Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Cleopatra: Five Star Collection (1963)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox

Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison star in this sweeping tale of power and betrayal--the legendary story of the Queen of the Nile and her conquest of Julius Ceasar and Marc Anthony. Here is the truly unforgettable portrayal of the beguiling beauty who seduced two of Rome's greatest soldiers and changed the course of history. Breathtaking in scope and grandeur, the picture won Oscars for cinematography, art direction, costumes, sets and special effects. In the tradition of epic romantic adventures like Braveheart and Titanic comes the greatest spectacle of all...CLEOPATRA.

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Pamela Brown, George Cole, Hume Cronyn, Cesare Danova, Kenneth Haigh, Andrew Keir, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall
Academy Awards: Won for Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Special Visual Effects. Nominated for Best Picture; Best Actor-Rex Harrison; Best Film Editing; Best Sound; Best Score-Alex North. 1964.
DVD: Widescreen 2.20:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 52 chapters; rated G; 248 min.; $26.98; street date 4/3/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary from Martin Landau, Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, and Jack Brodsky; Behind-the-Scenes Documentary: “The Film That Changed Hollywood”; 1963 Featurette: “The Fourth Star of Cleopatra”; “Movietone News” Footage from New York and Hollywood Premieres; Extensive Still Gallery with Behind-the-Scenes Photo, Costume Sketches, Concept Art and More; Theatrical Trailers.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Alex North | All related products

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/A

Back when laserdiscs ruled the home theater world, I occasionally felt tempted to grab a copy of 1963’s Cleopatra. This urge did not relate to my affection for the film or its glowing reputation. Prior to the current DVD release, I never even saw Cleo, and I knew little about it other than the fact my Dad thought it stunk.

As such, why would I consider the acquisition of such a title? Because it was available as an “enrollment selection” from the Columbia House laserdisc club, and with a list price of $90, it was the most expensive package they offered. Since I’ve always been a cheapskate, I liked the idea of getting the most for my money - who cares if I enjoyed the stupid thing?

In any case, I never followed through with this possibility, so my initial screening of Cleopatra had to wait for the DVD. For the record, if ever a program demonstrated the radical price differences between LD and DVD, Cleo is the one. The old $90 LD offered only the movie. Not only does the DVD include the film with 5.1 sound and an improved anamorphically-enhanced picture, it also features a treasure trove of extras not found on the LD - all that for a ludicrously low list price of only $27!

But I get ahead of myself, as this section of the review should discuss the quality of the film itself. After all, who cares about a deluxe DVD if the movie isn’t any good? Based on my father’s condemnation of the flick, I was concerned.

Since my father and I often disagree about movies, however, I probably shouldn’t have worried. As it stands, I found Cleopatra to offer a surprisingly compelling and stimulating experience. Though not without a number of flaws, there’s more to like about it than to dislike.

That probably shouldn’t have been the case, as Cleo was an extremely troubled production almost right from the start. As depicted in this DVD’s supplements, one calamity after another affected the shoot, and the movie ended up with record-high costs; depending on whom you believe, in modern dollars it would cost between $200 million and $400 million to make Cleo today.

Unlike expensive but more efficient efforts such as Terminator 2 and Titanic - another troubled production - however, we definitely don’t see all of the money spent on Cleo up on the screen. Frankly, I’d love to know what this film would have cost had it been managed more efficiently. As we learn in the supplements, this was an exceedingly wasteful production, and it clearly would have cost much less money if the various overruns had been avoided.

In any case, we see a lot of the money spent on screen, as Cleopatra provides one of the most lavish productions ever filmed. This is the kind of film that absolutely defines the phrase “epic” with its literal cast of thousands. The enormity of the project often seems stupendous and almost overwhelming.

However, I never thought the scope felt gratuitous or showy. One of the movie’s most famous scenes ran that risk, and could be seen by some as extravagance for the sake of flash. When Cleopatra enters Rome, we see an enormously long and active parade of dancers, animals and other amusements prior to the arrival of the queen herself, who comes in bestride an enormous replica of the Sphinx. The segment continues for quite some time due to the seemingly-endless number of participants.

