Cinemagraphe
Cleopatra 1963

Cleopatra - 1963

Cleopatra - Released July 31, 1963. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (with uncredited work from Rouben Mamoulian and Darryl F. Zanuck)

Cleopatra Wardrobe and Hair - Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are the soap opera in the middle of the "most expensive film of all time" in which Twentieth Century Fox went to the edge of bankruptcy* while financing this historical drama (which, for some, contains enough similarities with the 1934 DeMille-Colbert film to be considered an ersatz-remake).

The original idea for the movie at Fox was a $2 million dollar mini-epic to be released in 1960, with Joan Collins in the lead. But something like a fever hit the executives at Fox when they saw a way to get Elizabeth Taylor onboard and to expand the scope of the film to a larger scale based upon preliminary art direction work showing huge movie set designs (this fever started with Spyros Skouras. He played an important role throughout, and a "defense" of his involvement is published as The Cleopatra Files: Selected Documents from the Spyros P. Skouras Archive - Amazon).

Beginning from February 1959 when the art concepts were shown to the Fox executives, until the final release of the movie in 1963, the production was on a roller coaster of continually changing expectations for all involved. The casting was assembled and collapsed, with Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd coming in and going back out, the director Rouben Mamoulian shooting ten minutes of footage in England then quitting, and Taylor going through two serious illnesses, one nearly killing her and leaving a tracheotomy scar on her neck.

During a six-month hiatus while the whole production was shifted to Rome and Taylor was recuperating, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton came on as Caesar and Antony, and Mankiewicz was made director (he was suggested by Taylor, who had directed her in Suddenly, Last Summer, 1959. Taylor also suggested George Stevens. These 'suggestions' were also part of her contract, since she had director-approval).

Mankiewicz didn't like the (incomplete) script Mamoulian had been shooting from, and threw it out, starting over with his own character concepts**. But during the whole production a final script was never finalized and Mankiewicz himself wrote out 328 pages of script, and shot much of it in a frenzy to move the film forward to completion (Mankiewicz is quoted as saying about Cleopatra "conceived in a state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in blind panic.")

Meanwhile, a lack of production planning and control meant gigantic sets were built and extras hired for the epic scenes, only for all to sit unused for weeks (and on payroll) at a time while Mankiewicz, in a state of exhaustion, daily shot his way through script pages he was writing nightly and discarding later, trying to find a way to sew the whole story together in a coherent way.

Added to this chaos was the gossip-press obsession with the Taylor-Burton romance which started off with the two actors actively disliking and insulting each other, and ending with the pair in love and their pre-Cleopatra marriages to other people destroyed.

The costs of the film put Fox into serious economic troubles which sucked the money out of their other productions that they were trying to get out to theatres. Taylor got the previously unheard-of price tag of $1 million for her services, but there were so many added-on expenses and costs to her employment her fees eventually rose to $7 million*** for her work on Cleopatra. In fact, she had already earned $2 million before the production was moved from Shepperton Studios to Rome.

When released, the critical response was generally negative, though many did praise the sharp dialogue and the sheer spectacle of the film itself (79 sets were built in Italy for the film). Multiple versions of the movie bounced around in theaters, television (where Cleopatra finally turned a profit in 1966 when aired by ABC which paid $5 million) and in worldwide markets.

There are many versions of Cleopatra, some of these are listed below:

  • 8-1/2-hour black and white work print made by Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz original conception was to make two films: one as Caesar and Cleopatra, the second one Antony and Cleopatra. Fox squashed this as it was too unusual a concept for a general audiences film in 1963, and because it meant having to wait to get out the second film which featured Burton and Taylor together, the source of so much worldwide publicity. There are legendary tales that copies of this 8-1/2-hour work print exist in collectors files.
  • 5-hour 15 minute color work-print cut by Mankiewicz. This is probably what was shown to Zanuck in October 1962 which caused Fox to then fire Mankiewicz (he was eventually rehired to shoot 49 pages of new material to patch together the story in Cleopatra). They abhorred the idea of trying to get a 5-1/2-hour Cleopatra into theatres. Darryl F. Zanuck worked his way through this footage to make a single cut of the film for the 1963 premiere.
  • The June 12, 1963 NYC Premiere version - 4-hour and 6 minutes
  • The June 12 version was then cut down to 3-hour and 44 minutes
  • General theatre release version in 1963 was 3-hour - 12-minutes
  • 192 minute VHS version March 15, 1995
  • 248 minute VHS "Special Edition" 2001 version
  • 246 minute DVD February 7, 2006
  • TV broadcast versions of 192 min  and 233 min  
  • Blu-Ray 50th Anniversary version - 4 Hour-8-minutes. The Blu-ray version is also a restored version of the film. Effort was made to collect together the various versions to try and recreate Mankiewicz 1963 premier cut. During the recovery work on the footage, technicians discovered to their horror that Fox executives in 1979 had apparently consigned the left over Cleopatra footage to the trash in an effort to clean up storage space. Cleopatra 50th Anniversary Blu-ray - Amazon

Is Cleopatra even a very good film?

