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Cleopatra (1963) - Illustrated Reference
Cleopatra was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and premiered on 12th June 1963. Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, Martin Landau, Hume Cronyn and Cesare Danova. Screenplay by Sidney Buchman, Ranald MacDougall and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Music by Alex North. 248mins.
Cleopatra VII Philopater (69-30 BC) was the most famous of the Queens of Egypt, she was of Macedonian Greek origin, a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty which ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great's death. She refused to speak Egyptian and only spoke Greek.
She was the daughter of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes, after his death Cleopatra married her younger brother Ptolemy XIII and they ruled Egypt together. Influenced by his advisors who hated Cleopatra, young Ptolemy planned to depose his sister and be the sole ruler.
The Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that Cleopatra was a woman of “surpassing beauty, with a charming voice, brilliant to look upon and to listen to.” Which explains why great men like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony couldn’t resist her.
After the death of Antony, Cleopatra ordered a basket of figs brought to her, she ate a few and than held her hand in the basket until a poisonous asp concealed inside bit her. She was found dead along with the body of her handmaiden.
Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) / Cleopatra
Born in Hampstead, London, Elizabeth Taylor was Oscar nominated Best Actress for Raintree County (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and winning Best Actress for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Taylor won a special Oscar in 1993 the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and also in 1993 a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute
Richard Burton (1925-1984) / Mark Antony
Born in Pontrhydyfen, Wales, Richard Burton was Oscar nominated 7 times for the films – My Cousin Rachel (1952), The Robe (1953), Becket (1964), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and Equus (1977).
Burton won two British Academy Awards for Best Actor for the films The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Rex Harrison (1908-1990) / Julius Caesar
Born in Lancashire, England, Rex Harrison was Oscar Nominated Best Actor for Cleopatra (1963) and won Best Actor for My Fair Lady (1964).
Roddy McDowall (1928-1998) / Octavian
Born in London, England. Roddy McDowall was nominated for a Golden Globe Best Supporting Actor Award for Cleopatra (1963). He won a Best Supporting Actor Saturn Award for the film Fright Night (1985).
Martin Landau (1928-) / Rufio
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Martin Landau was Oscar Nominated Best Supporting Actor for Tucker: The Man and his Dreams (1988) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and won Best Supporting Actor for Ed Wood (1994).
Hume Cronyn (1911-2003) / Sosigenes
Born in Ontario, Canada, Hume Cronyn was Oscar Nominated Best Supporting Actor for The Seventh Cross (1944) and was nominated for a Best Actor Saturn Award for Cocoon (1985) and Cocoon the Return (1988).
Andrew Keir (1926-1997) / Agrippa
Born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, Andrew Keir's films include - A Night to Remember (1958), Tunes of Glory (1960), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Dracula Prince of Darkness (1965), Quatermass and the Pit (1967), Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971) and Lion of the Desert (1981)
Cesare Danova (1926-1992) / Apollodorus
Born in Lombardy, Italy, Cesare Danova’s films include – Viva Las Vegas (1964), Chamber of Horrors (1966), Che! (1969), Mean Streets (1973), Tentacles (1977) and National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978).
Cleopatra: How DARE you and the rest of your barbarians set fire to my library? Play conqueror all you want, mighty Caesar! Rape, murder, pillage thousands, even millions of human beings! But neither you nor any other barbarian has the right to destroy one human thought!
Caesar: Whatever else I may be, in your opinion, first of all, I am Caesar.
Cleopatra: And I am Cleopatra, Queen, daughter of Isis !
Ceasar: If I say so and when I say so, you are what I say you are, nothing more.
Cleopatra: Hail Caesar!
Caesar: You... a descendant of generations of inbred, incestuous mental defectives, how dare you call anyone barbarian!
20th Century Fox had filmed Cleopatra before way back in 1917, starring Theda Bara as the Queen of Egypt but no print survives of this film, the last known prints were destroyed in a fire at the studio. All that remains are a few stills and a few seconds of footage.
Susan Hayward, Joan Collins and Audrey Hepburn were considered for Cleopatra and Stephen Boyd, Laurence Harvey and Marlon Brando were considered for Mark Antony. Brando had already played Antony in Julius Caesar (1953) also directed by Joseph L, Mankiewicz.
Filming began in 1960 with director Rouben Mamoulian in charge and than the problems began, constant script rewrites, filming in England proved disastrous, the studio sets were too small for such a huge production and there weren’t enough sound stages. Plus Elizabeth Taylor was falling sick with cold and flu thanks to the English weather.
After more than a year the film’s cost had risen to $7m and there was only 10 minutes of useable footage, Mamoulian resigned and at Taylor’s suggestion Joseph L. Mankiewicz was brought on board. He had directed her in Suddenly, Last Summer.
When Taylor fell ill again with pneumonia the production was moved to Italy, she underwent an emergency tracheotomy and word got out that she might die. It was headline news. Her condition was critical but she eventually recovered in time to receive a Best Actress Oscar for the film Butterfield 8.