My immediate reaction to this piece was that it did seem unnecessarily extravagant - did we really need such a long look at the opulence? However, when I thought about the issue, I realized that the sequence was not only acceptable, but it also was appropriate and beneficial to the film. Although much of Cleo depicts the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the queen, none do so quite as well as this one - it really gives us a clear idea of the overwhelming, larger than life nature of the character and her place in society. It also adds some clues to her ego, since few shrinking violets would pursue this sort of processional.

Cleopatra really is one of the rare movies that requires lush and extravagant production values. Without such rich details, the believability of the characters and the situations would have become compromised. Granted, no one ever said that Cleo was a documentary-style non-fiction work; clearly a lot of liberties were taken. Nonetheless, the impeccable sets, props and costumes add a lot to the affair and helped make it more indelible.

No one’s ever criticized the production values of Cleopatra, however. Where it’s taken its lumps stems from the story and the execution of the film. Are some of these criticisms appropriate? Sure. Not only did writer/director Joe Mankiewicz almost literally make things up as he went along, but also his ultimate vision of the completed film was crippled by the studio. Mankiewicz intended to create two roughly three-hour movies at the same time. The first would cover Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), while the second would detail Cleo’s involvement with Marc Antony (Richard Burton).

However, this was not to be. The studio wanted the second half of the tale on the market immediately to capitalize on the hubbub that surrounded the Taylor/Burton romance, so they didn’t want to wait the additional six months or so between films; they apparently figured that the couple may no longer be news by the time Antony and Cleopatra would arrive.

As such, Mankiewicz was forced to edit a compromise version of the movie. In the released version - which runs a little more than four hours, or about two-thirds of the probably total for the two projected separate films - Mankiewicz splits the tale into halves, with the Caesar and Antony sides divided by an intermission. In a manner, he still got his two films, but each lost about an hour of footage along the way.

At this point, it remains a matter of pure speculation about the quality of the six-hour rendition of the tale since it appears that no one alive has ever seen it. Actually, it doesn’t seem clear that Mankiewicz even cut the intended edition; from what I’ve heard, I don’t think he was able to take his vision that far.

So we have no idea if the full realization of Cleopatra would have topped the current one. According to the DVD’s supplements, attempts are being made to locate the footage shot for the long version, so it remains possible that someday we’ll see it. Only then will the debate be resolved to any degree.

In the meantime, I found the four-plus hour edition of Cleopatra to be fairly entertaining and compelling. The film has earned a terrible reputation over the years in regard to both quality and success. In the latter instance, many have thought of it as one of the world’s all-time financial flops, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. As for the former, I can’t say I understand all of the slams the movie has inspired. While it’s an inconsistent piece that doesn’t flow tremendously smoothly, Cleopatra seemed enjoyable and stimulating to me.

Without question, I preferred the “Caesar” half of the movie. Part of that may be due to the fact this was the first portion of the film; even the best four-hour flick can start to wear you down after a while. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that the Caesar section was superior. For one, situations seem more intriguing at that time. We get our slow introductions to all of the characters and events, and though most of us know what’s going to happen along the way, the ride seemed very enjoyable. It’s a given that Antony and Cleo will eventually unite, so the tension that arises during the first half made it more interesting.

I also really enjoyed the presence of Harrison as Caesar. Since most of his career took place before my time, I haven’t seen many of his films, and the impression of him I got from movies like My Fair Lady and Doctor Dolittle was of a mildly-asexual curmudgeon. In contrast, he presents a more vibrant and lively personality as Caesar. It’s no mean feat for an actor to face down the daunting diva presence of Liz, but Harrison pulls it off with aplomb; I always felt that Caesar was at least equal to Cleopatra, and he usually seemed dominant over her.

As such, the movie deflates somewhat when Harrison departs the scene prior to the intermission. This isn’t the fault of Burton, who provides a fairly good portrayal of Antony. However, since that character isn’t as strong or majestic as Caesar, the film feels sort of like it lacks a leader. Perhaps that’s as it should be, but I have a feeling that these portions of the movie would have benefited from additional polish had Mankiewicz been granted time and freedom.

