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.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 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
Run Time: 4 Hr. 11 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-raykeep case with slipcover
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 05/21/2013
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.
The Production Rating: 4/5
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.
“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.
Video Rating: 5/5 3D Rating: NA
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.
Audio Rating: 4/5
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.
Special Features Rating: 5/5
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.
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.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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