Cleopatra Is an Opulent Epic With a Passion Play at Its Heart

By Kieran Mulvaney

A sumptuous visual feast, this four-hour 1963 opus is a reminder of the times when movies literally featured casts of thousands.


In one of the more spectacular scenes in Joseph Mankiewicz’s sprawling 1963 epic Cleopatra, the titular Egyptian queen (Elizabeth Taylor) makes a triumphant entry into Rome atop a barely-miniaturized Sphinx, escorted by phalanxes of acrobats and dancers. As the crowd roars its approval and Julius Caesar awaits, his trusted lieutenant Mark Antony looks on in awe — clearly instantly entranced by the queen, and of all the moments throughout the movie’s 248-minute running time, this is perhaps the most pivotal.

From here on, we know Cleopatra’s attentions will ultimately shift from the patrician Caesar (Rex Harrison) to Richard Burton’s altogether more combustible Antony, a pivot that adds emotional depth to a movie that occasionally overindulgences in its own opulence. And it is an on-screen development that reflects an off-screen reality, as Cleopatra is famous for pairing Burton and Taylor — two of the most famous actors of their generation, who would scandalize polite society by carrying on an affair during filming (even as their respective spouses joined them on set), before marrying, divorcing, re-marrying, re-divorcing, and starring in multiple movies together over a 12-year period.

Cleopatra is also infamous for taking three years from initial filming to release; for going through two directors (one of whom was fired and then re-hired), two studio heads, two Caesars and two Marc Antonys; for being by far the most expensive movie ever made at the time (costing three times more than the previous record-holder, Ben-Hur); and for almost bankrupting 20th Century Fox. Taylor nearly died from pneumonia while filming it and hated the end product – as, indeed, did many critics at the time. Yet it was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and dominated the box office. For all its faults remains a sumptuous watch, positively crackling with electricity whenever Burton and Taylor share the screen.

The plot shows admirable fidelity to what is known of the historical record: In 48 BCE, Julius Caesar arrives in Egypt to mediate a dispute between rival rulers and siblings, Cleopatra and Ptolemy. He ultimately sides and falls for Cleopatra, and she bears him a son, Caesarion. After Caesar — spoiler alert — is assassinated, Antony enters an uneasy truce with Caesar’s anointed successor, Octavian (portrayed with a marvelous cocktail of cold-hearted ambition and imperialistic zeal by Roddy McDowall) in which they agree to govern Rome and its territories together. In need of Egyptian resources and besotted with Cleopatra, Antony calls upon her, begins an affair, and marries her. Threatened, Octavian foments discontent in Rome with Antony’s dalliance, with consequences both historic and tragic. (Google “Cleopatra” and “asp”.)

It is easy to see where the production money was spent: one scene alone used 7,000 extras, and a pivotal naval battle required the construction and destruction of a fleet of wooden ships. The result is beautiful, with several scenes standing out as visual feasts: the aforementioned arrival of Cleopatra in Rome; her appearance in Tarsus, Syria, on a ship whose deck is garnished with golden palm trees; the Egyptian ruler, fearing betrayal by Antony, standing alone in her courtyard and screaming his name in anger into an empty night. And buried in the grandiloquence are some real nuggets of crisp dialogue: “I am a lover of all Greek things,” observes Antony. “As an almost-all-Greek thing, I’m flattered,” quips Cleopatra.

But the beating heart of the movie is the tension between Antony and Cleopatra, twin life forces that simultaneously desire and deplete each other. If it were purely fiction, the plot might be dismissed as improbable and overly dramatic; that it all happened is a potent reminder of how even the greatest events of history can be driven by the most personal of passions.

It is a sentiment summed up by a scene in which Antony, a former strategic genius now barely capable of rational thought, furiously dismisses life-long lieutenants who presciently question the wisdom of battle plans that, in their disastrousness, would alter the course of history.

“Antony, what happened to you?” asks a concerned Cleopatra.

“What happened to me?” Antony replies rhetorically. “You happened to me.”