up right in its very first scene, where Mankiewicz very embarrassingly fails to get a flock of pigeons to scatter on cue at the end of a long, semi-complex, and self-evidently expensive take.
If I had to baselessly speculate at what horrible inner demon compelled Mankiewicz now, perhaps it was Caesar's ghost: the experience of being locked into material that spoke to him but which he could bring none of his own voice to, and the bitter memory of not being given leave to get exactly what he wanted onto the screen. Now granted unheard-of freedom, and resources that at least seemed infinite, he could make his new Caesar (Rex Harrison), his new Antony (as noted, Burton), and his Cleopatra entirely his own—now he could make it all perfect. It's not always perfect. A less well-attested downside to "keeping at it in a drug-fueled fugue till being essentially fired" is that the final beats of the film do wind up dashed-off, plotwise, cribbing from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in ways that don't entirely gel because this isn't Antony and Cleopatra. It works, but this didn't stop these beats from being inefficient, too. (It's also in Plutarch, but that's no excuse.)
I will not say that Mankiewicz never figured out how to do an epic—indeed, I think he was an unexpected natural at some of its most important aspects (though Zanuck was right to be appalled at the action)—but he did turn "hugely expensive" into "catastrophically expensive" and that into "record-breaking infamy." It got him locked out of an editing process Zanuck oversaw with Dorothy Spencer, for even the shortest version Mankiewicz had managed to give him was more than five hours long. He'd planned a pair of movies. Zanuck averred that the Taylor/Burton fans and anti-fans would feel betrayed if he released a movie that barely had Burton in it, but he may have just wanted to put this thing to bed. It would be one film. I would describe it as "successful" just for almost making its money back and not bankrupting Fox.
The version available to us now is the roadshow initial release, a still-very-long film of 245 minutes—251, counting its overture and entr'acte, which I sit through because you're supposed to (besides, Alex North's frequently-gaudy and orientalist score is real sweet). Subsequent cuts pushed Cleopatra to three hours, which don't seem like they could've even been coherent. I despise these cuts' existence: Cleopatra, you know, is not universally beloved. Its negative reputation is mostly down to the low, resentful desire to see hubris fail, of course; but it is perhaps as much a result of these bad cuts made for general release and for television.
The 251 minute version, happily, doesn't suffer from incoherence, though there are numerous lacunae and a feeling, sometimes productive, of a story that's being told as much through ellipsis as through depiction. (For instance, Martin Landau complained that his suicide scene was cut, but it's rather more effective for us to find his body when Antony does.) To the extent it is a problem, it's never a problem in the first, "Caesar" half, and only somewhat a problem in the second, "Antony" half, with Burton appearing to navigate the gradual hollowing-out of his character as much off the screen as on it. I would still be incredibly interested—albeit very surprised—to discover that Mankiewicz's version still exists in the world. Yet even if it might render Antony and Burton less mired in discontinuities, I would not assume it was better. It may better explain what Cleopatra likes about Antony, which is a "problem" of the film—but I'm not sure that would be a benefit.
In any case, what survives for us is still one hell of lot of motion picture, beginning with its very first collection of images under the opening credits, a montage of artwork created for production designer John DeCuir under the conceit that they are frescoes of ancient manufacture, and "weathered" by the gulf of time between us and the figures they depict. (They are a little too precious about perspective to be wholly convincing, but the fading, cracking, chipping, etc., is simultaneously most artful and very persuasive.) They'll turn out to be a frequent companion, used for dissolve transitions to indicate large spans of time between scenes, but for now they situate us into the aftermath of the Battle of Pharsalus, giving us a first look at how astonishingly big Cleopatra can be, with action staged in depth across a valley, up to a mile away from the camera, cavalry like dots on the screen ranging out in pursuit of Pompey's forces (this was, incidentally, a Zanuck-mandated reshoot). But the best one of these frescoes is still the first, coming under the first credit, "ELIZABETH TAYLOR IN." It is Taylor's Cleopatra; she is alone. She is marred in the same way as the rest, but, truly, neither withered nor staled. Cleopatra, then, explains to you how to watch it with its very first frames.
