The original “Vamp” Theda Bara played the title role in the silent and now lost 1917 version. Claudette Colbert starred as the Egyptian queen in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra. (“There’s no room in Rome for both Octavian and me!” cried Henry Wilcoxon’s Marc Antony, hardly distinguishing it from a western.) In the literate but somewhat set-bound and slightly dull 1945 version of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, Vivien Leigh played the seductress. Rhonda Fleming was the low-budget Serpent of the Nile (1953), which might be worthwhile just to see Raymond Burr as Marc Antony! The scale of the 1963 version of Cleopatra put these predecessors in the shade. It was also notable for other reasons: the adulterous romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the time and money spent (Taylor got a million dollars for her participation), the somewhat risqué (for the time) bath scene, the changing of directors, the start-over with a new cast in Italy after the film had begun shooting in the totally inappropriate English climate, the movie’s architect and producer Walter Wanger forbidden by 20th Century-Fox to attend the premiere.
The movie was castigated by many critics, which should raise eyebrows because the director of record, respected multi-Academy Award winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives, 1949; All About Eve, 1950) was at the helm. Could it be that all the off-set shenanigans colored critics’ opinions? In any event, those negative reviews didn’t matter to the public, which turned out en masse to see the final product. So, if it didn’t upon first release make a huge profit (having cost upwards of an astronomical $40,000,000), it was not a flop, and 20th Century survived thanks to the success of the previous year’s roadshow The Longest Day, the selling of Cleopatra to broadcast TV, and in 1965 the gigantic success that was The Sound of Music.
In addition to Cleopatra’s stunning sets, Alex North’s score was truly magnificent, as had been his music for another recent Roman epic whose protagonists were almost contemporary with Caesar’s Rome: Spartacus (1960). North demonstrated with these epics that he was on a par with Miklos Rozsa (Quo Vadis, 1951; Ben-Hur, 1959; King of Kings, 1961; El Cid, 1961.) North was nominated for Cleopatra, but the Academy Award winner in that category was John Addison for Tom Jones. Long-time master cinematographer Leon Shamroy did win for Best Cinematography as did John DeCuir and others for Art Direction, and Irene Sharaff and her team for Costume Design.
However, there is one element that no one has latched onto that does justify disappointment with Cleopatra: only two action sequences adorn this four-hour-plus production: the siege of Caesar’s quarters in Alexandria that is broken by formation of the legionnaires into a “turtle” to destroy the Egyptian catapults, and the sea battle of Actium. Marc Antony (Richard Burton) attempting to commit suicide by attacking Octavian’s forces solo hardly counts. What should have been added is not the aftermath of the Battle of Pharsalus at the beginning of the movie, but the battle itself. This lack of action also compromised Spartacus (1960). As with Cleopatra, only the consequence, not the slave army’s first defeat of a Roman army is shown. Although the final, futile battle begins promisingly, with disciplined legions forming up against massed slaves and their hodge-podge weapons, the battle soon degenerates into a melee, with man against man rather than a launch of legionnaires’ pila (javelins) followed by a locking of shields and the wielding of the gladius, or short sword, to hobble Spartacus’s host.
In Cleopatra, Rex Harrison played Caesar, received an Academy Award nomination (Sidney Poitier won for Lilies of the Field) but would not win until the ensuing year’s My Fair Lady. It was rumored that he contributed some of his salary to perk up the action. Not so, said his son Carey:
“Incidentally, I never heard that my father offered to contribute money to Fox for more action in Cleopatra. It’s improbable on so many grounds that I hardly know where to begin. My Dad would never have done such a thing because the idea of his contributing cash to Fox of all hated companies, no matter what he wanted to achieve, is absurd beyond belief (except as a joke over dinner?), and he didn’t have any money, not the kind of money (this was 1961) that would have paid for more than thirty seconds of ‘action.'”
All in all, Cleopatra does not deserve undue opprobrium. It was unique, and Nathan Weiss, one of the film’s publicists, astutely observed in a July 28, 1962 missive from Rome how Cleopatra would:
“…mark the end of a Hollywood era—Hollywood as we knew it as kids, as the world has come to have an image of it. I think with this film it can be seen that the whole system finally breaks down under its own weight. That genius has salvaged greatness out of bigness is an accident not likely to be repeated, or too soon attempted…The [Spyros] Skouras era, almost the company as we know it, is over at 20th Century-Fox, and with it comes a glimpse of the final The End on the movies, as so many of us have lived them and dreamed them since childhood.”
Brodsky, Jack, and Weiss, Nathan. The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence. 1963.
Harrison, Carey. email to Kim Holston. February 3, 2019.
Wanger, Walter, and Hyams, Joe. My Life with Cleopatra. 1963.