Cleopatra (1963)

The film Cleopatra is the stuff of legend. Unfortunately, it is more interesting as a study of the money and mathematics of cinema than the making of film. Cleopatra purports to be the study of three remarkable leaders and two great love affairs, but is instead one huge flop. Every discussion of the film is preceded by a look at the opulence of the production, which is reputed to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $44 million (nearly ten times that amount in new millennium dollars. Sorta makes Titanic look like an exercise in restraint). Beset by problems such as the dubious decision to film a Mediterranean epic in London, England, and the hiring of the notoriously unreliable Elizabeth Taylor for the unheard of sum of a million dollars, the production also suffered through the resignation of the film’s first director and the mid-filming hiring of expensive (and often ignored) script doctors.

In a move reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s rescue of Kirk Douglas’s sword and sandals epic Spartacus, respected Hollywood veteran director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose earlier efforts included some very good, though conventional films like Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve, was thrown into the bloated and floundering production mid-stream. Unfortunately, Mankiewicz proved to be no Stanley Kubrick. To rebuild floundering movie ticket sales that had been lost – the studios figured – to competition from television, Mankiewicz was commissioned to produce a widescreen epic of mammoth proportions, rife with extravagant scenes. However, rather than propelling the action, as such scenes generally do in Kubrick’s epic, they bring this one to a screeching halt. Any forward progress that the narrative has taken is killed while we stand agape at the spectacle, wondering how much money was spent on this shot, or how long it must have taken to set up that scene.

Because the film constantly draws attention to itself, rather than to its characters and actors (who are – other than Rex Harrison, whose Julius Caesar is terrific – sadly underdeveloped and/or incompetent. Richard Burton’s performance is wildly uneven, while the shrill-voiced and petulant Taylor is, while admittedly gorgeous, a nails-on-chalkboard irritant throughout) or its story (which should have been easy. How hard could it be to steal the best elements of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra?), the audience becomes an apathetic observer. Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” talks of the great Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, whose rule is marked by desert-decayed monuments crumbling back into the sands of time and highlighted by these words, engraved on a pedestal in his honour, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” In similar fashion, Cleopatra stands as a dubious but enduring monument to the hubris and blindness of an ageing generation of filmmakers who thought that the only way to compete with the small screen was to fill the big one with more stuff. The film’s failure forced some Hollywood filmmakers to re-examine their approach. Is it merely a coincidence that the last golden age in American filmmaking emerged soon thereafter?

Jan Dardine

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