Film criticism is mostly subjective, and while this movie has fans, it also has distractors. In a more objective vein it's easier to say that Cleopatra has a nice technical polish, though that isn't surprising considering the amount of money spent on it.

An advantage Cleopatra had at the time of its release was that the industry of movie epics from the 50s-60s created new techniques and skills for showing off the huge amounts of money being spent on sets, crowds, costumes and art direction in general, and in all of this Cleopatra excels, showing the colorful psychedelia of colors that was then just a burgeoning fashion but would run rampant with each succeeding year until the "hippie era" capped it off.

Mankiewicz's scripting gives Cleopatra patches of intelligent dialogue that is as good, if not better, than what appeared in many of the other competing historical epics of that frame in Hollywood productions. Comparisons with the 1934 version shows that while the Elizabeth Taylor 1963 version stayed more or less contained to following the earlier DeMille film's sequence of events, Mankiewicz took opportunity to flesh out a lot of things that DeMille simply zipped through in his much shorter black and white movie, and that's probably why the 1963 version seems to jerk forward with alacrity at times and then to bog down in soap opera, and while soap opera was the very thing that helped the movie become a gossip-magazine sensation during production and then release, it doesn't help the movie as a piece of narrative art.

Taylor dominates the story differently than Claudette Colbert's 1934 portrayal. Colbert's Egyptian ruler was spunky and street smart, an underdog royal up against her brother who seems meant for the throne instead of her. But Colbert's Cleopatra beats out the men around her by being faster and more energetic and by being a more-or-less typically resourceful 1930s heroine, at a time when depression era heroines often had to be resourceful to connect with a depression era audiences.

In Taylor's version, Cleopatra is still a very smart woman, and she still makes the men around her to ultimately obey her will (that is, up until she meets Taylor's lifelong friend Roddy McDowell as Augustus). But Taylor's Cleopatra presides over Egypt in a different way. If Colbert is an ingenious Yankee then Taylor is an imperious Englishwoman who expects to be obeyed, and through machinations and manipulation, convinces the males to agree.

While all of that is happening in the story, Mankiewicz's movie gives us a history lesson in Egyptian and Roman politics in a tone that shows us he's convinced it's important. Some of the spectacle visualizes how the excesses of wealth and power by imperial rulers took on a form not possible to mere politicians of the modern western world (though Hitler and Mussolini took a shot at it in their respective countries during the 20th century), but most film critics thought the historizing part of Cleopatra made the movie "dry," an almost humorous result considering how much exploitive energy went into the movie as a magnet for celebrity news and for how "vulgar" (Elizabeth Taylor's words for the film) the movie tries to utilize Taylor's body on screen.

The seriousness of the history (and the philosophy of world peace in Cleopatra's dialogue) ends up being a substitute for giving the film respect because of the acting and story. Does Cleopatra deserve respect because it's true history (which is quite unlikely)? That's where an Egyptologist is more important than a film critic.

In the end, a hunk of the movie seems to be about how $44 million dollars makes costume fashion and room furnishings very important, and there's no doubting it is interesting to look at. Our three main principals (Rex Harrison, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) never seem to gel together like the art direction, except in brief interludes when Mankiewicz's script gives them excellent dialogue, almost as if there is a much better Cleopatra film with this same cast floating around somewhere that was culled to patch pieces into this one.

The simplest explanation for the quality of the film seems to be that the "spectacle" overwhelmed the drama. Critics generally seem to say Rex Harrison does a fine job, that Taylor goes from good to bad and back again, and Burton does the same. Compared to the 1934 film, Burton's Mark Antony seems to be throwing tantrums compared to the angry scowls of Henry Wilcoxon. Harrison gives a nicely dignified portrayal of an emperor with serious problems on his hands, and Taylor has Cleopatra as a serious, intelligent woman at times, and other times a shrill shouter who embodies the movie's up-and-down quality. If we can praise Mankiewicz for what's good in the film, I guess we must upbraid him for the out-of-controllness that's shows up everywhere else.

Footnotes:

*The usual reported number on the eventual production money spent on making Cleopatra is $44 million. Some claim a higher number based on added-in marketing costs, pushing the estimate toward $60 million. In modern terms, this would probably equal a production cost of over $750 million dollars for a 2016 feature film, or perhaps even more. It is nearly impossible to equivocate the costs because of factors effecting the total that go well beyond just calculating inflation between 1963 to 2016.

**Ultimately Cleopatra had a large number of writers attached officially and unofficially. A number of writers contributed without credit. One list includes the following : Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman, Ben Hecht, Carlo Maria Franzero and material drawn from historical works by Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian.

***Incidentally, the film was shot using the Todd-AO 70mm format, a technology owned by Taylor as she was the widow of Mike Todd, the film producer who came up with the idea of a high-resolution widescreen film method, in conjunction with the American Optical Company, in 1953.


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Original Page April 4, 2016 | Updated December 2020