Cleopatra (DVD)

Hail, Cleopatra!

Prior to the 1970s, few films — Gone with the Wind being one notable exception — had a bigger build-up than did Cleopatra (1963, Fox). The film was long in the making and rumoured to be excessively costly, but the major reason for the advance publicity was the ongoing Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton romance that filled newspapers, tabloids, and magazines of the time. When the film was finally released, it actually had a great deal of success at the box office and some middling reviews although much of that seemed to get lost in the continuing publicity about the principal actors and the flagging fortunes of 20th Century-Fox whose very existence was in the balance. In the end, the film made money and even received some Academy Award recognition in such areas as cinematography, art direction, costumes, and special effects.

Fox has now released Cleopatra on DVD in a three-disc special edition as part of its Five Star Collection.

A succession of successful campaigns of conquest finds Caesar in control of Egypt. He is soon infatuated by its ruler Cleopatra who manages to provide Caesar with an heir. Her intent is to see herself ruling the Roman Empire at Caesar’s side. Caesar returns to Rome and after several years finally agrees to have Cleopatra join him there. She arrives in the Roman capital in a huge triumphal procession and then proceeds to try to convince Caesar that the senate should recognize him as the Empire’s supreme ruler. The senators rebel at the idea and in the end, conspire to kill Caesar. Cleopatra and Caesar’s son is ignored by Rome and Octavian becomes Caesar’s successor.

Cleopatra returns to Egypt with her son. There she rules over the country and ignores all advances from Rome, including a succession of minor emissaries. Finally, Antony — Proconsul of Rome — goes to Alexandria where Cleopatra agrees to receive him, but demands that he kneel before her. Antony soon comes under Cleopatra’s spell to such an extent that all else becomes unimportant to him. Meanwhile Octavian seeks to bring Egypt back into Rome’s sphere and leads an army to do so. The resulting confrontations will determine the fate of Antony, Cleopatra, and indeed the whole Roman Empire.

Somehow over the years, I’d never managed to see Cleopatra once, partly due to circumstance but also perhaps partly because I was turned off by all the Taylor-Burton nonsense that had accompanied the film’s shooting. Thus, as I opened this new DVD from Fox and faced with a four-hour running time for the film, never mind about seven other hours of supplementary material, I was prepared to be bored, disappointed, and perhaps annoyed. Boy, was I wrong!

From the acting (for the most part), to the costumes and sets, to the cinematography, this is an impressive piece of work. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who took over from Rouben Mamoulian, has managed to craft a film of incredible beauty, spectacle and impact. It’s all the more impressive when one considers all the roadblocks that he had to overcome, including a script that needed extensive rewriting, having his producer (veteran independent Walter Wanger) yanked from the production, suffering last minute budget cuts that reduced many battle scenes to skimpy skirmishes, and dealing with serious health issues because of such difficulties. Then too, he was forced to cut two hours out of his preferred six-hour cut of the film. (Mankiewicz actually saw the production as two three-hour parts — Caesar and Cleopatra, and Antony and Cleopatra.) The four-hour version is the one that premiered (and is reproduced on the DVD), but in fact, for general release, a further 45 minutes was snipped out at the behest of returned Fox head Darryl Zanuck. The resulting version was denounced by many of the principals including Taylor and Mankiewicz.

One of the aspects of Cleopatra that most struck me was the performance by Elizabeth Taylor. As things have transpired, I seem to have seen and re-seen a number of Taylor’s films of the late 1950s and 1960s lately and I have come to appreciate even more how great an actress she is. Her Cleopatra is a stunning portrayal — a woman at times playful, at times subservient, at times cruel and commanding, but the impact is always one of complete believability. The effect is only enhanced by the costuming and make-up that have been devised for the character and which Taylor carries off with ease.

As Caesar and Antony respectively, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton are both quite good. Harrison manages to convey the regal, forceful nature of Caesar as well as convincingly make us understand how Cleopatra can manipulate such a man. Richard Burton’s task as Antony is more difficult because he must portray a man who is essentially weak, yet still try to make us feel sorry for him. That he is successful at all is a tribute to Burton’s acting skill, given that a significant portion of his performance was lost in coming up with the four-hour cut.

Of particular note in the supporting cast is Roddy McDowall who plays Octavian in a quiet yet forceful manner. At times, he almost makes Octavian seem inconsequential, yet he never lets us forget the scheming nature of the man. McDowall was inadvertently wrongly listed in the best actor rather than best supporting actor category at Academy Award nomination time, effectively shutting him out of consideration in either. Other good supporting help comes from Martin Landau, Hume Cronyn, and Cesare Danova.

