Considering its legend as a farrago that fueled endless rumors for the gossip pages, Cleopatra is, disappointingly, neither a visionary masterpiece nor a fascinating catastrophe, but something altogether more banal: an unusually intimate epic that falls very flat. It’s essentially a pair of prolonged duets. It’s first half follows Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) in 48 B.C. as he attempts to sort out the convoluted rivalries between siblings Ptolemy (Richard O’Sullivan) and Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) over control of Egypt, which is a valuable Roman ally for its abundant riches. Caesar eventually supports Cleopatra, of course, and she assumes control of the kingdom while engaging in a romance with the general that will soon produce a son, Caesarion. Cleopatra manipulates Caesar to push for absolute control of Rome, which leads to his famous assassination by the senate. In its second half, the film basically starts over again and follows an almost identical narrative arc with Cleopatra leading another powerful Roman general, Mark Antony (Richard Burton), to his eventual political and personal demise.
Cleopatra has been cut and recut so many times (a rough print clocked in at eight hours) that it’s sometimes difficult to tell, from this 251-minute version, what director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s intentions might’ve been, but his vastly superior All About Eve may be useful in constructing an interpretation. In both films, Mankiewicz portrays brilliant people walling themselves off from outside life with words. Cleopatra, Caesar, and Mark Antony often appear to be entombed in the gargantuan sets, hermetically sealed off from most of the story’s off-screen scenes of war and political gamesmanship. The citizens of Rome and Egypt are mostly abstractions for us because they’re abstractions to these egotists who fancy themselves to be of divine origin and who’re mostly concerned with cultivating their own legend. Power, to them, is primarily a metaphorical object, and so it’s appropriate and telling that the processes of displaying power are dwelled upon (it feels as if a quarter of the running time is devoted to Cleopatra’s processional entrances alone), while the processes of attaining power are rendered in blurrier terms.
But whatever the original aim, the film that survives is most vividly a kitschy fashion show as well as a knowing fusion of two common enough sexual fantasies—of powerfully alpha queens decked out in inviting Egyptian regalia and of a young Elizabeth Taylor in just about anything. Mankiewicz and his many screenwriters omit quite a bit of the Cleopatra lore, but they’re sure, in a telling line, to tell us that she was a woman of infamous erotic allure with a prodigious amount of lovers like, well, Taylor herself, and the film benefits from this purplish, irresistible meta text (it’s too blatant to be called subtext). Taylor inhabits Cleopatra as a defiantly egocentric tribute to her own celebrity and beauty, with her considerable, amply displayed bosom featured as a formidable supporting player. Taylor may never convince you that she’s a queen of Egypt, but she was indisputably a reigning queen of Hollywood.
Fox is obviously aware of the sprawling Cleopatra’s potential as a major home-theater show pony. The image boasts staggering depth of field, which allows one to savor the frequent long sequences of soldiers or servants marching. Colors are explosive and ravishing, particularly the creamy skin tones, and the density of image detail (you can discern specifics of individual statues) fully honors the extravagant, if mostly superfluous, sets. The sound mix is a similarly confident multi-dimensional tapestry of clanging swords, flying fireballs, and gyrating dancers (Cleopatra’s famous entrance into Egypt is the show-stopper it’s intended to be), that’s tied all together by the unsurprisingly huge and bombastic score. Cleopatra isn’t a humble film, and this presentation allows contemporary cinephiles to meet it on the closest available approximation of its original terms.
All you really need to watch is the terrific two-hour featurette "Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood," as it concisely paints a fullish portrait of the infamous runaway production’s multiple shooting delays and hemorrhaging of money, as well as the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton affair, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s ailing health, the endless clash of various egos, the studios’ panic over the rise of television, etc. Conventionally made, but very effective for establishing the context of the film’s creation and reception. "Cleopatra Through the Ages: A Cultural History" amusingly refutes the cliché of the queen as a manipulative masturbatory fantasy, insisting that her great political acumen has been diminished by sexist scholars writing from the vantage point of her conquerors. The other supplements are entertaining and informative, if redundant, though "Fox Movie Channel Presents: Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman" is notably irritating for Rothman’s smug, cloying way of framing the Cleopatra debacle as an opportunity to promote Titanic, which was produced while he was running the company.
The most elaborate and tortured of all cinematic fashion shows has never looked more ravishingly decadent.