It also didn’t help that the Antony and Cleopatra relationship felt somewhat anti-climactic. We know it’s coming, so when it finally arrives there’s a lack of fulfillment. I’d be curious to know if moviegoers in 1963 thought the same way about these scenes. If anything, I’d expect that sentiment to be further compounded by all of the off-screen publicity that surrounded Taylor and Burton; with that sort of build up, I doubt any movie action could have lived up to the hype.

Despite some slow spots in the second half, however, I still rather enjoyed Cleopatra. It’s not a great film, and even if Mankiewicz’s original vision is ultimately restored, I doubt it’ll rise to the level of masterpiece. However, it is entertaining and provocative on a fairly consistent basis, and it provides some of the most lush and extravagant production values ever captured on film. This kind of project will likely never again be attempted, and though it has a number of flaws, Cleopatra captures the spirit and tone of the great historical epics well.

The DVD:

Cleopatra appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.20:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although not without some concerns, much of Cleopatra looked absolutely terrific.

Sharpness seemed erratic. Most of the movie came across as acceptably crisp and well-defined, but some definite softness marred the presentation on occasion. For the most part, this problem affected wide shots, which sometimes looked fairly fuzzy, but some closer angles also came across as a bit hazy. Nonetheless, these occasions were not dominant, and most of the film appeared clear and accurate. Some shimmering occurred, particularly through the small details of the intricate Roman uniforms.

Colors seemed very rich and solid. The movie offered a wonderfully broad palette of hues - especially due to the variety of clothes worn by the participants - and the DVD reproduced them with excellent accuracy and vividness; colors presented some of the movie’s highlights. Black levels came across as deep and rich, and shadow detail was also well-rendered. Even during “day for night” shots - which usually result in rather opaque imagery - the low-light sequences looked appropriately dark but not excessively thick.

Although Cleopatra presented a variety of print flaws, these appeared fairly minor for a film of its vintage. I detected examples of nicks, speckles, and grit, plus a few instances of streaks. The defects were erratic. Much of the film would pass without concern, but some scenes would then provide a relatively high level of flaws. Nonetheless, they never became terribly heavy, and ultimately I found Cleopatra to offer a very satisfying visual experience.

Also quite solid was the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. This mix presented a surprisingly broad and engaging soundfield. The forward channels offered some good separation, particularly in regard to the score, which sounded cleanly defined. Effects also spread clearly across the front channels; they could appear a little too “speaker specific”, but the effects still blended together fairly well, and I detected some decent panning across channels. The film also offered some mildly directional dialogue.

The rear speakers generally provided simple reinforcement of the forward imaging, but they grew more involved as the film continued. I heard some nice use of the score from the surrounds, and effects were also bolstered by the presentation. The movie even offered a split-surround effect or two, such as when some horses passed from front to rear. Ultimately, Cleopatra provided a soundfield that seems limited by our modern standards but which worked very well for a movie of its era.

Audio quality appeared erratic but generally seemed fairly good. Dialogue betrayed some of the track’s main problems. At times the speech sounded fairly rough and edgy, and the lines lacked a natural tone. However, the dialogue fell within expected levels of accuracy for a recording of the period, and I had no problems related to intelligibility. Effects were a bit thin and tinny, but they seemed acceptably accurate and they occasionally displayed some nice heft; my subwoofer got a surprisingly strong workout from the film.

The latter also helped create some very solid musical reproduction. Highs could have been more distinct and crisp, but they seemed fine for the era, and bass response was almost shockingly tight and deep. No, this isn’t the DTS version of The Haunting, but since most movies from the period display exceedingly little dynamic range, the fairly rich lows of Cleopatra were impressive. The track betrayed mild hiss at times, most of which accompanied dialogue stems. Ultimately, Cleopatra sounded quite good. Were it not for the problems related to the dialogue, this track would have entered “A” territory. As it stands, the DVD will have to enjoy its still strong “B+” grade.

On DVD, Cleopatra offers a rare beast: a three-disc set devoted to one movie. In my collection, I’ve only seen one other example of this, the Criterion release of Brazil. Discs one and two of Cleopatra feature the film itself, with few extras; most of those are on the third DVD.

However, the first two discs do offer an audio commentary. Unlike the “bits and pieces” approach found with the recent Ben-Hur track, this is a true feature-length commentary. We hear from actor Martin Landau, Tom and Chris Mankiewicz (sons of the director, both of whom also worked as second unit directors on the film), and publicist Jack Brodsky. Each man was recorded individually and their comments were edited to create this single coherent program.

