It’s the quintessential Hollywood historic epic, full of over the top grandeur, decadence and glamour: and the perfect choice for a Blu-ray release! Available today, read on for our review…
Elizabeth Taylor stars as Cleopatra, the glamorous and cunning queen of Egypt in this sweeping historical epic. To secure her hold on power, she seduces the ruler of Rome, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and uses her influence to increase Egypt’s power. As Caesar’s bride she is ruler of a grand empire, but after her husband’s murder at the hands of his own Senate, the Queen of the Nile meets her match in Mark Anthony (Richard Burton), Caesar’s devout ally. Their passionate romance could now decide the fate of the world’s greatest empire…
Last year I contributed to WhatCulture! a feature listing ten films worthy of a Blu-ray release that were not yet on Blu-ray. Cleopatra ranked in at number 2. It’s been a bit of a wait, but it certainly hasn’t been in vain, as Hollywood’s most infamous film has never looked more beautiful or striking as it does here.
The film has remained in the public’s conscience for 49 years due to the scandal caused by stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s affair during filming and a series of deep set rumours and hearsay surrounding the dramatic production. However, to judge Cleopatra on these alone does not do the film itself enough justice. It’s certainly not quite a perfect film, but then, honestly, how can a production that captured 96 hours of first unit footage, edited down to a mere 8 and a half hours and then summarily butchered down to a meagre 4 hour 11 minute feature on the orders of studio head Daryl Zanuck ever actually be so?
Despite these imperfections, the film is still highly engaging and incorporates elements from virtually all genres of filmmaking. From romance to war, drama to action, the film brilliantly tells the story of Egypt’s most famous queen and Rome’s most notorious emperor, with all the glamour and opulence of Hollywood grandeur. There are plenty of scenes that will literally make viewers eyes pop out of their heads (indeed, the entire film looks glorious for one of it’s age), however, Cleopatra’s iconic entrance into Rome is the most memorable of all. This beautiful sequence captures the film’s overarching tone of decadence and extravagance, with its elaborate set pieces, hoards of extras and dazzling costumes. Arguably, it is this scene alone that makes the film essential viewing on Blu-ray and this restored print does it immense justice. From the clarity of every minute detail on Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic, gold Isis costume to the spectacle of the Roman street setting, this sequence not only sums up all that is great about the film, but all that is wonderful about high definition!
In addition to the beautiful costumes and impressive sets, the very heart of Cleopatra is its performances. Elizabeth Taylor famously demanded a million dollar fee for her appearance, but after being refused and hearing that regular Fox star Susan Hayward was to take the role, she quickly lowered her fee to $750,000, but insisted on a clause arranging for a further $50,000 a week for every one the film ran over schedule by. Due to the plagued production, she eventually walked away with $70 million… But she certainly gives a performance worth every penny!
Taylor’s Cleopatra starts off as a spoilt little bitch who believes her own divinity a little too much, but she grows into a powerful, ambitious leader who is both beautiful and intelligent. Taylor effectively demonstrates this growing maturity within the character and gives an astute performance that shows off her wonderful talent. Some would argue that she’s merely a clothes horse (with her eighty odd costume changes – the most in Hollywood history) amongst a host of strong male performances, but this would do the actress an injustice, as she holds her own against the classical training of Richard Burton, Rex Harrison and a number of supporting players. Taylor exudes beauty and sex appeal, but in addition to this she makes Cleopatra a fascinating and memorable character. Burton uses his Shakespearian training to great effect in his eloquent and passionate portrayal of Mark Anthony. He delivers his dialogue with an intensity that few actors are able to match, breathing exuberance and power into the arrogant character and making him a perfect match for the passionate and egotistical Cleopatra. The sexual chemistry between both stars is in abundance and the real life backstage romance permeates the narrative, giving these scenes an extra sense of realism.
Although this real life affair has undoubtedly kept the film popular with audiences for all these years, I would also argue that it is the effect on screen of Taylor and Burton’s romance that makes the film so powerful and enduring. In the romantic scenes between the two, the dialogue and action may mimic the stars’ own off screen feelings, but this chemistry is relayed so perfectly on screen that they even out do that other iconic screen couple, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh’s, Rhett and Scarlett from Gone with the Wind (who, incidentally, despised each other off screen!). Rex Harrison gives a solid performance as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra’s first ally and lover. Harrison imbues Caesar – a notoriously great and ruthless emperor – with wisdom and humanity and he captures the character’s position as Cleopatra’s teacher with aplomb. Caesar is very much the Egyptian queen’s guide and mentor in life, helping push her into maturity and Harrison effectively captures the character’s intelligence and powerful leadership. Similar to Burton, Harrison uses his classical training in his portrayal of Caesar and is equally passionate, but also more subtle within his role. Superb support comes from a host of stellar talent (including the likes of Roddy McDowell and Andrew Keir) all of whom help relay the immense scale and grandeur of the production through their involvement. These memorable and exquisite performances, combined with the beauty and opulence of the sets and costumes, and the extensive but engaging narrative make Cleopatra a movie that all film fans should own.
Cleopatra’s biggest draw is undoubtedly it’s sumptuous, exotic and extremely over the top visuals. The meticulous restoration the film has undergone for this Blu-ray release will certainly not disappoint viewers. The visuals are near perfect, practically flawless for the full four hour running time. There is virtually no trace of grain in sequences – only a mild amount is visible in the odd sequence – and the film has been upgraded so well that there are no blemishes or other distortions to the pictures. The colours are vivid and sumptuous, with an expansive palette that ranges from the dry sandy tones of the Egyptian landscape to the rich, regal golds and primaries of Taylor’s costumes. The level of definition in the Blu-ray transfer is nothing short of immense, with even the smallest of details on costumes or in set pieces crystal clear for viewers: an incredible testament to the quality of movie craftsmanship back in the 1960s and the level of restoration undertaken for this new HD transfer. The audio quality is similarly proficient, with dialogue clean and clear in virtually every scene. The dialogue in interior sequences is flawless, but that in some of the exterior scenes sounds slightly tinny and has less depth. The bombastic soundtrack thunders through the background, highlighting certain sequences in a dramatic and glorious way and hasn’t sounded better than it does here. Essentially, all of the technical aspects have been upgraded extremely well and make this Blu-ray release a veritable feast for audiences’ eyes and ears!
A host of engaging and informative documentaries and featurettes accompany the film, looking at a range of subjects from the history of the real Egyptian queen to the infamy of the plagued production. Viewers seeking extra-textual information and a greater understanding of the behind the scenes drama will not be disappointed with this release. The following collection of bonus material is housed on this 2 disc Special Edition:
Cleopatra Through The Ages: A Cultural History
Cleopatra’s Missing Footage
Fox Movie Channel presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman
Commentary with Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, Martin Landau and Jack Brodsky
The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence
Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood
The Fourth Star of Cleopatra
Fox Movietone News
Film: 4.5 out of 5
The magical nature of Cleopatra’s iconic biography comes to life in this engaging and attractive film. With strong performances and a narrative that incorporates drama, romance, mystery, action and comedy, Cleopatra is the quintessential Hollywood epic. For many it may seem over-long, but personally, it’s just a shame that the full eight and a half hour work print couldn’t have been recovered for this release!
Visuals: 5 out of 5
The quality of the images on this release are as stunning and as rich as the striking costumes and set pieces at the heart of Cleopatra. Free from grain, blemishing and other distortions, the visuals are simply flawless.
Audio: 4.5 out of 5
Dialogue is clear and audible throughout the four hour run time, with only a few exterior sequences sounding slightly tinny. The expressive soundtrack is impressive here and fills the background to perfectly capture the tone of the narrative.
Extras: 5 out of 5
A solid collection of special features accompany the film, including some interesting and informative newly made featurettes and documentaries. For anybody looking for further information on Fox’s most infamous production, this Blu-ray will not disappoint.
Presentation: 5 out of 5
The striking image of Elizabeth Taylor at the centre of the front cover image perfectly captures the beauty and glamour of the film itself. The video menu shows clips from the most iconic sequences within the film and viewers will immediately see the quality of the visuals from this. Furthermore, the menus are easy to navigate too.
Overall: 5 out of 5
This release has been a long time coming, but the wait has definitely been worth it! The flawless images, stellar audio, engaging narrative, informative supplementary features and attractive presentation make this an essential package for all Blu-ray and classical Hollywood fans…
Cleopatra is available on Special Edition 2 Disc Blu-ray today.