Holy crap, that was long! Such was my reaction after finishing this one about two days after I started it. Lumbering, plodding, crawling, rumbling, stumbling, and finally bumbling into the endzone after an eternity, this movie (and really, that’s probably too charitable a term for something more akin to second job) will sorely test the patience of even the hardiest of historical epic fans.
To put this in some kind of perspective (a word rarely used anywhere near Cleopatra, I’d wager), you might recall the monumental dullness that was Hawaii. Casting aside the fact that there probably isn’t any epic other than Cleopatra that actually attempted to shoot without a script, all you need to know is that it is a full hour longer than Hawaii!
You get the idea from watching the expensive flop that Twentieth Century Fox must have been commanded by the late queen of Egypt herself to keep the cameras and the cash rolling in spite of nasty little details like Liz Taylor trying to die, tearing up all the sets in England and rebuilding everything in Italy so Liz could be in warmer weather, and firing one director and replacing him with another who decided to rewrite the script from scratch, even as he was shooting the picture.
I don’t think you’d be surprised if I mentioned that after everything was shot and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz showed Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck his five hour and twenty minute cut (Cut? What did you cut? The bathroom breaks?), Zanuck got rid of him. Cleopatra being the movie equivalent of the Alamo, Hindenberg, and Titanic all rolled into one, it goes without saying that Zanuck rehired him later.
The DVD release of this movie is probably structured in such a way that may come as close to Mankiewicz’s vision of the project as we’ll ever likely see. Well, except the third disc in the three-disc set that contains the fascinating two-hour long documentary about what a debacle his movie is, that is. The other two discs though pretty much play like two separate movies.
Two separate, boring movies filled with stilted, unbelievable performances (I love Rex Harrison as much as anyone – he is the definitive white Dr. Doolittle, but his “daddy Caesar” routine that he played out with Cleopatra borders on the icky) and a disjointed story that takes forever to develop, yet seems to leave out chunks of important narrative, giving viewers the feeling that they’re coming in at the middle of a conversation.
Mankiewicz’s plan was to release two different three hour movies from this morass of history, fancy sets, and guys with British accents playing Romans. The first movie would be about Cleopatra and Julius Caesar and the second movie would be about Cleopatra and Antony.
Zanuck objected and basically said, “who wants to see Doolittle and Liz Taylor in a movie when you’ve got Richard Burton sailing up her Nile?” I couldn’t agree more, but you are still left with the first half of this movie where the inane bickering of Cleopatra and Doolittle somehow tries to bring to mind one of those Tracy and Hepburn comedies, but only manages to bring to mind how old Rex is.
After Caesar’s exit from the film, things get a little more entertaining, but not necessarily any better. Antony promises Cleopatra that he’ll do what he can to get her kid put on the throne and somehow ends up as her lover.
This transition from “guy who was on screen for five minutes in the first couple of hours” to “guy who becomes Cleopatra’s other great love, but is filled with self-doubts due to the long shadow cast by Caesar” is handled very poorly and never explained, but if leaving all of that character development out kept this movie under the five hour mark, then I won’t argue too vehemently for its inclusion.
Of course having that in would have helped to explain everything that Antony did in the rest of the movie, such as deferring to Cleopatra’s dubious military strategy of attacking the Roman forces of Octavian from the sea, even though Antony is the world champion of land battles and has a few hundred thousand crack land troops and several competent generals that would go to hell and back for him.
All of this leads to the climatic battle scene where Antony rides off against Octavian’s army of several thousand by himself! Wading into the enemy troops (the Romans who used to idolize him) he repeatedly tries to whack them with his sword, but everyone refuses to engage him in battle. “Is there no one that will grant me an honorable death?” he shouts at the them.
This is followed up by Cleopatra’s close encounter with an asp and all that’s left is Roddy McDowell as Octavian fuming over being cheated out of humiliating both Antony and Cleopatra.
A spectacular waste of talent and resources (though I think we could have found someone a bit more convincing as Cleopatra than Liz Taylor, even though she acted like a queen on the set by all accounts), the documentary that accompanies the movie expertly dissects the witch’s brew of circumstances that coalesced around it to doom this film to failure.
Keep in mind that this was the movie that was supposed to save Twentieth Century Fox from going under and that they kept pouring money into it, first because they thought the more they spent, the bigger return they would get, then because it was simply too costly to shut down, and finally because it was the only movie they were making and they had nowhere else to put their money.
What’s up on the screen manages to be the most expensive sword and sandal movie ever made, complete with the migraine-inducing dialogue and questionable performances you would expect from any movie of its ilk, only all dressed up with honest-to-gosh movie stars and sets that would probably make the real Cleopatra envious.
As is usually the case, it’s the story behind the film that’s the stuff of legend and it’s the documentary, Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood, that makes this DVD set worth owning. Just consider the movie itself to be a necessary evil to maximize enjoyment of the documentary.
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