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    Cleopatra (1963) Blu-ray Review

    Blu-ray Fox

    May 22 2013 04:26 PM | Matt Hough in DVD & Blu-ray Reviews
    By far the most expensive movie made up to its release date and even now with inflation adjustments still one of the mostly costly films ever, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra remains an entertaining if troubled film. One part epic and two parts intimate love stories, Cleopatra may have been a monumental folly of waste and indulgence behind the scenes, but much of that huge $40 million expenditure shows up on the screen in the huge and intricately detailed sets, vast seas of extras, extravagant costumes, and a cast of stars that, for the most part, do the best they can under (in hindsight) considerably trying circumstances.

    Title Info:

    • Studio: Fox
    • Distributed By: N/A
    • Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
    • Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1
    • Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HDMA, Spanish 5.1 DD, French 5.1 DTS, Other
    • Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
    • Rating: G
    • Run Time: 4 Hr. 11 Min.
    • Package Includes: Blu-ray
    • Case Type: keep case with slipcover
    • Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
    • Region: A
    • Release Date: 05/21/2013
    • MSRP: $24.99

    The Production Rating: 4/5

    After following his rival Pompey to Egypt to settle the matter of who would be Rome’s supreme leader once and for all, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) is surprised that Pompey has been murdered by Pharaoh Ptolemy (Richard O'Sullivan). Because he is supposed to be ruling Egypt jointly with his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), Caesar is anxious to settle the dispute between them, but after Cleopatra is smuggled into his room and he hears her side of the story of the siblings’ hatred for one another, he begins plotting to make sure Ptolemy does not gain the upper hand. Cleopatra, on the other hand, sees in Caesar the kind of dynamic leader whom she can manipulate into conquering the entire world that they can rule together. To seal the deal, she bears him a son whom she also hopes will be Caesar’s heir to total power in Rome. When Caesar is assassinated after having named his nephew Octavian (Roddy McDowall) as his heir, Cleopatra realizes that her dreams of ruling the world and establishing a secure kingdom for her son are dashed, that is, until she surmises that Caesar’s favored general Mark Antony (Richard Burton) finds her fascinating, so she again sees a chance to achieve her ambitions through another Roman warrior.

    With the runaway production almost out of control, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz was filming by day and writing by night trying to bring the script into some kind of focus (Mankiewicz is credited with the final script along with Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman), but since his original intention was to produce two three-hour films, necessarily this condensed four hour version is a compromise that sometimes makes plot and character continuity something of a strain on the viewer. What works is beautifully mounted and presented: Cleopatra’s celebrated procession into Rome, for example, or the early battle in Alexandria (gorgeous images of fighting at night) or the later Battle at Actium as Antony’s hopes come crashing down. But there is money and lots of it spent on some of the most gargantuan sets and most extravagant costumes imaginable, and the film has always been a feast for the eye and ear (Alex North’s majestically lush and bittersweet score is another solid plus for the film). The second half of the movie pales in dramatic interest compared to the first mainly because Caesar who dominates the first half is a much more compelling character than the weak, easily misled Mark Antony of the second half (Richard Burton doesn’t even make an appearance in the film until more than an hour has passed), and the director is unable to make the overly lengthy deaths of the two lovers truly compelling and heartbreaking. Though audiences at the time who were intrigued by the Burton-Taylor romance that seared newspaper and magazine headlines for months on end might have been breathlessly waiting for the love scenes in the film’s second half, the fact is that those scenes now are among the least interesting in the movie while Cleopatra’s scheming wiles to get what she wants are a far more gripping piece of the scenario puzzle throughout the film.

    Elizabeth Taylor was too old to play the fabled teenaged Queen of the Nile in the film’s early going, and some of her acting especially in scenes where her anger and outrage get the best of her character is rather brittle and erratic. She grows in majesty, however, as the film proceeds and emerges as a somewhat sympathetic character. Rex Harrison’s Julius Caesar is a career high point for him capturing the man’s charisma and power as well as his vanity and insecurities in a wonderfully rounded portrait of the man and leader. Richard Burton is less impressive here allowing Mark Antony to succumb to self pity and whining in that effusive nasal cadence of Burton's that is never very appealing. George Cole is an especially loving Flavius, mute servant to Caesar, while Robert Stephens, Martin Landau, and Andrew Keir are honorable soldiers who do well with the limited amount of screen time they’ve been given. Roddy McDowall’s Octavian/Augustus shows commandingly that ambition and conniving can come in smaller packages, too.

    Video Rating: 5/5 3D Rating: NA

    “You’re in the show with Todd-AO” as they used to say with this striking and magisterial 2.20:1 transfer presented in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec, and the image is so gorgeous that it sometimes seems almost possible to walk right into the picture. Sharpness is superb throughout without any artificial-looking edge enhancement. Color saturation is spot-on with reds, purples, and golds being especially memorable. Flesh tones do vary a bit seeming sometimes too tan compared to other times, but that could very well have been due to the shooting locations in Rome which may have baked the skin of some of the actors, and most of the time, skin tones look completely natural and authentic. The film has been divided into 53 chapters over two discs which includes overture, entr’acte, and exit music chapters.

