Still the most expensive movie ever made, Cleopatra
nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. It also scandalised the world with the very public affair of its two major stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. But Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1963 epic deserves to be remembered for more than its off-screen troubles. An extravagantly elaborate production, the sets and costumes alone are awe-inspiring; Mankiewicz's own literate screenplay draws heavily on the classics and Shakespeare; while the supporting cast, led by Rex Harrison as Caesar and Roddy McDowall as his nephew (and future emperor) Octavian, are all first-rate thespians and generally put in more convincing performances than either of the two leads.
Mankiewicz's original intention was to make two three-hour films: the first being Caesar and Cleopatra, the second Antony and Cleopatra. But before the films completion, and following a boardroom coup worthy of Ancient Rome itself, legendary mogul Darryl F Zanuck took back control of Fox and insisted that Cleopatra be cut to a more economical length. A heartbroken Mankiewicz was forced to trim his six-hour vision down to four. This was the "roadshow" version shown at the films premiere and now restored here for the first time. Then following adverse criticism and pressure from cinema chains Zanuck demanded more cuts, and the final released version ran a mere three hours--half the original length.
Capitalising on the feverish publicity surrounding Burton and Taylor, the shortened version played up both their on- and off-screen romance. This longer four-hour roadshow version allows for a broader view of the film, adding some depth to the politics and manipulation of the characters. But the directors original six-hour edit has been lost. Perhaps one day it will be rediscovered in the vaults and Mankiewiczs much-maligned movie will finally be seen the way it was meant to be. Until then, Cleopatra remains an epic curiosity rather than the complete spectacle it should be.
On the DVD: this handsome three-disc set spreads the restored four-hour print of the movie across two discs. The anamorphic widescreen print looks quite magnificent and Alex Norths wondrous score comes up like new in Dolby 5.1 sound. Theres a patchy and only intermittently revealing commentary from Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, Martin Landau and Jack Brodsky. Much better is the comprehensive two-hour documentary that occupies disc three, which tells in hair-raising detail the extraordinary story of a film production that became totally out of control. This is accompanied by some short archival material, but the documentary alone is a compelling reason to acquire this set. --Mark Walker
BLU RAY W/ Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison