It’s tempting to deem 1963’s “Cleopatra” as the ultimate metaphor for itself, a variation of the famous Francis Ford Coppola observation that goes “’Apocalypse Now’ wasn’t about Vietnam; it was Vietnam.” After all, it’s virtually impossible to watch “Cleopatra” without simultaneously thinking of its elephantine, out-of-control production, one beset by all manner of switchbacks and cost overruns, from ornate sets built that were never used to the tempestuous affair between co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that flared up on set. Even those who declare “It isn’t essential to know the tempestuous tale of its making” inevitably end up devoting paragraphs to the tempestuous tale of its making anyway. Still, to contend that movie is the allegory for the making there would have to be evidence in its rendering and its storytelling of outlandishness and, surprisingly, disappointingly, that’s not the case.
The closest you get is Richard Burton’s omnipresent goblet, which I suspect he held as an executive decision – “I think Mark Antony would be drinking from a goblet in this scene.” It’s there in Taylor’s record 65 costume changes, though it must be said that often the Movie Star of Movie Stars is most ravishing when she’s out of the blingy apparel and simply in a nightgown with a her hair let down. It’s sorta like when Kate Middleton did away with all the sartorial pomp and just went blue for the engagement photos.
And though the story includes a partial soap opera, here is less chaos than you might expect with the deaths of Caesars and Queens and gargantuan battles.
Indeed, watching “Cleopatra” – for the second time, but the first time in resplendent 70mm – I found myself yearning for more of that off-screen turmoil to seep in from the edges of those resplendent frames.
The movie itself was eminently ambitious. In yearning to tell the stories of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra and Mark Antony and Cleopatra, it instead combined them, a recipe for the four hour epic it became, cut down from six at the objections of its replacement auteur Joseph L. Mankiewicz who argued for them to be split into separate films. Certainly the finished product lends itself to his argument, considering its swings in mood and tone. It’s argued by some that a standalone “Caesar & Cleopatra” could have made for something resembling a great film, while a standalone “Antony & Cleopatra” would have foundered. Quality is in the eye of each beholder, however, and I confess less fondness for the first passage in which Caesar arrives in Egypt after defeating Pompey, ferrets out the assassination attempt on Cleopatra’s life and installs her as Queen.
It is conveyed like DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” but without as much unashamed pomp. Indeed, in another movie about Caesar, Rex Harrison would have been fine, the way in which he strides about with his hands behind his back, emitting the air of an Roman executive, but here, where the focus is Cleopatra as much as him, something’s missing. She lulls him into a union and bearing her son, but this sequence plays not like passion but politics, a business transaction. Cleopatra and Julius Caesar is more like formal wear, cigars and brandy in the smoking room, refusing to show Elvis from the hips down. The back half, however, in which Cleopatra hooks up with Antony, for a little while at least, is more like The Bold and the Beautiful.
The Antony and Cleopatra section of the film has its share of bloat, sure, but it’s also where “Cleopatra” seems more ready to luxuriate in its own lavishness, like the most garish, wonderful game of playing hard to get the world has ever seen. Though yearning to unite forces, Antony will not go to Egypt and Cleopatra will not go to Rome, and so back and forth they go, two of the world’s most powerful people leading each other on from afar. It concludes with Cleopatra finally coming to Rome by way of opulent ship, refusing to disembark in the harbor, and the shot of her astride the ship’s bow is like the most opulent mic drop of all time, a sequence of uninhibited showboating, both by the movie and the characters. And when Antony comes aboard and finds himself taking in a night of entertainment and an extravagant feast, . How could he not after that? Cleopatra wins.
As Antony is smitten with her, and her with him, the sparks that flew between the real life Taylor and Burton occasionally pop up onscreen too, and you become convinced that he would make war with Rome’s forces to curry her favor. Taylor excels in these moments, luring him into her trap. If off screen Burton reeled in Taylor, on screen Cleopatra reels in Antony, leading him toward his inevitable doom. Yet as that doom slowly uncoils, again the film loses it grasp on any sense of playfulness, turning their brewing tragedy more into a mope-fest, slogging toward the finish line, and rendering a naval battle that should have been epic as disappointing tedium. The best part of the naval battle, in fact, isn’t the battle itself but the small-scale real-time re-creation of it for the Queen’s benefit, complete with miniature ships lit on fire when a real ship goes up in flames.
It’s all too stately rather than emotionally coming unmoored. If the scene of Cleopatra freaking out and stabbing her regal bed was, as has been recounted, fueled by Liz's real life anger, none of that is translated on screen, where it seems stilted rather than a complete and utter loss of shit. God, I wanted Cleopatra to lose her shit; I wanted “Cleopatra” to lose its shit, to just collapse in on itself. If its making was a catastrophe, what that making transcribed on screen never really is, which makes for an odd viewing experience, wishing for the off screen cataclysm to intrude what you're seeing and leave it a hysterical mess.