Cleopatra was plagued with production problems that ranged from firing the director for incompetence an incomplete script among other things which compounded to make this the most expensive movie ever made at the time ($31,000,000).
Although it was a hit upon its initial release (biggest box office of 1963) it failed to turn a profit due to its expensive production. It went on to earn 9 Academy Award Nominations, winning 4.
Well, How Is It?
Short answer: It’s excellent. A true spectacle of visual storytelling.
Honestly, before I watched it I didn’t really know what to expect. I actually don’t know why I had never watched it before now as I’ve sought out movies from Old Hollywood for most of my life.
Let’s talk about the primary aspects of this movie.
The costumes in Cleopatra are incredible, especially those worn by the titular character, played by Elizabeth Taylor.
She wears a ton of different outfits in this and the design work suits the grand, epic style of this production.
Are they historically accurate? Not in the slightest. Do they look awesome? Hell yes, they do. 1960s glamour by way of 40 B.C.
Her costume budget alone was $194,000 (almost $1,500,000 adjusted for inflation).
In total 26,000 costumes were created for the movie, which isn’t that surprising since this movie has a cast of thousands.
Sets and Locations
The sets in this movie are just as sensational as the costumes. In fact, they have to be in the running for the best sets in cinematic history.
Shot on location in Italy the constructed sets are a visual feast, the best of which is Cleopatra’s golden barge, which costs $277,000 alone ($2,000,000 adjusted for inflation.
Script and Story
The story basically covers the same material that the HBO show Rome did with respect to Cleopatra and her relationships with Julius Caeser (Rex Harrison) and Mark Anthony (Richard Burton).
With a runtime of nearly 4 hours (excluding the credits, intermission, etc.) this movie covers a lot of ground. From Caeser’s arrival in Egypt on the heels of Pompey the Great to his assassination on the Ides of March covers the first half of the movie with his relationship with Cleopatra being the primary focus of most of the screentime.
The second half revolves around Anthony and Cleopatra’s romance with fear and despair engulfing them as the armies of Octavian (Roddy McDowall) close in on them and they lose everything including their lives.
The main criticism I have with the movie comes with the script itself and the dialogue within. Sometimes it feels too modern for the movie if that makes sense, but it is a minor quibble.
Overall I thought the acting was very good, especially the lead actors. Given the story and character relationships, they are required to cover a wide array of emotions and they do so quite well.
The thing that stood out to me was the number of times Anthony and Cleopatra yelled at each other, which made me think about Taylor and Burton and their volatile relationship.
There were a couple of actors that showed up that I was surprised to see.
The first was Carroll O’Conner as Servillius Casca, a Roman Senator.
The second was equally as weird and so short it is of the “blink and you’ll miss it” variety. Desmond Llewelyn aka “Q” from the James Bond Series.
Cleopatra is an overindulgent spectacle in the Old Hollywood tradition of movies like Gone With the Wind, the kind of movie Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. It’s an awesome piece of movie-making, well worth your time.