Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Pamela Brown, George Cole, Hume Cronyn, Cesare Danova, Kenneth Haigh, Andrew Keir, Martin Landau
Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, Sidney Buchman, Plutarch (histories), Suetonius (histories), Appian (histories), Carlo Mario Franzero (book, "The Life and Times of Cleopatra")
The motion picture the world has been waiting for!
Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of this epic spectacle - its opulence and sweeping grandeur have never been more glorious. Elizabeth Taylor stars as Cleopatra, the glamorous and cunning queen of Egypt. To secure her hold on power, she seduces the rulers of Rome, only to meet her match in Mark Antony, played by Richard Burton. Their passionate romance could decide the fate of the world's greatest empires.
Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
English Dolby Digital 4.0
French DTS 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
Castillian DTS-HD 5.1
Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1
Runtime: 251 min.
Release Date: 5/28/2013
• Audio Commentary from Director’s Sons/2nd Unit Directors Chris Mankiewicz and Tom Mankiewicz, Actor Martin Landau and Publicist Jack Brodsky
• “Cleopatra Through the Ages: A Cultural History” Featurette
• “Cleopatra’s Missing Footage” Featurette
• “Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman” Featurette
• “The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence” Still Gallery
• “Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood” Documentary
• “The Fourth Star of Cleopatra” Featurette
• Two Fox Movietone News Newsreels
• Three Trailers
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Cleopatra: 50th Anniversary Edition [Blu-Ray] (1963)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 31, 2013)
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 2001 DVD release, I never even saw Cleo, and I knew little about it other than it was extremely expensive and my Dad thought it stunk.
So why did 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 release 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?
Since my father and I often disagree about movies, I probably shouldn’t have worried what I’d think of it. As it stands, I found Cleopatra to offer a surprisingly compelling and stimulating experience. Though not without 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 disc’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 have cost between $200 million and $400 million to make Cleo in 2001, which means it’d be even more expensive today.
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 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, no other segments 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 – it takes its lumps 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 the studio crippled his ultimate vision of the completed film. 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 would 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 probable total for the two projected separate films - Mankiewicz split 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 few – if any - people alive has ever seen it. While a longer cut would be interesting to see, 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 view it as one of the world’s all-time financial flops, but that doesn’t appear to be the case; while it took years to go into the black, it eventually did so. 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 seems enjoyable and stimulating to me.
Without question, I prefer the “Caesar” half of the movie. Part of that may be due to the fact this was the first portion of the film; a four-hour flick can start to wear you down after a while. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that the Caesar section is 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 seems enjoyable. It’s a given that Antony and Cleo will eventually unite, so the tension that arises during the first half makes it more interesting.
I also enjoy 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.
However, 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 feel that Caesar is at least equal to Cleopatra, and he usually seems dominant over her.
This means the movie deflates somewhat when Harrison departs 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 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 doesn’t help that the Antony and Cleopatra relationship feels 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 enjoy Cleopatra. It’s not a great film, and even if Mankiewicz’s original vision becomes restored someday, I doubt it’ll rise to the level of masterpiece.
However, Cleo 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 Blu-ray Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B+/ Bonus A
Cleopatra appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.20:1 on these Blu-ray Discs. (Disc One gives us the first of the film, while Disc Two offers the final 2:14:11.) From start to finish, the movie offered a splendid presentation.
Sharpness was terrific. Even in the widest shots, the image remained tight and well-defined, with nary an instance of softness on display. Jagged edges and shimmering failed to appear, and I witnessed no signs of edge haloes or digital noise reduction. A few tiny print flaws appeared – a mark here, a speck there – but these were rare during the long film; overall, it remained clean.
Colors seemed rich and vivid. The movie offered a wonderfully broad palette of hues - especially due to the variety of clothes worn by the participants - and the disc reproduced them with excellent accuracy and vivacity. 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 opaque imagery - the low-light sequences looked appropriately dark but not excessively thick. The film became a delight to watch.
