Lowdown: The long version of the love affair between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony.
The phrase “they don’t make them like that anymore” was probably invented in reaction to 1963’s four hour long Cleopatra. I would like to add “and we’re all better for it” to that phrase; however, I will add that by the same token this movie serves as a historical artefact. For the history of cinema, that is, rather than the history of the Roman Empire.
For a movie this long, it is surprising how little effort Cleopatra makes in setup and how much the audience is expected to know. Starting off at the end of the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, we’re never told what this war was about or who Pompey was [I will note that while Caesar is a household name, Pompey isn’t; the outcome of this war was the turning of Rome from a sort of a republic into a dictatorship].
Caesar (Rex Harrison) doesn’t go straight home, instead choosing to visit Egypt, where - in one of cinema’s most famous scenes ever - he is introduced to the local queen Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) as she is brought to him folded up in a carpet. They fall in love, or perhaps he is manipulated to fall in love, and have a child. An hour and a half later, Caesar goes back to Rome where he is murdered at the Senate. His successor, Mark Anthony (Richard Burton) ends up succeeding him in Cleopatra’s department, too. However, both are doomed to suffer the fate of those standing up against Rome’s rising star, Octavian/Augustus.
The package that is Cleopatra is certainly odd. It starts with the duration, emphasised by the noted hour and a half of romance that is unrelated to the centre story, the multitude of scenes of exaggerated lengths, and the prominence of scenes that do not drive the story (such as extravagant dance scenes through the streets of Rome when Cleopatra drops in for a visit). One can get the sense the people of the sixties, for whom this movie was made, had no smartphones or Twitter to distract them from the movie.
Next in notability is the sanitised presentation that conforms to conservative Hollywood values. Everything is white (including Egyptians and particularly Cleopatra’s maids), everything is clean (despite historical fact), and everything is oh-so politically correct (and naïve). I do not claim to know what the love story between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony really was like, but I would take Rome’s (the TV miniseries) interpretation of a drug induced orgy as making much more sense than the noble but ultimately clueless choices made by the heroes here. Cleopatra serves as nourishment for those who think things were better back in the old days, because if they were to think about it they would see they clearly weren’t.
All of which puts Cleopatra into perspective for us modern day viewers. It is not an accurate depicter of historical fact; there are some gross violations in that department. What it is is a window into a glamorous Hollywood of the past, of days before special effects (analog as well as digital), days where star power was main event and the star’s wardrobe of choice was of peak interest. Also, with the male leads, days when they could put on a show that did not include bulging muscles; days when they appeared quite human like.
Overall: Not a good movie, but a good window into a long gone era of a Hollywood more than half a century away. 3 out of 5 crabs.