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20th Century Fox presents
Cleopatra (SE) (1963)

"I AM Isis. I am worshipped by millions who believe it."
- Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor)

Review By: debi lee mandel and jesse shanks   
Published: April 01, 2001

Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall, Hume Cronyn, Cesaré Danova
Other Stars: Carroll O'Connor, Francesca Annis, Pamela Brown, George Cole, Kenneth Haigh, Andrew Keir, Jean Marsh, Herbert Berghof
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Manufacturer: dvcc
MPAA Rating: G
Run Time: 04h:03m:00s
Release Date: April 03, 2001
UPC: 024543014836
Genre: epic

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Approaching a legendary film from a fresh perspective is difficult, if not impossible. In the case of Cleopatra, this is particularly true, because it is possibly, at once, the most famous and infamous film ever produced by Hollywood. Our previous, individual viewings of Cleopatra include full-screen, truncated televisions versions, with and without commercials. We greatly anticipated the opportunity to see the four-hour cut of this movie in widescreen, featuring the highly-touted digital sound and image transfers.

We were in no way disappointed by this release.

If one can separate from the myriad back stories of this film that include the Taylor-Burton affair, the bankruptcy of 20th Century Fox, the production problems, the expense, the editing controversy, and on and on... Cleopatra is a stunning film, featuring fabulous performances by credible stars, astounding sets and locations, a literate, engaging story and dizzying attention to detail. Cleopatra was nominated for nine Academy Awards® (should have been more) and won four for its technical achievements. So, the question is: Why is Cleopatra not on anyone's lists of the great films of all time?

After viewing the film in one sitting, watching the included documentary (Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood), listening to the full-length commentaries—we have concluded that the answer lies with the much bemoaned editing controversy. Originally conceived by director-writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz as two, three-hour movies, Cleopatra was cut first to four hours (and later to three hours in theaters). Much discussion has been made over what parts of the final film were lost in those deep, atrocious cuts, and if they still exist today.

Victims of the editing process were scenes of Rome and Egypt that would have taken the story further, beyond the scenes of conversations between the main characters. Another victim was the subtle shadings that the supporting characters provided. Martin Landau (Rufio) mentions in the commentary that Mankiewicz told him that he had enough cut footage to make a movie called "The Further Adventures of Octavian and Rufio." Both Landau and Roddy McDowall, who played Octavian, were considered as potential Best Supporting Actor candidates. But as the edit diminished their parts, this potential "dried up." Other actors lost major screen time and many scenes were reduced to what are referred to as "a series of entrances and exits."

Another important victim of the editing was the character of Marc Antony, portrayed by Richard Burton. Robbed of the supporting foils of Rufio as his conscience and Octavian as his adversary, the weaknesses of Antony's character have been transferred by critic after critic into the weaknesses of Burton the actor—and wrongly so. Burton's performance is multi-layered and terribly revealing, as the man who would be Caesar, but lost an empire to Octavian, a man he found contemptible.

This points to the ultimate victim of the chop-shop editing enforced by Fox executive Darryl Zanuck: the vision of director Mankiewicz. He wrote and filmed a powerful depiction of a magnificent leader, Julius Caesar, in the first half of the film, followed by the battle for his legacy between Octavian and Antony. This battle—with its compelling drama of an East of Eden in which the sons compete for the legacy of the father—is the story of the second half of Cleopatra. Instead, we are left with two disparate halves that seem what they are: truncated and spliced. The character of Caesar overwhelms the character of Antony in parallel, and the conflict with Octavian is a subplot to the love story of Antony and Cleopatra, when it should be the other way around.

Hopefully, this DVD release and the resulting re-examination of Cleopatra will spark a renewed interest in the films of Joseph Mankiewicz, who helmed some great films including All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Julius Caesar, The Barefoot Contessa, The Quiet American, Suddenly Last Summer and Sleuth.

So, what do we have left in these four hours of a six-hour extravaganza?

Cleopatra tells the story of the great Egyptian queen, the last descendant of the young Greek hero-king, Alexander the Great. Ambitious as she is beguiling, the young Cleopatra wrests the throne from her brother with the aid of the Roman Dictator, Julius Caesar and in return gives him the one thing he lacked: a son and heir. Caesar, however, has a Roman wife, and the Senate is not happy when he puts her aside to welcome his non-Roman queen and illegitimate son, in an extravagant ceremony, to Rome. With Caesar demanding to be named "Emperor" of Rome, the Senators' displeasure turns into treachery: Caesar is assassinated, and Cleopatra must flee Rome to save herself and her young son, Caesarian.

