Few Hollywood films have been surrounded by as much controversy and publicity as the 1963 "Cleopatra." As a result of filming delays, multiple locations, and extravagant sets and costumes, the film cost over $44 million, far exceeding the initial allotment of $2 million. In addition to its inflated budget, the original film, under the direction of an overzealous Joseph L. Mankiewicz, spanned over 8 hours in length.
The studio created a four-hour version for the New York premiere. Later, to increase the number of daily theatrical screenings, it was trimmed to just over three. Initially Mankiewicz planned to craft a second film from the unused footage, but the project never materialized; and, sadly, over the ensuing decades, the deleted scenes vanished. But the four-hour version has been restored and refurbished for 20th Century Fox’s visually spectacular, 50th Anniversary, Blu-ray edition.
What more appropriate candidate could there be for a high-definition Blu-ray than the opulent, colorful epic, "Cleopatra?" And Fox’s new release delivers the goods in dazzling quality. From the overture onward, each scene, from fantastic battle sequences to pompous ceremonies and orgies, comes through in amazing clarity.
The colors are densely saturated, and the sharpness makes visible every bead in each of Liz Taylor’s 65 costume changes. Although critical notices were strongly divided over the epic, "Cleopatra" is far more than empty spectacle.
The script by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDouagll and Ben Hecht is highly literate, and based on enough historical fact to give the film veracity. There are some talky stretches, but these are more than compensated for with consistent visual interest. Above all, "Cleopatra" is highly entertaining, due in large part to some superb acting.
Taylor fell in love with Richard Burton during the filming of Cleopatra, and their chemistry seethes onscreen. Having suffered health problems during the shooting, Liz is nonetheless at the peak of her beauty, and is terrific as the proud, ambitious monarch.
Burton creates a passionate, psychologically complex Marc Antony. Rex Harrison’s contributions are often underrated, yet he gives a subtle but authoritative performance as Julius Caesar. The starring trio receives top-notch support from Hume Cronyn, Martin Landau and Roddy MacDowell.
The one drawback to the new Blu-ray edition is the film is split onto two discs. The technology is such that the entire movie could have been fit onto one, with a second reserved for the special features. Instead, each half of the movie is accompanied by extras. So, when finished with the film, one must shuttle back and forth between the discs to view the ancillary materials. They include some interesting documentaries on the making of the film, the missing footage, and on Cleopatra as a historical personage.
From a technical standpoint, the Cleopatra Blu-ray is a resounding success. It’s wonderful to see Liz and Dick in their primes, looking so remarkably lifelike. If the navigational issues are not a deterrent, don’t hesitate!