I also felt pleased with the film’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack. This mix presented a surprisingly broad and engaging soundfield given the movie’s age.
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 seemed satisfying for material from a 50-year-old flick. Dialogue occasionally seemed a little flat – and I found some awkward dubbing – but the lines usually delivered acceptable to good clarity. Music showed nice range, with fairly crisp highs and impressive low-end; I was surprised at how warm and rich the score’s bass could be.
Effects were also more than satisfactory. They could demonstrate age-related lack of precision, but they also boasted the nice bass that bolstered the music, and the effects were reasonably accurate overall. The audio held up well over the last 50 years and created a strong soundtrack.
How did the Blu-ray compare to the original DVD froom 2001? Audio was clearer and warmer, with improved dimensionality, while visuals showed an impressive step up. The Blu-ray was significantly better defined and also showed stronger colors and fewer print defects. I thought the DVD was good for its day, but the Blu-ray mopped the floor with it.
The Blu-ray mixes the DVD’s extras with some new components. From the original release, we get an audio commentary 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 the 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 provides 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, Dick and Liz, the wide variety of excesses - 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 have with this commentary stems from the second appearances of both Landau and Tom Mankiewicz; these two add little during the encores. Landau’s statements are especially bland, as he mainly just states what happens on screen during a few scenes.
Nonetheless, I find this piece to be impressive. The program provides 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 popped up 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 recommend that you screen the disc’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 will 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.
Disc One’s other four extras are new to the Blu-ray. Cleopatra Through the Ages: A Cultural History goes for seven minutes, 51 seconds and offers notes from UC-Santa Barbara Professor/Chair of Anthropology Stuart Tyson Smith. He separates myth from (probable) fact in this quick piece. This doesn’t provide a general biography, but it contributes some nice thoughts about the person behind the film’s fiction.
During the eight-minute, 12-second Cleopatra’s Missing Footage, we hear from author/film historian Brad Geagley and Fox film archivist Schawn Belston. They cover various cuts of Cleopatra and attempts to restore the movie to its original intended length. We hear a little about this elsewhere, but “Footage” updates the search for the lost footage. Sadly, while this looked promising in 2001, it now seems less likely. Depressing as that might be, “Missing” provides a good update.
Fox Movie Channel Presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman goes for 29 minutes, 29 seconds. Fox CEO Rothman covers the story’s path to the screen and many of the problems that the “out of control” production encountered. While we hear similar topics explored elsewhere, Rothman’s brings a unique perspective; as he notes, he supervised 1997’s Titanic, Fox’s other super-expensive, difficult project. At times the show seems like an excuse for Rothman to brag about the success of Titanic, but he still tells us enough about Cleopatra for this to be a worthwhile piece.
Disc One finishes with The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence. In this still gallery, we find letters and telegrams sent between Fox publicists Jack Brodsky and Nathan Weiss as they coordinate their work on Cleopatra. A more extensive collection of these notes got published decades ago, and this presentation makes me want to get it. The inside perspective offered is terrific, so it’s a treat to read their correspondence.
On Disc Two, we get material from the old DVD, and the main attraction is The Film That Changed Hollywood. Hosted by Robert Culp, this one-hour, 59-minute and seven-second documentary combines film clips, behind the scenes footage, and modern 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 circa 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.
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. The show is worth the price of admission on its own.
In addition, a 1963 featurette appears as well. Called The Fourth Star, this nine-minute and six-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 is mildly compelling but fairly inconsequential and puffy.
In addition to three trailers, we locate two Movietone News segments. The first lasts for three minutes, 55 seconds and covers the movie’s New York premiere, while the other runs two minutes, 24 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.
Cleopatra provides a surprisingly entertaining and compelling package. The movie drags at times and definitely shows some flaws, but its grandeur and scope ultimately make it interesting. The Blu-ray provides excellent visuals, very good audio and a strong set of bonus materials. Chalk this up as a fairly enjoyable film and a terrific Blu-ray.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3333 Stars|| Number of Votes: 3|