Mankiewicz's screenplay for Cleopatra is marvelous invention. Writing about these historical, gargantuan characters is never easy; it is so difficult to portray them in situations that are mundane. In this case he also takes on the daunting task of tackling a subject that has been covered extensively through history by such venerated authors as Plutarch, Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. There are so many finely-crafted touches included in this story: Caesar nervously snapping at Rufio's joke as he awaits word of Cleopatra in childbirth; the mute body servant to Caesar, Flavius, has some marvelous scenes without saying a word, including a poignant moment at the end of the first act when he cries on the scaffold as the body of Caesar is burned in a funeral pyre. Another parallel is Octavian lying face down on his cot with sea-sickness during the Battle of Actium, compared with Antony's swilling wine as he charged futilely into battle on his own ship. The jewels of great storytelling are too numerous to count.

When Antony needs Cleopatra's wealth to help him in his struggle for control of the empire, he is forced to complete a treaty with Egypt that cedes parts of Rome's conquered territory to Egypt and thus provokes war with Octavian, Caesar's heir under Roman law. Even though the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra is complicated with memories of Caesar, physical attraction and world politics, they hopelessly fall in love. Together, they try to realize Caesar's dream of uniting the world as one, but this throws them directly in the path of Octavian's ambition to be Emperor and Rome's domination of the known world.

The film features three remarkable performances in the lead roles. Elizabeth Taylor is at the height of her powers in this long, exhaustive role. She never fails to be fascinating in her portrayal and, in some scenes, is breathtakingly beautiful. She manages to raise the character above melodrama and evoke the legendary woman of intelligence, beauty and sexuality that history tells us Cleopatra was. It is impossible to put her performance into a two-line capsule as so many critics have when reviewing this film. Taylor is engaging with naïveté as the youthful Cleopatra seducing the most powerful man in the world, Julius Caesar. And she is just as beguiling as the more experienced and knowledgeable queen, attempting to capture the Roman world with Antony. Her love of both the older, philosophical Caesar and the virile warrior Antony is palpably real and shaded with astounding complexity, despite the glare cast by the cut scenes of story development, character and transition. Taylor was not nominated for Best Actress in 1964 when the statuette went to Patricia Neal for Hud. The other nominees that year were Shirley MacLaine (Irma la Douce), Leslie Caron (The L-Shaped Room), Natalie Wood (Love with the Proper Stranger) and Rachel Roberts (This Sporting Life). All fine actresses in fine roles, but still....

Burton's Antony is a flawed man of great charm and charisma. He is out of his depth in the battle for the empire and he knows it. But still, despite his misgivings, he straps on his armor and does battle with Octavian for domination of the known world. He cleaves to Cleopatra with a love beyond what mere mortals can know: their love literally shakes the world. There is no doubt that Burton maintains fidelity with director Mankiewicz's vision, even when he must have known that his performance would not sit well with audiences, who generally prefer their heroes with a little less humanity and dimension. Antony's development from the brash, dynamic general under Caesar to the self-pitying, self-destructive Pro-Consul of Rome is terrifying to watch. Burton's history with Oscar is not a pretty one, and this is another sad chapter—no nomination for him, either.

Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar did garner one of Cleopatra's nominations as Best Actor (ultimately losing to Sidney Poitier's performance in Lilies of the Field) and the recognition is well-deserved. The intelligence of his Caesar, the wit, the bravery are all so right on that it would be difficult to imagine any one else in the role. It is rare for an actor to bring such humanity to the portrayal of such a monumental, historical figure from the lively, braggadocio of Caesar to his paternal pride in his young son and new wife, to his final days, striving vainly to be acknowledged as the king of Rome.

In notable supporting roles are experienced actors that add shades of meaning to the complex, intelligent script by Mankiewicz, who literally wrote the screenplay as the movie was being filmed. McDowall's Octavian is the evil opposite of Antony with his sneering superiority, simpering cowardice and blatant scheming. His performance is the single greatest acting casualty of the editing cuts. In proper perspective, his role should have been worthy of Oscar consideration. Landau's Rufio is reduced to often standing just behind Caesar or staring at Anthony, and he tragically loses the crucial development of his character as loyal General to Caesar, who then transfers his loyalty to Anthony. There is an important accent to the story with the characters of Agrippa (Andrew Keir) who, also a loyal General to Caesar, joins Octavian's side and another loyal aide of Caesar's, Germanicus, who opposes Octavian on the floor of the Senate. Hume Cronyn as Sosigenes, Herbert Berghoff as Theodotus, Cesaré Danova as Appolodorus, Kenneth Haigh as Brutus, and Michael Hordern as Cicero all turn in fine (if truncated) performances, hinting at what could have been.