If there’s one thing you can’t say about Cleopatra, it’s that the money that was spent (apparently some $40 million) doesn’t appear on the screen. The sets and set pieces are spectacular. Of note is the processional entry of Cleopatra into Rome crowned by the appearance of her and her son seated atop a model of a sphinx pulled by a multitude of slaves stepping and swaying in unison. Another impressive sight is Cleopatra’s imperial barge — large, regal looking, and apparently crafted using real gold leaf to complete the effect.

Well, what of the DVD? Fox presents the film itself on two DVDs with the break at the intermission. The image is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, utilizes 52 scene selections, and looks stunning. Brightness and contrast are excellent, leading to top-notch shadow detail. Colour fidelity is also excellent, and there are beautiful examples of the reds of Roman uniforms contrasted against neutral backgrounds and blue skies. Edge enhancement is at a minimum. The source material, which is the 1995 restoration of the four-hour (actually 248 minutes) premiere version, is obviously in great shape for there are few instances of any speckling or other imperfections.

The English Dolby 5.1 sound provides a quite satisfactory presentation of the film’s aural pleasures including Alex North’s fine score. Emphasis is on the three front speakers and dialogue is nicely balanced. On the other hand, there is little use of the surrounds except in Cleopatra’s triumphal march and some of the naval battle scenes. English and French Dolby surround tracks are included as are English and Spanish subtitles.

Accompanying the entire four hours of the film is an excellent audio commentary by Martin Landau, Chris and Tom Mankiewicz, and film historian Jack Brodsky. This is not a four-way conversational commentary, but one that tends more to feature one of the speakers alone for lengthy periods of the film. In any event, by the end of it, you know an awful lot about what went on before and during Cleopatra‘s filming. All the speakers are obviously enthusiastic about the subject and that makes listening to them a pleasure.

Fox has included a third disc which contains a number of other supplements, the centerpiece of which is a 2000 two-hour documentary detailing the making of the film. Called “Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood,” it’s definitely one of the best of its type. It’s thorough, detailed, filled with interesting interviews with a number of the film’s principals, and nicely narrated by Robert Culp. Also on the disc are a nine-minute 1963 making-of featurette entitled “The Fourth Star of Cleopatra”; a selection of theatrical trailers in several languages; Movietone footage from the New York, Hollywood and Washington premieres; and an extensive still gallery covering costumes, posters, billboard art, lobby cards, and excerpts from exhibitors’ campaign books and theatrical program booklets.

The cut that reduced Cleopatra from six to four hours resulted in a version that occasionally shifts the story forward without clearly explaining what’s gone on, leaving the viewer to guess for him or herself. This is particularly evident, though not exclusively so, during the film’s second half. One very noticeable example is the death of Rufio, Antony’s trusted lieutenant, played by Martin Landau. Antony finds him dead one morning outside his tent amid the camp apparently deserted by Antony’s army. We’re never sure exactly how he died — did Antony’s deserting men kill him or did he commit suicide? The latter seems unlikely, but a later comment by Antony almost suggests that that might have been the case. The original six-hour cut clarified this and other uncertainties, as the DVD’s audio commentary makes clear. On a positive note, efforts to restore the original six-hour cut are continuing, raising the hope that this aspect of concern about Cleopatra can be removed.

As reported elsewhere, there were a couple of concerns raised about the incidental music for the film. The exit music was inadvertently omitted from the second disc and the intermission music should have been placed at the start of the second disc instead of at the end of the first. Fox Home Video, however, has already responded to these concerns to say that these problems will be corrected in future pressings and those wishing replacement discs will be able to get them. Further information on this is expected within a few weeks.

Finally, I have to report that Fox has chosen to place the third disc in a flimsy sleeve at the back of the insert booklet. With no protective covering, it is quite prone to scratching every time you take it out. As far as I know, there are proper three-disc cases available. Why not use them and avoid this sort of concern?

Aside from the quibbles above, Fox has provided an outstanding DVD of Cleopatra. This is a very entertaining film and it’s been afforded a top-notch presentation. At a list price of $26.98, this is the DVD bargain of the year so far. Highly recommended.


The court finds the defendant not guilty and commends co-conspirator Fox for its excellent work. Case dismissed.

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