(If you’re curious, my review process. It’s also pasted at the end of this post. I don’t believe in Rotten Tomatoes. I just believe in me.)
(***all-purpose SPOILER ALERT*** there may be some in this review)
SW SCORE: 45
4.5 out of 5 🐙
It is funny how Hollywood gets into phases. Following The Matrix (1999) and Pulp Fiction (1994), many movies followed that borrowed from, stole from, paid homage to, and tried to straight up duplicate their themes and cinematography and overall style. In the 60s, the movie city was obsessed with sprawling epics. Besides this joint, there were (just to name a few): The Alamo, Elmer Gantry, Lawrence of Arabia, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Longest Day, How the West Was Won, Becket, and Doctor Zhivago. They all boasted very long runtimes and an assured sense of self-importance. This is not to say that some, if not most, of these gorillas were bad. Some are indelible classics. Some are delible.
Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) is, if not anything else, an epic. It is historical fiction, if you will, about one of the most legendary women in ancient times and her relationship with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison), the war hero turned emperor of the world’s most powerful republic, and Mark Antony (Richard Burton), his most trusted general. But this is not a story where historical figures are mythologized. From jump Caesar tells Mark Antony to make sure he keeps his legions together because that’s what makes the law stand up. This might be about a fabled republic but the cynicism, or realism depending who you ask, is included right away.
The Machiavellian vibe continues beyond violence, backing up the rule of law. Egypt is already a subservient kingdom to Rome but there is still gamesmanship and Caesar is adept snd doesn’t fall into force as his first move. He’s there to analyze first. He finds Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII’s domain in disarray. Cleopatra and her brother are vying to be the one to take over their Dad’s job and she has already gathered own army. All of this stuff feels like A Game of Thrones except, of course, many decades prior.
The George R. R. Martin ambiance continues with Cleopatra smuggling herself into t meet with Caesar. She is confidence personified. It’s both a strategy to impress Caesar who has the real power to give her the throne but also is what she believes:
Cleopatra: “I shall have to insist that you mind what you say. I am Isis. I am worshiped by millions who believe it.”
Caesar: “Yes, I recall some mention of an obsession…you have about your divinity.”
They parlay and she leaves with what appears to be a deal in her favor. Caesar is no fool though, and we get a delicious bit of exposition; one of his lieutenants breaks down her dossier in cutting fashion:
“In obtaining her objectives she has been known to use torture, poison…and even her own sexual talents, which are said to be considerable. Her lovers, I am told, are listed more easily by number than by name. It is said that she chooses in the manner of a man…rather than wait to be chosen in womanly fashion.”
It is the beginning of the 1st millennium when this takes place, so you have to take the overt misogyny with a grain-nay-bucket of salt. While Caesar is still in the country, the Great Library of Alexandria is burned to the ground. Caesar claims it was without his consent and an accident. It really strikes me as a false note that such a famously meticulous general would ever let a major incident like that occur.
Cleopatra, not surprisingly, was really pissed about losing her local library:
Cleopatra: “Tear down pyramids! Wipe out cities! How dare you and the rest of your barbarians set fire to my library? Play conqueror all you want mighty Caesar. Rape, murder, pillage thousands, millions of human beings. But neither you nor any other barbarian…”
Caesar: “You descendant of inbred generations of incestuous mental defectives…how dare you call me barbarian.”
It’s shameless how they flirt. Harrison plays a bemused but supremely confident and surprisingly funny Caesar while Taylor matches his level of confidence, but her humor is sharper and she plays her role with more fire. Despite the overt hostility of the above exchange, it’s clear there is strong tension underneath. Caesar awards control of Egypt to Cleopatra and at her coronation, their love blooms:
Caesar: “Isis herself would surrender her place in heaven to be as beautiful as you.”
Cleopatra: “You’re not supposed to look at me. No one is.”
Caesar: “If they aren’t looking, how do they know I am?”
And, as most veteran moviegoers would expect, the two lions get together, marry, and have a male heir.
The movie shifts to Rome and we get to enjoy a ridiculously overblown parade in honor of Caesar being named “dictator for life”. The 60s loved huge production numbers. Epics always include huge numbers of extras, it seems.
Mark Antony re-enters the picture as Caesar is about to dip out. I imagine most who are interested in this movie would have a passing knowledge of ancient history, so it’s not a big spoiler to let you know that the Ides of March are coming. For those who want more clarity, Caesar gets too power hungry, and he is assassinated. The scene has been memorialized in many plays and films. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz makes an interesting choice here and mutes all the audio for the scene. We just see the nervous but determined faces of the assassins and the shocked look on Caesar’s face. The lack of sound gives it a ghostly air. And while the rest of the film is full of robust sound, going quiet on this scene serves to accentuate its importance. It is the end of the first.
This is really more like two films. But when you’re playing with over three hours, you have time to tell two full stories. The rest of the movie centers on Mark Antony’s quest to avenge Caesar and his love affair with Cleopatra. Burton and Taylor’s chemistry is evident and so natural that it’s no surprise they were married twice. Both, besides being drawn to each other, were also probably two of the finest actors of their era or of any era, and they were both at the height of their powers.
The 2nd half unfolds much like the first in that it is another Game of Thrones mix of of political and military brinksmanship overlaid with a passionate love affair. It’s basically the George R. R. Martin cookbook. Not that this film or George’s joints were the first or last to blend this brew.
Cleopatra, while in a more subservient role under Caesar, has graduated to puppet master over Mark Antony. How does she dominate him? It seems, to this particular viewer, that Antony clearly loves her more than Caesar did. While Caesar’s love for her was more statesmanlike, Antony’s ardour is more raw and self-destructive. But Cleopatra returns this fever as well, falling hard for Antony.
Antony and Cleopatra grow deeper in love with each other. They both take turns lurching for more power, each time compromising their judgment by clouding it with their passion. They play this game of leaving each other, always because they want more. Burton starts as a confident, “righteous-vengeance seeking” man who falls in love and ends a man who has shattered his values and his body for that same love.
Cleopatra: “What has happened to you?”
Mark Antony: “You have happened to me.”
Burton gives a master class in acting out decline. Taylor meanwhile starts at a position of confidence and neutrality, but sees her cynical gamesmanship melt as she falls for him. Taylor transforms from detached puppet master to swept up. But I wish I could say they are portrayed evenly in this dynamic. It’s Cleopatra, much like Eve before her, who is seen as the having the lion’s share of the blame. It is not a surprising ratio, especially considering it was made in the 60s and was about ancient times when the patriarchy was at its apex.
Another special note of appreciation to Mankiewicz: baked into the 2nd half of the movie are several scenes that take place in the Roman senate. When I think of the C-SPAN and its coverage of the United States congress, and in particular the senate, I do not think of entertaining drama. I think of boring procedures and uninspiring players. But the Roman senate scenes here burst with drama and poetic debates. That’s remarkable.
Their game ends in Shakespearean fashion when both end up killing each other in a fashion that would make Romeo and Juliet swoon with envy. As with the aforementioned play, it could have been avoided if the right communication had been made in time. But God, and drama, is in the details. Antony stabs himself, thinking Cleopatra is dead. But she is only drugged. And when she wakes, she sees Antony dead and kills herself. Love is a battlefield, amirite?
The detail I will remember most and the one I love the most is this final exchange between Cleopatra and her loyal man servant Apollodorus. It’s a delicious reverse ancestor of the famous Han Solo exchange with Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back:
Cleopatra: “Is there anything else?”
Apollodorus: “I’ve always loved you.”
Cleopatra: “I’ve always known.”
I wonder if Harrison Ford is a fan of this movie.
I could write a lot more on this movie, but better people than I have already done so, and this is supposed to be a damn “mini” review. I’ve really lost my way with these addenda. I need to figure out a way to be more brief. I don’t want to be like every other reviewer on the interwebs. No reviewer does. We all want to be snowflakes. I’ll work on it. In the meantime, if you have a lot of free time and want to see the most glorious tale of one of the greatest women in history, fire this one up.
(1) Shark Wrighter (SW) Score: Based on a sum of 5 sub-scores (acting, directing, writing/story, effects: cinematography &/or animation &/or effects, editing) with 1 being terrible and 10 being terrific.
(2) Octopuses (0-5 🐙, with 5 being fantastic and 0 being feces)
(3) Octopuses are my unquantifiable feeling…not that SW score is scientific…but this one is even less so
(4) ++ This optional section includes any incredibly *brilliant observations that don’t fit into simple quantitative slices like the scores and octopuses *(they are likely NOT brilliant)