With apologies for the foregoing length, I could ask if this plot even requires summary. But, in 48 B.C., Gaius Julius Caesar arrives in Alexandria alongside Agrippa (Andrew Keir) and Rufio (Landau) in pursuit of Pompey (a head prop in a jar that I wish they'd either shown in full, or left totally to our imagination). Having found his primary mission here rendered dishonorably moot, Caesar contents himself instead with rearranging the affairs of Egypt when Cleopatra, recently deposed by her young brother's courtiers, smuggles herself back into the palace and into Caesar's chambers concealed in a rug. Caesar gives her Egypt, and Cleopatra makes herself fascinating—contrasting an overt and unsubtle physical seduction with bolts of intelligence and the imperious manner of a born monarch (and you know how much Caesar digs imperium), always demonstrating her competence, but also how she might be guided as an ally, and with just enough spin of youthful playfulness to awaken something sincerely yearning in the middle-aged man. And, anyway, she puts out, giving Caesar the son he'd always wanted but his barren Roman wife could not provide. She reunites with Caesar in Rome, their child Caesarion in tow, and this is the final straw for the Liberatores, who assassinate Caesar in the Forum.
Cleopatra escapes Rome under cover of night, despondent for either her loss, or for Egypt, or both, but the arrival of Caesar's lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, gives her cause to secretly smile. For in him she identifies a new lover and ally, and, counter-intuitively, it's through brazen insults that she makes this a reality, challenging Caesar's dejected would-be successor to seize the legacy he'd fought for, a legacy which, she makes extremely clear, includes her. This works out poorly, and history repeats itself: the foreign queen's imposition upon the Roman general degrades him before Roman eyes, and what remains of that reputation is lost with his fleet at Actium, where he and Cleopatra fuck everything up. Their adversary Octavian (Roddy McDowall) pursues them to Egypt; Antony commits suicide; shortly, Cleopatra joins him.
That's reasonably streamlined for a 251 minute film. And the script does streamline a great deal, believe it or not. What I hope I managed to do with that summary, though, is to have it double as an explication of the thing that I think makes Cleopatra work so well: its Cleopatra. There's much to be awed by in Cleopatra, and Taylor's a big part of that: as much as anything else, aesthetically and indeed narratively, it's a movie about how Elizabeth Taylor has very beautiful eyes, frequently accentuated by some wondrously garish "Egyptian showgirl" makeup, and also has extremely large breasts, which are even more frequently accentuated by Irene Sharaff's costumes and lack of costumes (Sharaff, Vittorio Nino Novarese, and Renie Conley jointly won the Oscar, and while they all deserved that recognition, you can see why Sharaff's record-setting 65 costumes just for Taylor get the discussion), and those eyes and breasts are pretty much straight-up major compositional elements, often in tension with each other in the sense you're not sure which you're supposed to stare at. (She is attired conservatively only in one single outfit that I recall, cosplaying an unusually vibrantly-hued "Roman matron" during her stay there, which is ironically her most perverse costume.) But while I'm sure this is all very interesting to you in terms of "what gives me boners," Taylor's actual performance, perhaps above everything else here, is also something to be admired.
I've not seen enough Taylors to make ironclad claims about it, but it could be her best performance; it is, in any event, a marked outlier in my sampling of her post-MGM career, which seems to have been a lurch from one launchpad for shrill histrionics to another, itself a legacy of Mankiewicz and Suddenly, Last Summer, and (I would hope) peaking alongside Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Whatever else this is, it's restrained, which is a strange way to describe a performance that is one half declamation about her lovers fulfilling the dreams of Alexander and the other half being splayed out like a centerfold, but it is, and magnetically ambiguous in every respect. I've said that it's the mystery of Cleopatra's relationship with Antony that plays; so it might be better off without an hour of scenes that might clarify it. In a movie that's virtually nothing but sex and politics for 251 straight minutes, Taylor carries you across the length and breadth of it, never entirely permitting you to know for sure which is which—which is the cynical manipulations of a queen who understands that the survival of her kingdom depends on bedding the right Roman, and which is the real feelings of a real woman capable of real love and real hurt—and it's always possible it's always both. But I could just be foolish, in that Antonian way.