Other character notes: 16-year-old Francesca Annis, later to become a highly-respected English actress, appears as one of Cleopatra's handmaidens. Another respected English actress, Jean Marsh, appears uncredited in one scene as Octavia, the sister of Octavian; Desmond Llewelyn, who later became famous as "Q" in the James Bond series, plays a Roman Senator, also uncredited.

At 1964's Academy Awards, Cleopatra did take home four awards: Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Color; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Costume Design, Color; Best Effects, Special Visual Effects. Ironically, Cleopatra was accorded a Best Film Editing nomination in the name of Dorothy Spencer. Other nominations included: Best Sound, Best Music, Score - Substantially Original and Best Picture (the winner would be Tom Jones). The technical achievements of Cleopatra are well-archived in the supplemental documentary and featurette on the third disc of the set. This release marvelously displays those achievements and more. A film like this will never be made again, because instead of building the elaborately ornate, full-scale sets, these wondrous feats of Hollywood talent (and extravagance) will be computer-generated.

Hollywood epics are an acquired taste, especially the genre known as "sword and sandals." Often resulting in wooden acting and bad costumes, these films have lurked in the B-Movie sections of video stores for years. There has been a revival of the genre by the success of the Academy Award®-winning 2000 release, Gladiator. Cleopatra is certainly the greatest of this genre both in its quality and scope. In some ways, it competes as one of the greatest Hollywood films ever made because of its unique history, and its exemplification of "Hollywood Magic."

This DVD is a cinematic document of a time long past when studios ruled and movies were made a certain way. The structure of the movie lends itself well to the two-disc format, unlike Ben-Hur, where most of the movie is on one disc and the chariot race sequence is on the other. We both agree there is a large audience out there who has never seen this picture in any condition approaching its original conception. Watching Cleopatra in this form is an enjoyable experience and we look forward to the release of the full-version...if it still exists.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Gorgeous. Marvelous. Stunning. Put your finger on the pause button. Some imagery you will want to see again and again. Fox put the attention and affection into this transfer that they mercilessly chopped from the original release. The source came from one of their labs in Kansas, in almost pristine condition, and it has lost nothing in the digital process. With so many expansive, vastly-populated vistas, there is the expectation of shimmering and compression artifacts, but we both swear there are none. Fleshtones are real and colors are not the garrish, oversaturated tones almost inherent to the period; might this be the Todd-AO? Unpredictably near perfect. Bravo, Fox, the Egyptian queen gets her homage at last!

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 track is astounding! In many scenes, even the sound perspective of the dialogue is flawless. The directionality of the crowd and the trumpets heralding Cleopatra's procession into Rome is the best of what 5.1 should be. As perhaps the grandest scene ever produced, it is now the ultimate extravaganza it was meant to be.

There has been some controversy concerning the Oscar®-nominated musical score by Alex North. The Entr'acte music is played at the end of disc one (under a slide show of stills from the movie) instead of the expected postion at the beginning of disc 2. In addition, exit music, which appeared in the theatrical and laser disc version, has been omitted. At the time of this review, a Fox representative on the Home Theater Forum has jumped in quickly to assure obsessees that the 2nd disc will be re-mastered to include the exit music and customers having the original release would be able to get replacements.

In light of the fantastic audio transfer included here, and that Fox readily responded to its consumers and has promised to right their wrong, the grade here reflects the superb audio and forgives the omission.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 52 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
6 Original Trailer(s)
2 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz (sons of the director), Martin Landau (actor portraying Rufio), Jack Brodsky (publicist)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Stills Gallery includes:
    • costume concept and research
    • excerpts from original exhibitors campaign book and manual
    • excerpts from original commemorative theater program
    • full color stills with captions
    • images of ancient and 18th century art representing Cleopatra
    • behind-the-scenes photos with captions
    • photos of set designs and costumes
    • British lobby cards, billboard art
    • miscellaneous keyart
    • Japanese posters
  2. Four-page, high-gloss booklet
Extras Review: The supplements on this disc elevate the Cleopatra 5-Star Edition to the level of one of the finest DVD sets yet released. The history of the production, the time period in which the movie was made, its effects on Hollywood and society, the many controversies, and the technological marvels are all covered in various levels of detail.

Cleopatra: The Movie That Changed Hollywood is a comprehensive 2-hour documentary that tells in great detail the many back stories of the film. Actors, crew, publicists and other figures related to the story, including the sons of director Joseph Mankiewicz, as well as other relatives of cast and crew members talk about their own experiences and the history of this lengthy production. The story is alternately mind-boggling and outrageous—just absolutely fascinating. Rare footage from the famous missing hours is included, as well as film from the original shoot in England with Peter Finch as Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Antony. Behind-the-scenes footage of the actual filming of the movie shows, in a way that no description could, what making such an epic was like. There are interesting sidebars into the personal relationships on the set and the sweeping effect on Hollywood that the ongoing production of Cleopatra caused. There is the story of Joe Mankiewicz working up to 24 hours a day for months to make this picture. This documentary is a total treasure for any film buff.

