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Cleopatra: 50th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)

31 May, 2013 By: John Latchem

$14.98 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray, $34.99 BD book
Not rated.
Stars Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, Martin Landau, Andrew Keir, Hume Cronyn.

Former Fox studio chief Tom Rothman probably summarized the notoriety behind Cleopatra best during his introduction of the film for the Fox Movie Channel a couple of years ago: “If the story within the film had not been such a keen mirror for so much of what was going on behind the film, I don’t think its fame would have so endured.”

That clip is one of several extras included with the new Cleopatra Blu-ray that do a good job outlining the problems that made it one of the most expensive films ever produced, taking 20th Century Fox to the brink of financial ruin.

Hoping to take advantage of the wave of sword-and-sandal flicks that dominated the 1950s and early 1960s, the studio boss gave the producer a 10-page script of the 1917 silent version and told him to remake it for cheap with dialogue and a contract player in the title role, such as Joan Collins (whose screen test pops up in several places on the Blu-ray). Producer William Wanger, who saw the film as potentially the next Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments, sought out Elizabeth Taylor, who asked for the then-outrageous sum of $1 million. Producers not only agreed to give her a ridiculous contract, but when the production ran past 16 weeks, she earned an additional $50,000 a week, eventually walking away with a total salary of $7 million.

Expensive sets in England had to be abandoned when the film relocated to Italy due to the weather, and the production dragged on for nearly two years with overburdened writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz essentially making things up as he went. Of course, he only ended up on the picture when the original director quit and Mankiewicz was the only available director acceptable to Taylor, who had such approvals in her contract.

Taylor herself had been laid up for weeks after falling gravely ill in England, at one point requiring a tracheotomy to save her life (the scar being plainly visible throughout the film thanks to the clarity of the Blu-ray).

The production pressed on so as not to lose a star of Taylor’s stature, and indeed, her presence alone is the reason the film is called Cleopatra and not Caesar, Antony and Octavian, the trio at the center of the story. Trying to consolidate his empire, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) forms an alliance with Cleopatra, who inspires him to become emperor of Rome. When Caesar is assassinated (laughably witnessed by Cleo through a vision in a magical fire), the queen turns her attentions to Marc Antony (Richard Burton), which earns the ire of Caesar’s heir, Octavian (Roddy McDowall).

Mankiewicz’s original cut of the film was eight hours long. He had intended to cut it into a pair of three-hour movies, Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra. The studio locked him out of the editing process, hoping for a single film that could take instant advantage of the infamously torrid and public love affair between Taylor and Burton, the latter barely appearing in what would have been the first movie.

It was eventually pared down to the four-hour version that’s included on the Blu-ray. (There have been efforts to restore the six hour version, but most of the deleted footage appears to have been lost when the studio threw out excess film negatives in the 1970s to save money and storage space.)

Fifty years removed from scandals and acrimony, the film itself stands as a sweeping, if imperfect, love story, populated by exquisite costumes and production design.

The performances are generally pretty good. Taylor is authoritative enough as Cleopatra, although Burton’s Antony comes across mostly as a love-struck stooge, exuding little in the way of the gravitas that must have been necessary to help rule the Roman Empire.

The highlights, acting wise, are easily Harrison and McDowall; both are commanding and give the film enough weight to overcome whatever shortcomings it has elsewhere. (It’s kind of a kick to see McDowall declare “I am Caesar,” considering a decade later he’d play the hyper-intelligent chimpanzee named Caesar who starts the ape society in a couple of “Planet of the Apes” sequels).

Keep an eye on the background for some familiar faces in small roles as Roman senators — John Hoyt, the doctor in the original “Star Trek” pilot “The Cage”; Desmond Llewelyn, best known as Q in the James Bond movies; and Archie Bunker himself, Carroll O’Connor.

Despite the film’s reputation as the most expensive production in cinema history, and a costly flop that nearly brought down a studio, Cleopatra actually performed well, becoming the top-grossing film of 1963, winning four Oscars (in technical categories) and eventually earning a profit thanks to re-releases, television and home video.

The film has been well preserved over the years and looks sumptuous in high-definition; the extravagance of the production really shines through, especially during the film’s two major setpieces: Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome on a giant sphinx, and the decisive sea battle between Antony and Octavian.

The Blu-ray carries over the extras from the 2001 DVD, including a great two-hour making-of documentary, a nine-minute featurette from 1963, newsreel footage from the premiere, and a great commentary track that splices separate interviews from co-star Martin Landau, director Mankiewicz’s sons Tom and Chris (both of whom also worked on the film as assistants), and publicist Jack Brodsky.

New to the Blu-ray presentation are a 10-minute featurette about the historical Cleopatra, a featurette about missing footage and the intended longer cut, notes used by Brodsky to co-write a book about the production, and Rothman’s half-hour Fox Movie Channel introduction.

The latter may be the most fascinating piece, as Rothman compares the history of Cleopatra and Titanic as runaway productions, providing valuable context from his own experiences as a studio head.

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