    Audio Rating: 4/5

    The discs offer DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 4.0 sound mixes, and each is a solid aural achievement. Though most of the surround activity is contributed by Alex North’s celebrated score which gets a nice spread through the fronts and rears and accounts for much of the bass used in the LFE channel, there are occasional uses of panning effects through the soundfield (as in the Procession into Rome sequence). Dialogue has been superbly recorded and has been placed in the center channel. And for those who are interested, the entr’acte music does begin Disc 2.

    Special Features: 5/5

    Audio Commentary: edited comments from Martin Landau, Tom and Chris Mankiewicz, and Jack Brodsky which cover the entire running time of the film but with some silent passages.

    Cleopatra Through the Ages (7:51, HD): historian Stuart Tyson Smith comments on the depictions of the Queen through plays and films down through the years.

    Cleopatra’s Missing Footage (8:12, HD): Fox’s Shawn Belston discusses the various versions of the film that have existed and the efforts to locate missing scenes which have so far proven fruitless.

    Fox Movie Channel Presents Fox Legacy (29:29, SD): Tom Rothman discusses the history of the troubled production and its aftermath using his own experience with Titanic to compare problems with massively budgeted films.

    The Cleopatra Papers (HD): a page-through series of letters detailing private correspondence over the course of more than a year as the film slogged through production with all of the attendant notoriety of the Taylor-Burton romance.

    Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood (1:59:07, SD): the superb feature-length documentary on the legendary story of the much-troubled making and marketing of the movie narrated by Robert Culp.

    The Fourth Star of Cleopatra (9:06, SD): a publicity featurette emphasizing the huge production that was Cleopatra with facts and figures on the sets, costumes, extras, etc.

    Two Movietone Newsreels (6:19, SD): the first publicizes the New York premiere of the movie at the Rivoli Theater. The second details the Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. premieres. The newsreels may be watched separately.

    Three Theatrical Trailers (10:03, SD): may be watched together using “Play All” or individually.

    Overall Rating: 4.5/5

    Not the greatest film ever made but certainly one of the biggest spectacles of all-time, Cleopatra is an evening’s worth of worthwhile entertainment. For eye candy alone, the Blu-ray release is something to see, another triumphant Todd-AO film released beautifully on Blu-ray, and the bountiful bonuses also give the package additional value. Recommended! The film has also been released in Digibook format with a $10 increase in MSRP, but this was not the version sent for review.

    Reviewed by: Matt Hough
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    29 Comments

    Showing on the big screen tonight and Sunday...the ad I saw looked like it had to be 4K.

    I can't compare the image to the BD, which I haven't seen, but the PQ at the Cinemark screening was impressive. Well worth catching. I saw Cleopatra in its original roadshow run in '63 (no, I can' remember the finer details of a screening 50 years ago, except for the fact that it looked spectacular), and this screening definitely transported me back to that long-gone era. I miss the curtain...

    Ah, this should be interesting. I have the UK release (I'm in the UK) & find the picture far too cool, with golds suffering the most (looking more like silver!), & Cleopatra's entry into Rome looking like it was shot on a dull day. I suppose it could be the same transfer, with the reviewer taking a different view from mine (& that's allowed). It would be typical of Fox for this to be a better transfer & be locked region A. I say that becouse it seems that Patton, being released in the UK next month is the old bad transfer!

    It's my first time to see it on the big screen, but I thought the theatrical presentation last night was spectacular in every way.  Please God let the Blu-ray be close to that.

    I did order this Blu-ray, but not for the reasons that I entirely

    wanted to own it.

     

    When Amazon first posted the Blu-ray book for preorder, I think

    they made a pricing mistake as I ordered it for $18.99 the first day

    it appeared.  That price immediately shot up to $24.99 (or more at 

    the time).  Thought I got a good price so I decided to keep it on order.

     

    Never thought much of Cleopatra one way or the other.  The film has

    its moments of grandeur, but for me, the movie is just average.  Still,

    as someone who collects films on their historic value (liked or not), I felt

    this needed to be in my collection.

     

    Very nice to hear that the PQ is very good.  I look forward to giving this

    film another look on Blu-ray very shortly.

    Ron, I wonder if your reaction to the film is partially due to what I believe (IMHO) is a weak second half.  I chiefly ascribe this to the portrayal of Anthony as a whiny, simpering, pouting child.  This may be have been dictated by the script and history, but it sure made the second half of the movie the lesser half.

     

    Edit: I really should read the entire review before I comment on it.  You basically took the words out of my keyboard concerning the second half of the movie.  I have more than once watched only the first half.