Unlike most spliced-together commentaries, this one doesn’t patch together the remarks so that we hear a continual mix of participants. Instead, each man’s material appears in one piece, and then we move on to the next guy. This starts with Landau and then goes to Tom Mankiewicz. After that period, we hear from Chris Mankiewicz, but when he finishes we do not make the logical jump to Jack Brodsky. Instead, we get a brief return visit from Landau - this occurs after the end of the climactic sea battle - and Brodsky chimes in when Landau’s statements are done. After he finishes, we encounter a short reprise from Tom Mankiewicz.

As a whole, this commentary provided a wealth of good information. We learn quite a few details about the production and its various problems. Landau offers a strong view of the production excesses and the problems encountered by actors, while Tom Mankiewicz dishes some fun dirt. He lets us know quite a few revealing details about the shoot, and his brother Chris follows up with additional facts. Brodsky provides information along the same lines, but from his own perspective; we hear some good anecdotes, especially about Richard Burton.

While all four participants echo the same topics - the lavish quality of the production, the wide variety of excesses, Dick and Liz - their individual perspectives make their remarks consistently interesting. Some of the same facts may reappear from time to time, but there’s surprisingly little redundant information. Really, the only problems I had with this commentary stemmed from the second appearances of both Landau and Tom Mankiewicz; these two added little during the encores. Landau’s statements were especially bland, as he mainly just stated what happened on screen during a few scenes.

Nonetheless, I found this piece to be very impressive as a whole. The program provided a wealth of compelling information, and although there are a few blank gaps along the way, they’re surprisingly few and far between considering the extreme length of the movie. Not surprisingly, most of the spaces occur toward the end of the movie, and I think some of the more bland material heard from Tom Mankiewicz and Landau during that period may have appeared simply to fill time. In any case, I really enjoyed the vast majority of the Cleopatra commentary and thought it added a lot to my appreciation of the experience.

As a footnote, I strongly recommend that you screen the third DVD’s documentary - "The Film That Changed Hollywood" - before you listen to this commentary. That program provides a good background to the production, and without it, some of the commentary’s information would make less sense. For example, we hear mentions of a number of participants who are not really identified; I only knew who they were since I’d already seen the documentary. It’s a solid commentary, and it’d still be good even without much foreknowledge. However, to get the most from it, you should take in “The Film That Changed Hollywood” first.

Also on DVD one is the “THX Optimode” program. As also found on other Fox DVDs like Bedazzled and X-Men, this is supposed to be used to set up your home theater to best present the movie on the disc in question. Apparently the Optimode is unique for each DVD on which it’s included; unlike programs such as Video Essentials; the Optimode should tweak your set-up differently every time. Frankly, I’ve been very happy with my already-established calibration and I’m afraid to muck with it, so I’ve never tried the Optimode. If you lack calibration from Video Essentials or a similar program, or if you’re just more adventurous than I, the Optimode could be a helpful addition.

Now we move on to the third DVD, which is packaged in an unusual manner. The case is identical to other two-DVD packages like The Sound of Music, but the third disc appears inserted inside a slot in the booklet! This is a very odd way to do this, but I suppose it saves on packaging costs. Frankly, I’d prefer a set-up in which the third DVD is more firmly settled; it could easily fall from the booklet and become damaged.

Anyway, the material on the third disc is largely excellent. The main attraction is a new documentary called The Film That Changed Hollywood. Hosted by Robert Culp, this one hour, 58 minute and 50 second program combines film clips, behind the scenes footage, and recent interviews to create a terrific look at the troubled production. The interviews include a few surviving actors such as Hume Cronyn and Martin Landau, plus 1995 bits from Roddy McDowall; unfortunately, Liz Taylor is nowhere to be found. In addition, we hear from film historians, a few other tangential participants, and relatives like Mankiewicz’s wife and sons Chris and Tom - the latter of whom went on to write Bond films Live and Let Die and Diamonds Are Forever - plus the son of Rex Harrison and the daughter of producer Walter Wanger.

