If you ask someone about Cleopatra, they’re more likely to talk about how it famously went over-budget and nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox than they are the movie itself. It’s known for its incredibly difficult production (you can read more about that fascinating story here), being a flop (which it wasn’t, incidentally) and for being the first movie where the main star pocketed $1 million upfront for a single movie.
Indeed Elizabeth Taylor ended up with a lot more than that. Her contract meant she got paid extra for every day production overran compared to initial projections, so after an illness nearly killed her, production moved from England to Italy, the director and actors around her changed and other overruns added months to the production, it meant she got paid millions. Cleopatra is famous for perhaps being the most expensive movie ever made, if adjusted for inflation, and Elizabeth Taylor may well still be the best paid actress ever for a single movie, by the same measure.
All that means that few people ever mention the movie itself, other than to assume that because it has a reputation for being a flop, it’s not very good. That’s very wrong though, as it’s actually one of the most spectacular looking movies ever made – something you can really revel in on Blu-ray – with a truly Shakespearean take on the historical figures it’s based on. Until relatively recently the film was only available in a chopped down, three-hour version, but this is the original, four-hour premiere cut, once thought lost but which has been found, restored and looks glorious.
It’s a more expansive and satisfying experience that the three-hour version, and surprisingly, despite the hefty running time, it never drags. That’s partly because it’s structured almost as two back-to-back films. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz at one point wanted to release it as two movies – one looking at Cleopatra & Caesar and the other Cleopatra & Anthony. He nearly got fired over that idea, but that structure is still present in the finished film.
The opening section sees Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) travelling to Egypt and trying to sort out a situation that has seen the country’s co-ruler, Cleopatra (Taylor), banished by the slightly dim Ptolemy and his scheming advisors. However Cleopatra isn’t beyond a bit of scheming of her own, and soon has Caesar wrapped round her finger, and is pregnant with the Roman General’s son, which she feels will secure the future of Egypt.
However history has other ideas and when Caesar meets a sticky end, the second part of film looks at Cleo’s famously tempestuous relationship with Marc Anthony (Richard Burton) and how their love/hate relationship threatens to destroy the two greatest nations on Earth.
It’s a wonderfully operatic story that does a superb job of turning the fate of nations into a believable story about the lives of emotions of it rulers. Taylor’s Cleopatra is a very human character who’s matched in hubris and fiery temperament by Burton’s Marc Anthony. They make a great on-screen pair, and you can certainly see why they sparked off-screen as well as.
As mentioned it’s a truly spectacular movie. While you’d have thought Fox might have cut back on some of the most outlandish sequences when things were going over-budget, instead it seems they pumped in more and more cash in the hope the end result would be so incredible audiences couldn’t help but want to see it. Things such as Cleopatra’s entry to Rome and the sea battle are amongst the biggest and most epic sequences ever committed to celluloid and they look absolutely amazing in HD.
The transfer is superb, with little grain, wonderful handling of colour and clarity that ensures you can see every fragment of the incredible production design. It really makes you appreciate the scale the movie is told on, which is made all the more incredible when you realise that most of it was done on-set, without the assistance of special effects. In fact, there probably wasn’t another movie told quite on this scale until CGI came along to augment things and allow these kinds of epic sets and vast armies of extra without actually need to pay to do it practically.
The disc doesn’t stint on special features either, including everything worthwhile that came with the three disc DVD release. That includes the superb, feature-length documentary ‘Cleopatra The Film That Changed Hollywood’, which goes in-depth into the incredible story of the making of the movie. It’s almost as interesting as the film itself and a must-see for fans of film history.
There are also some new extras, including ‘Cleopatra Through The Ages and Cultural History’, which offers a short but interesting look at how we’ve viewed the Egyptian queen over the centuries. There’s also the self-explanatory ‘Cleopatra Missing Footage’, which is a look at the hours of footage Joseph L. Mankiewicz filmed and turned into a massive, eight-hour cut of the movie, but which has since been lost. Finally there’s ‘The Movie Channel presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman’, which is essentially a shorter take on the history of the film, given a little extra interest due to the fact Tom Rothman headed Fox during the making of Cleopatra and so knows a little something about runaway production.
Overall Verdict: Cleopatra is a far better movie than its ‘flop’ reputation might suggest and looks utterly astonishing in HD. A true epic given a very good Blu-ray release.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac