DVD Review: CLEOPATRA (directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

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by Kevin Bowen on May 31, 2013

in CD-DVD,Film


During one of the tamer scenes of Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor’s Queen of the Nile leads Julius Caesar to the tomb of Alexander the Great. Staring down at the (pretend) grave of Western Civilization’s greatest conqueror, it’s possible that Taylor was thinking, “Amateur!” Whereas Alexander tried and failed to take with force the entire world, Taylor was accomplishing that feat with overwhelming fame and sex appeal.

Kevin Bowen's Stage and Cinema DVD review of CLEOPATRA

For those who consider films to be veiled biographies of their stars, the ridiculously lavish 1963 Roman epic might be the greatest landmark of the theory. Filmed at the height of her fame, Taylor placed a major studio, 20th Century Fox, in the role of a supplicant showering a monarch with gifts – she was paid an equivalent of nearly $50 million. The budget of $42 million ($300 million in today’s dollars) nearly bankrupted the studio. The head-spinning set-piece of Taylor entering the Roman Forum riding a giant Sphinx dressed in gold crowned Taylor queen of the world.

Kevin Bowen's Stage and Cinema DVD review of CLEOPATRA

It’s also hard not to notice when Hollywood’s greatest man-eater plays history’s greatest man-eater. Taylor’s Cleopatra steals Richard Burton’s Marc Antony from his wife, right as Taylor was doing the same to Burton offscreen. Burton’s boozy helplessness in the face of Cleopatra’s beauty and power raises the question, “Is Burton acting?” Their edged back-and-forth seems a premonition of life to come.

Kevin Bowen's Stage and Cinema DVD review of CLEOPATRA

Were there other people in this Joseph Mankiewicz film? Thousands, actually. Cleopatra was among the last of the cast-of-thousands epics of the sixties. It starts with a scene of Roman battlefield pyres and often plays at that scale throughout. At least one of those thousands stands out: Roddy McDowall as that masterful weasel Octavian. His instructions for testing poison, “Give this to one of the badly wounded,” is darkly nutty and hints at the insanity that would plague his descendents. Fiddling while Rome burned and such.

Kevin Bowen's Stage and Cinema DVD review of CLEOPATRA

Cleopatra has always split critics, some of whom are drawn to its spectacle and production design, others who are repulsed by its talkiness and four-hour length. Everything about it seems colossal. Watching Cleopatra with the scale of its sets, giant landscapes, and eye-popping pageantry, you’re struck by a sense of loss that in the CG age no film that would ever be made this way. That’s a shame, because there’s a texture to both the sets and the masses that CG ultimately can’t match. Cleopatra is a trip to another time when you’re amazed by the resources that a major studio once could command to do nothing more than make a movie.

Kevin Bowen's Stage and Cinema DVD review of CLEOPATRA

The new 50th anniversary restoration, by 20th Century Fox archivist Schawn Belston, debuted at Cannes and will be circling the country in the coming weeks and finding its way to Blu-Ray. It’s beautifully done with the detail of the 65 mm film, from the scale of the design to the scar on Taylor’s neck (among other things, Taylor nearly died from pneumonia while filming and needed a tracheotomy). Love it or hate it, Cleopatra will always be an amazing sight to see.

Kevin Bowen's Stage and Cinema DVD review of CLEOPATRA

The limited edition Cleopatra is packaged with a full-color book with rare images from the making of the film. Both versions come with bonus material that includes the full-length documentary Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood, a feature on the cultural history of Cleopatra, plus lost footage, commentaries about the film and original trailers. There is also footage from the film’s premieres in New York and Los Angeles.

photos by 20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox Pictures
rated PG-13 / 243 minutes
original release date June 12, 1963
now available at Amazon on Blu-Ray


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