Mankiewicz encourages that ambiguity—for one example but only one of many, when Caesar's killed, she doesn't cry out "Gaius!" (or "Caesar!", since for reasons that may well be based in accurate ancient sociology, she never once refers to the people putting cum inside her but by their cognomen and nomen, respectively). Instead, she cries out "My son!" Which is a fully appropriate reaction, but also ever-so-slightly indifferent to the loss of her Egyptian-law husband. Or maybe the prime example is her behavior at Actium, her retreat both the cold calculation of a queen who believes she's lost her puppet and the action of a despondent lover. In the extremes of the finale, it's still not quite clear if it's love, or just one more rational decision, that if you're doomed anyway, better it's with someone who left a whole navy to sink because you were more important. (It can, I'm sure, also be fun to notice how weirdly predictive this whole ancient drama is of Taylor and Burton personally.)
She's matched well by her co-stars, though Harrison gets the best of it, or at least the sprightlier bits of it, his Caesar more conscious that this could be a put-on and pleased to enjoy it anyway, a naughty old man who doesn't quite realize how fully he's being suborned, but always equal to Cleopatra's own strength of personality, so that the power game between them presents itself as its own delight. Burton's Antony is abject from the start, perhaps once capable, but by the time Cleopatra settles for him, he's already withered in Caesar's shadow, and he really only grows more pathetic as the film goes along. The distinctions in acting style and personality are relieving, since they're what permit the repetitive structure of this enormously long film to work, allowing more-or-less the same events to come off very differently when they're echoed two hours down the line: when Harrison's Caesar is asked to kneel before Cleopatra, she playfully cajoles, and he accedes with an impish little smile; when Burton's Antony is asked to do the same, it's with shrieks that Burton responds to like his mother has just struck him in the mouth. But then, Burton's the fragile human who's come between two self-styled gods—but maybe even for his weakness is he more-beloved anyway. I should spare a word for McDowall, who's superb despite a role tucked away in the corners of the film and mostly plot-functional when he's there. There's something inhumane about the destined Augustus. It's not even on the surface of Mankiewicz's script, which is mostly content with making him smirkingly fey and irritable (it does give him a nice, booming monologue to close things out). McDowall plays him, however, as attempting and failing to hide a personalized, visceral disgust, not with Cleopatra's sexuality per se, but with the violations of piety his uncle and former triumvir committed to obtain it, which is obviously well-suited to the emperor who so despised his adulterous daughter she wasn't even buried near him.
That's a lot to spend on performances and character in a sword-and-sandal epic, but it's a startlingly intimate sword-and-sandal epic, and maybe even more startlingly intimate for a film that only occasionally even switches to a close-up or an ordinary two-shot. It is, to be sure, still every inch as invested in spectacle as any film of its breed, despite a lack of action; and just to get the last negative out of the way, it does kind of suck as an action movie. This is the only thing that actually bugs me about it: I can grudgingly accept that despite having a chronology that encompasses at least six wars it shows practically none of them; but it's annoying that the one major battle it does, Actium, simply isn't very good. It has the occasional good bit (or funny bit, specifically Burton clutching a giant goblet of wine while incompetently overseeing the fight), but even with the addition of modelwork it still never feels like this history-deciding struggle involves more than a couple of ships pointed awkwardly at one another. I rather like the editing of Antony's shameful escape over the floating, supplicating bodies of his own men; but it surely never rises to the level of Ben-Hur's naval battle (let alone Ben-Hur's). I'm a fan of the concept of Antony's "battle" with Octavian outside Alexandria—the general, now himself abandoned, attempting to commit suicide-by-legionary—but even this coolness is cheapened by Burton not actually being in Egypt with them, so that the footage of he and his double therefore must be glued-together with some ghastly insert shots.
In terms of spectacle outside the action? It excels: there's no scene more famous, nor one that better sums up what Cleopatra "is," than her parade through Rome to the Forum. It is essentially a one-for-one recreation of a very fanciful interpretation of the real thing, Cleopatra's circus surrounded by a thousand or more thronging, appreciative Romans; and it is also a dance number of unusual integration into the plot, an enormous block of colorful curiosities culminating in Cleopatra's arrival on a sphinx the size of a castle yet also flowing completely organically out of story, theme, and character. I could quibble about some specific choices of angle, cutting, and staging, but whatever: it's flabbergasting. And it includes both some of my favorite shots anyway (the low angles of a distant Cleopatra, a shimmering gold fleck atop an ebon mountain, inflicting upon us the precise state of mind of these overawed Romans) as well as my single favorite moment from Taylor (she greets Caesar, and winks).
That's just the apex—well, there is also Cleopatra's gilded ship—but there's barely a moment when the resources that went into Cleopatra are not apparent. Not fully apparent: nothing should have ever cost $44 million in 1963. But if it took a production dripping with wasteful excess to get here, that's certainly apparent. It's apparent in every exterior set (the long shots of Alexandria with its tiny DeLuxe color ant people milling about are frankly mind-blowing, and in a factoid that maybe sums up Cleopatra even better than its sphinx, its Forum is three times the size of the real Forum). It's possibly even more apparent in the interior sets, which are damn near as large, and it's also where Mankiewicz does manage to shine as a director of epics, with expanded shot scales and shot lengths (there's a lot of time spent just walking across these big rooms, frankly) that allow us to soak in the inordinate detail and color that DeCuir and his six or seven art directors have wrought. It is storybook detail—I expect the hieroglyphics are illiterate, and the globe thing in Cleopatra's chambers is a surreal touch, as is Alexander's see-through tomb—but rich and tangible detail, even at the same time it has that smooth, shiny, built-yesterday mid-century epic feel. Mankiewicz is content, justifiably, with a somewhat stagelike approach, pans from one side of a set to another, allowing your attention to drift around these rooms painted with photographer Leon Shamroy's intoxicating lighting. This is lulling in its way, so that when he reminds you he's a capable stylist, it's delightfully jarring.
Some of these filigrees, I've realized, are probably just Mankiewicz not wanting to tread ground he'd already trod in Julius Caesar: I am deeply in love with Cleopatra's silent, dissolve-heavy remote viewing of Caesar's assassination during an augury, even though it's a weird intrusion of "actual magic?" into a materialist story, for it's a very novel angle on a very familiar scene (I also like the absence of dialogue in this better, and take that as you will); I likewise like Antony's speech to the mob, which we don't need to hear and so gets drowned out by the belligerent crowd. These are, still, effective choices, as is a cut that may encompass days (Taylor's certainly changed her outfit) but continues a conversation between Cleopatra and Antony seamlessly, or Cleopatra spying on Caesar through the eye of a giant mosaic, which comes off proto-giallo. But mostly it is just talking in rooms. But what rooms! And what people, Mankiewicz blocking these titanic creatures of myth inside these colossal spaces in giant shots which emphasize that mythic status but also their isolation from human connection, in lines that may intersect but usually only once and rarely twice, often leaving one a lonely dot suspended in some tiny part of the frame. Which is where performance comes back in, because the performers don't respond to this the same way, Harrison being far more at ease with the overbearing emptiness, almost insensitive to it, and Burton absolutely crushed by it, off to one side or the other, anguished by his very smallness. Taylor somehow combines both of these things: Cleopatra bears the weight, but is not crushed by it, even when she's dead.