I don’t know if this is the best film-related documentary I’ve seen, but it has to reside on a short list of those titles. “The Film That Changed Hollywood” offers a thorough, detailed “warts and all” look at the creation of Cleopatra from start to finish. We hear about the financial problems that affected the studio and all of the calamities that accompanied the production of Cleo. We learn of actors who were originally cast in the roles and get to see footage of them from the film’s early days with original director Rouben Mamoulian. (By the way, am I the only one who immediately thinks of the McCartney song “Mamunia” when I hear his name?)

I could go on for a long time with a list of all the other subjects covered in “The Film That Changed Hollywood”, but suffice it to say that it’s an extremely well-executed program. In addition to the valuable interview clips, it provides one of the best compilations of archival footage I’ve seen in this sort of piece. Not only do we find lots of outtakes from the set, but we also get great stuff like an Andy Williams Show parody of Cleo, a make-up ad that capitalized on the film’s popularity, and snippets of a Tonight Show segment that went to the movie’s New York premiere. Frankly, when one considers that weaker documentaries such as The Battle Over Citizen Kane sell on their own for only a few dollars less than this movie and extras package makes the inclusion of a terrific work like “The Film That Changed Hollywood” all the more astonishing - it’s worth the price of admission alone.

As an aside, I really wish people would make up their minds about what Cleopatra would cost to make today. On different occasions, I’ve heard numbers from $200 million to $400 million bandied about, and “The Film That Changed Hollywood” favors the latter number. I’d love to hear an authoritative figure.

As a second aside, here’s one reason to love the stillframe feature of DVD. Throughout the documentary, we occasionally see some text articles. One 1996 piece discusses Fox’s attempts to bring in a partner for the rising costs of Titanic, and it mentions a similar deal formed for that year’s “hurricane thriller” Twister. Too bad we don’t find an article about that classic tornado flick The Perfect Storm.

As a third aside, am I the only one who figures Fox must still be kicking themselves for sharing the profits of Titanic? Sure, they still made a bundle - they got international rights, and the movie earned about $1.2 billion outside of the US - but they let the option go fairly cheaply, and the film’s $600 million gross ain’t exactly chickenfeed. In their defense, however, no one expected Titanic to do what it did, and its absurd price tag seemed destined to doom the studio to major losses.

In addition, a 1963 featurette appears as well. Called The Fourth Star, this nine-minute and 15-second promotional piece offers a short look at the production work done for Cleopatra. Mainly it serves to tout the giant scope of the movie through lots of behind the scenes material, much of which formed the basis for shots found in “The Film That Changed Hollywood”. On its own, the program was mildly compelling but fairly inconsequential and puffy.

A little more film footage appears via two Movietone News segments. The first lasts for four minutes and covers the movie’s New York premiere, while the other runs two minutes, 20 seconds and depicts the Los Angeles and Washington bows of Cleopatra. Neither clip seems fascinating, but both are interesting historical pieces, and I appreciated their inclusion.

A slew of trailers can be found on the third DVD, all of which are presented with 16X9 enhancement. We get trailers “A”, “B”, and “C”, plus an unusual ad called the “Advance Trailer”. What the latter does is tout the film and tell people they can buy their reserved seats right now. This clip also appears in French and Portuguese versions, both of which were simple to create since the only difference stems from the text that runs over the screen; no film snippets or voice-over narration occur.

A few other extras round out the collection. We get some good production notes in the aforementioned booklet. I liked this information, but found the gray-text-on-black-background rather tough to read. Lastly, in the Still Gallery includes five different sections: “Costume Concept and Research” (85 images); “Excerpts from Original Exhibitors Campaign Book and Manual” (83 frames); “Excerpts From Original Commemorative Theater Program” (70 shots); “British Lobby Cards” (eight stills); and “Billboard Art, Miscellaneous Key Art, and Japanese Poster” (four pictures). These are generally interesting and useful pieces that I enjoyed.

As a whole, Cleopatra provided a surprisingly entertaining and compelling package. The movie dragged at times and definitely showed some flaws, but its grandeur and scope ultimately made it interesting. The DVD offers very good picture and sound plus a terrific complement of extras. At a bargain list price of only $26.98, Cleopatra is a steal and should be high on your purchase list.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

Menu:  DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top