Cleopatra (1963)

on June 12, 1963 by BOXOFFICE Staff
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The LONG-AWAITED 20th Century-Fox production of "Cleopatra" will go down in film history as the most opulent, pictorially magnificent and eye-filling screen spectacle ever made -- as well as the longest, being a few minutes longer than either "Gone With the Wind" or "Ben-Hur." With the widely publicized off-screen romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton making this picture the most widely publicized film of recent times and giving it a tremendous want-to-see potential, "Cleopatra" is a "blockbuster" par excellence -- a picture which is almost certain to pay off its unprecedented production cost on a long haul, following its foreign showings.
   To answer the exhibitor's and moviegoers queries as to whether Walter Wanger's production, which was directed, partly written and largely edited by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, justifies its terrific production cost, it can be stated that the three high-salaried stars, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison, are unquestionably big boxoffice and contribute sterling portrayals of Cleopatra, Antony and Caesar, respectively, and the mammoth sets, authentic costumes and thousands of extras are impressively shown on the Todd-AO screen to make this "a lot of picture," to quote several patrons attending the New York premiere.
   Mankiewic z, who had previously directed Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" for MGM in 1953, used neither the plays by the Great Bard or George Bernard Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra" for his screenplay but, with the assistance of Ronald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, he delved into Plutarch and other ancient sources to come forth with a final treatment which subordinated the battles to the human story of the two most important episodes in Cleopatra's life, which Mankiewicz admits he had originally hoped to make as two separate pictures. Later, he was able to cut the original six-hour running time to approximately four hours.
   While Mankiewicz has emphasized the human tale by concentrating on Cleopatra, her admiration for and devotion to the much-older Julius Caesar and, after his assassination, her passionate romance with Mark Antony, the land and sea battles, as seen through their eyes, and the pageantry of the processionals and festive moments have rarely been equalled in any previous screen spectacle. Cleopatra's triumphant entrance into Rome, dressed in cloth-of-gold and seated on a huge stone idol pulled by hundreds of slaves and preceded by warriors and scantily clad dancing girls, is unquestionably the most impressive, eye-popping display in screen annals, surpassing even the similar spectacle in D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" of silent screen fame.
   Equally magnificent is Cleopatra's entrance into Tarsus aboard her royal barge, followed by her banquet and entertainment to Antony on board, a scene which has a few daring and suggestive dance interludes. While the land battles are brief and effective, the naval encounter at Actium between Antony's forces and Octavian's ships, which ends in the spectacle of dozens of burning vessels, is amazingly realistic, as is Antony's addressing the frenzied Roman mob at the burning pyre of Caesar. These are moments moviegoers will remember and talk about.
   Probably no other present-day actress could equal the regal beauty and fiery dramatic talents of Elizabeth Taylor, who portrays Cleopatra, first as a vain tempestuous ruler, then a tender, devoted woman loyal to Caesar, later passionately in love with Antony and, finally, the lonely, embittered queen who dies by her own hand.
   Histrionically, it is Rex Harrison whose gentle, world-weary Julius Caesar displays the most human traits, who captures top honors in a performance which is likely to be an Academy Award contender. The ruggedly handsome Richard Burton is an ideal choice for Mark Antony and he will capture the hearts of many feminine patrons, just as he did his co-star in the film.
   Of the half dozen most important featured players, Pamela Brown is practically wasted in her fleeting appearances as the High Priestess and George Cole is briefly touching as Caesar's devoted mute servant, Flavius, but Roddy McDowall is extraordinarily fine as the effete Octavian who succeeds Caesar; Hume Cronyn is splendid as the loyal Sosigenes; Cesare Danova makes his scenes count as Apollodorus and Kenneth Haigh stands out as Brutus, who plots Caesar's death. Martin Landau, Robert Stephens, John Hoyt and Gregoire Aslan also have their moments in a cast of 38 listed players.
   The music composed and conducted by Alex North is appropriately tempestuous with occasional romantic strains. Leon Shamroy's Todd-AO photography is superb and the art direction and choreography also rate special mention. While a few of Miss Taylor's costumes are very revealing, the picture has been approved in toto by both the MPAA Production Code Administration and the British Censors. The long-anticipated production of "Cleopatra" is at last a reality and a great motion picture which will stand the test of time.      
Frank Leyendecker 20th Century Fox 243 mins.
Tags: spectacle, classic, romance, true story, Rome, royalty, dance, Caesar, Roman, Todd-AO, Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy McDowall, George Cole, Richard Burton, Martin Landau, Kenneth Haigh, Cesare Danova, Robert Stephens, John Hoyt, Gregoire Alan, Walter Wanger, Rex Harrison, Darryl F. Zanuck, Rouben Mamoulian, Joseph L. Mankiewicz
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