     

    And I've often found myself thinking the Burton is in love with the sound of his voice.

     

    BTW, have all the DVD extras been carried-over to the blu-ray?

    I have the UK Blu-ray which has the same extras so, no need to buy this one.

    Ron, I wonder if your reaction to the film is partially due to what I believe (IMHO) is a weak second half.  I chiefly ascribe this to the portrayal of Anthony as a whiny, simpering, pouting child.  This may be have been dictated by the script and history, but it sure made the second half of the movie the lesser half. Edit: I really should read the entire review before I comment on it.  You basically took the words out of my keyboard concerning the second half of the movie.  I have more than once watched only the first half. And I've often found myself thinking the Burton is in love with the sound of his voice. BTW, have all the DVD extras been carried-over to the blu-ray?

    Poor old Richard Burton, I think all his best stuff in this film must have been cut out. He's hardly in the first half, & is a bit whiny in the second (but what a voice!). I think the film falls apart after the death of Rex Harrison, he really is missed in the second half. And the action scenes are pretty poor for a huge epic movie. The attack on the Moon Gate looks a bit cheapskate, & the sea battle is a real mess!
    Everyone beat me to it. Just watch part one, and then if you really love it, check out the weaker part two. The very end is quite good too.

    I did not have the UK release with which to do a comparison, but I had read several reviews that called the transfer "cool." I certainly did not find that to be the case with what I was watching on the review copy I received, and I was expecting it.

    Nice to see what the extras are on here, I look forward to revisiting this one. Haven't seen it since the first VHS release.

    The feature-length documentary entitled "Cleopatra:  The Film that Changed Hollywood" is more compelling than the film itself, with its detailing of the myriad problems encountered during filming.

    And I've often found myself thinking the Burton is in love with the sound of his voice.

     

    I know I'm in love with the sound of Richard Burton's voice...!  :biggrin:

    "dialogue has been placed in the center channel" so the directional dialogue has been eliminated? If so, no sale.

    Why place the dialogue in the center channel? It was clearly directional at the Cinemark screening. And the colors were not "cool" at all: gold looked like gold, not silver, as has been described in the UK BD.

    bujaki:  We all see things differently.  I have some BDs that are absolutely gorgeous, while others in this forum find the BDs "unwatchable", "horrible" and a "gosh-awful mess."

     

    To what can one ascribe the differences in experiences with the same BDs?I ask myself....

    Virgoan,

    I was referring to the Cinemark screening of Cleopatra. The colors were true: gold was gold, not silver-looking. I have not seen the BD, so I can't comment. If, as some posters have written, the gold has taken a silver look, then it is most unfortunate

    I did order this Blu-ray, but not for the reasons that I entirely

    wanted to own it.

     

    When Amazon first posted the Blu-ray book for preorder, I think

    they made a pricing mistake as I ordered it for $18.99 the first day

    it appeared.  That price immediately shot up to $24.99 (or more at 

    the time).  Thought I got a good price so I decided to keep it on order.

     

     

    Lucky you.

     

    I also ordered the Blu-Ray Book version when it was mis-priced at $18.99 at amazon, but my order somehow evaporated when they fixed the price. I can't complain as I've had my share of good fortune with amazon price screw ups in my favor. I reordered the film at $24.99. No big deal.

    Is anyone in a position to report whether the UK & US issues are different versions technically?

     

    Many thanks.

    Attended a screening of CLEOPATRA yesterday at the Cinemark Theatre here in Kansas City. Film looked beautiful.  So great to see an original road show (I first saw this at the Ambassador Theatre in St. Louis when I was 14) being treated like a road show. Overture, intermission, entr' acte, exit music. Everything but the  programs for sale in the lobby... oh, and the ushers and reserved seats of course! ;)  But it was a great afternoon. Have the blu ray on order. Looking forward to re watching the two hour documentary that I recall as being very entertaining. The Joe Hyams/ Walter Wagner book "My Life with CLEOPATRA" is getting a reissue in June.

    Have been looking for that book forever. I have read it and used to own the paperback but it got lost along the way.just preordered the kindle version!

    Can anyone confirm whether or not the directional dialogue is present on the US BD of Cleopatra?

    For those in love with Burton's voice you should have a listen to Jeff Wayne's Musical version of War of the Worlds.It's basically an early 70's progressive rock version of the story with Burton's buttery smooth narration.Anyway. I watched part one the other night and thought it was pretty good and image looked great too. A shame Great Escape doesn't look as good as this one.Watched about 15 minutes of part 2 but had to pause for some other things.The digi book is very nice. Glossy cover and a terrific looking slip box to hold it.

    Can anyone confirm whether or not the directional dialogue is present on the US BD of Cleopatra?

    Seems like it is to me.

    Specific at about 30 mnutes into pt 2 Roddy M. Is speaking to another person and the audio follows them as they move around.