★★ / ★★★★
In pursuit of the leader of the army he had just vanquished, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) visits Egypt with hopes of getting the cooperation of two of its rulers, Ptolemy XIII (Richard O’Sullivan) and Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). But both of the siblings wish to be sole ruler of Egypt so helping Caesar is not remotely near the top of their priorities. Soon, Caesar is seduced by Cleopatra’s beauty and marriage becomes a possibility—even though Caesar is already married back in Rome and the city is waiting for his leadership.
“Cleopatra,” directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Rouben Mamoulian and Darryl F. Zanuck, is spectacular visually but it is ultimately a body of work with all of its internal organs taken out. I found myself admiring the aesthetics—the artwork on the walls, Cleopatra’s extravagant clothing—but just about every time I wished to be involved in the drama, I felt next to nothing. The performers emote but the script has no soul.
With a running time of over four hours, we deserve to be completely submerged in the story being told. The first half is somewhat consistent as it tracks the seduction and eventual real feelings between Cleopatra and Caesar. Even though there is a marked age difference between Taylor and Harrison, the two share a few moments that can pass as genuine. A standout scene involves a furious Cleopatra for the accidental burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. It holds as a nice metaphor of the passion between the revered Roman conqueror and the future queen of Egypt. Fires burn from several hundred yards away just as their smoldering feelings for one another are about to reach a climax.
When the characters are not engaged in conversations, I was most dazzled. Cleopatra’s procession into Rome is one of the most magnificent images I have ever seen on screen. I admired the sequence because it is easy to tell that none of it is accomplished using computerized effects. Sure, when a group performance is involved, the movements lack symmetry for a second or two but that is far from the point. What matters are the colors, the energy behind the performances, the clothing, and the awe-struck Roman audiences. It reminded me of outstanding parades I have seen in the Philippines while growing up—only the images offered here command a hundred to a thousand times the budget.
During times of war, I enjoyed that there is talk about the soldiers not having enough resources such as food as well as armaments and some of the soldiers not getting paid for months. Usually, when a war scene is involved, focus is on strategic advancements, how many men are injured, and the number of those who have died. Still, some of the battle sequences—especially one that takes place at sea—should have been choreographed more elegantly. It feels strange that only about five ships, if that, get proper close-ups when hundred of ships are supposed to be out there.
The second half is a trial to sit through. Eventually, Cleopatra captures the interest of Mark Antony (Richard Burton), one of Julius Caesar’s military commanders. I suppose the point is to establish a contrast between a well-rounded leader like Caesar and a leader prone to envy and self-pity like Mark Antony, but I found the latter’s whining supremely suffocating. As a result, the material turns into a melodrama first and foremost rather than always having the epic story front and center. The screenplay does not do a good job in convincing us why we should support Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s romance.
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall, and Sidney Buchman, one gets the impression that “Cleopatra” does not have a finished script while filming. Thus, it attempts to distract the audience with two love stories—the second one being most interminable. The title of the picture suggests that the central figure is the widely recognized pharaoh of ancient Egypt. We are shown again and again that her fashion and sexual appeal is out of this world, but it might have benefited the picture if the filmmakers bothered to show how she used her power over her land and people.