1963 featurette: The Fourth Star of Cleopatra is a nine-minute Movietone news featurette, played in theaters at the time, "heralding" the release of Cleopatra and focusing, not on the 3 movie stars, but on the "fourth star": the production itself. Throughout, it tallies a stunning list, including 4 major battles with armor and weapons made-to-order; 26,000 costumes; over 70 sets, re-creating three ancient cities; more than 1000 artists, technicians and workmen and 1500 maritime re-constructions, culminating with "Everything but the ocean was built to order." Phil Tonken narrates over scenes of this "cast of thousands" lining up for costumes or just milling about; both the "spectacle" scenes and the expected "exotic dance numbers" being choreographed and rehearsed, as well as images of the beautiful gouache storyboards and construction crews building "Rome." Attention to production detail is underlined when we discover Cleopatra's barge was painstakingly re-created based on a description by Plutarch himself.

Produced as a marketing tool, it can be elevated now to a historic—if brief—making-of document.

A pair of full screen, 4-minute, black & white Movietone newsreels covering the East Coast Premiere (Rivoli Theater, $100 tickets) and the West Coast Premiere (Pantages Theater, $250 tickets), with the latter also tagging on the Washington D.C. Premiere. Harrison, McDowall and the elder Mankiewicz attend the first 2, with Taylor and Burton obviously absent. The usual todos about the celebs and politicians that attend, including Strom Thurmond (in D.C.) looking, well...old, even then.

The most interesting note is that Asian celebrities and dignitaries are uniformly referred to as "exotic." Both also "described" by Phil Tonken.

The audio commentary features actor Martin Landau for the first hour and a half of disc one, director Mankiewicz' son Tom for the rest of disc one and then Landau, Tom Mankiewicz, brother Chris Makiewicz and publicist Jack Brodsky on disc two. As we listened, we were struck by how valuable this type of information will be to viewers of Cleopatra in the future. These unedited ruminations by actual participants will be infinitely more interesting than critical recapitulations by reviewers. Although, the commentators (except Landau) do not seem to be watching the film as they make their comments and it gets a little repitive at times, there is an endless amount of trivia and fascinating tidbits about the "eternal" production of Cleopatra and the people who made it.

There is great speculation about the hacked-out footage, lost in the editing controversy. Landau,in particular, takes a "walk down memory lane" as he watches the film and adds many colorful anecdotes about his experiences. The Mankiewicz brothers add fascinating glimpses of working on this gigantic film with their father and the things they saw and did. Brodsky talks about the Burton and Taylor affair: the attempts to supress it and then to ultimately capitalize on it.

The Still Gallery is a pleasing, finely-conceived and abundant extra that will become a treasure trove of Hollywood memorabilia. The gallery includes approximately 83 drawings of costume concept and research (interestingly these include NONE of Cleopatra's costumes!). We get another 80 excerpts from original exhibitors campaign book, including a lobby card, some badly printed/age-damaged movie stills, caricatures, album covers, point-of-purchase cards (many claiming the film as "The no.1 attraction of all time"), and tie-in consumer products. Even more items include excerpts from an original commemorative theater program, 62 screens of full-color stills with captions, images of ancient and 18th century art representing Cleopatra, behind-the-scenes photos with captions, and photos of the lavish, elaborate set designs and costumes, British lobby cards, billboard art, miscellaneous key art and a Japanese poster. Wow!

Oh, and a hard to read (low contrast grey on black), four-page booklet is included, which acts as the sleeve for disc 3.

The only thing missing is a bit of description of the historical time period that the movie covers. The story could be a little confusing to someone who has little knowledge of the Roman era of the last century B.C.E. A graphical timeline linking the events with the movie and some biographical data of the historical figures represented would be an informative addition. For example, there is only one occurrence when Octavian is referred to as "August" Caesar; that event hints that this is the same man who ultimately became Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor. This knowledge is somewhat crucial to understanding the ramifications of the Battle of Actium...and that it would have been a very different world if Antony and Cleopatra had prevailed.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

Cleopatra may not be one of the top 25 films of all time, but this DVD release is certainly one of the best yet in this young medium. The marvelous digital transfer and the fascinating, informative extras combine to make this a must for any DVD collection. Bring in the friends and family, pop in disc one, cue up Cleopatra's grand procession into Rome and remind them this is not CGI!


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