Peter Finch had been cast as Caesar but when filming moved to Italy he was replaced by Rex Harrison.
Mankiewicz had wanted Laurence Olivier for Caesar but he was busy running the National Theatre in London at the time.
Previous versions include Cleopatra (1934) starring Claudette Colbert and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Vivien Leigh played the role in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) directed by Gabriel Pascal and based on the play by George Bernard Shaw, Claude Rains played Caesar and Stewart Granger, Apollodorus.
Elizabeth Taylor was paid a then record one million dollars to play Cleopatra, which more than doubled by the time the film was completed.
Burton and Taylor fell in love during filming. She was still married to Eddie Fisher at the time and he was married to Sybil Williams. The scandal dominated newspaper headlines the world over and the paparazzi followed the couple everywhere.
After divorcing their spouses they got married in 1964 and divorced in 1974, they remarried in 1975 and divorced again in 1976.
Burton and Taylor starred in 11 movies together,
Martin Landau was cast as Rufio after Mankiewicz saw him in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) and liked his performance.
79 sets were constructed for the film and 26,000 costumes. Miss Taylor changed costumes a record breaking 65 times during the film.
There was to have been one big final battle sequence in the film but the nearly bankrupt studio could not afford to throw any more money at the film.
The highlight of the film has to be Cleopatra’s triumphant entry into Rome, a scene requiring thousands of extras and huge sets. Nowadays it would all be done in computer but back then everything was built on set full size. The actors did not have to pretend they were looking at something spectacular.
The original idea was to make two 3-hour Cleopatra movies, the first would be called Caesar and Cleopatra followed by Antony and Cleopatra a year later.
The rough cut of the film was about 6 hours long but Fox studios balked at releasing the film in two parts and about 2 hours were removed. The finished cut was a hefty 248 minutes in length including intermission, one of the longest films ever made.
One reason why the studio wanted one big movie was that they wanted to capitalise on the constant press coverage of the Burton / Taylor affair. Their thinking was that few people would have been interested in the first Cleopatra movie.
There was so much filmed footage removed from the final cut that the director joked he could have released another movie titled “The Further Adventures of Rufio and Octavian.”
Cleopatra was nominated for 9 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Music Score (Alex North), Best Editing, Best Sound and winning for Art Direction, Costume Design, Cinematography and Visual Effects. Best Picture winner that year was Tom Jones.
At the time of release this was by far the most expensive film ever made costing $44m, nearly three times the cost of Ben-Hur released a few years earlier. Adjusting for inflation Cleopatra would cost $320m in today’s money.
The film grossed $48m in North America which for any normal film would have been a resounding success but not for Cleopatra. It was the top grossing film of 1963 but the studio wouldn’t see any profit from the debacle until television sales in the early seventies.
Cleopatra nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox studios, luckily the phenomenal success of The Sound of Music in 1965 helped the studio get back on its feet. The Sound of Music was the first film to knock Gone With the Wind (1939) of it’s pedestal as highest grossing film of all time.
History has been kind to Cleopatra, the epic has more fans now than it ever did at the time. A remastered Blu-ray was released in 2012. It includes the excellent 2 hour documentary Cleopatra: The film that changed Hollywood.
The Critics Wrote –
"Cleopatra is not only a supercolossal eye-filler but it is also a remarkably literate cinematic recreation of a historic epoch. The film covers the 18 turbulent years leading to the foundation of the Roman Empire, from Cleopatra's first meeting with Julius Caesar until her death in defeat with Mark Antony. The result is a giant panorama, unequalled in the splendor of its spectacle scenes and, at the same time, surprisingly acute in its more personal story. Rex Harrison is superb as Caesar, his are the film's most brilliant lines, and something is lost with his assassination, which closes the film's first half. Ironically some of the weakest moments in the film are the love scenes between Liz and Dickie." (Variety)
"Afterwards, I raced back to the Dorchester [Hotel] and just made it to the downstairs lavatory and vomited." (Elizabeth Taylor on first seeing the film)
"The toughest three pictures I ever made... This picture was conceived in a state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in blind panic." (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
"A surpassing entertainment, one of the great epic films of our day... There may be those who find the length too tiring, the emphasis on Roman politics a bit too involved and tedious, the luxuriance too much. But... I don't see how you can fail to find this a generally brilliant, moving and satisfying film." (Bosley Crowther, New York Times)
"Size, and nobody to support its weight: no great figures; no persuasive and commanding players. Wrong: one - Rex Harrison. But then, the Ides of March impend over the first half of Cleopatra, and Mr Harrison, of whom I have never felt fonder, is killed off before the interval... It is a fearful let-down when Elizabeth Taylor is unrolled from the famous carpet.... It may be unfair to expect a range and power of voice which are not at her disposal. It is not unfair to expect range of feeling... All through the first half one longs for Shaw, and all through the second one pines for Shakespeare." (Dilys Powell)