Director/Screenwriter: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
By Roderick Heath
It probably began as an idea tossed about the luncheon table during some, long alcohol-lubricated, executive sojourn—make a film about ancient history’s most famous beauty starring the most famous beauty of the early ’60s, Elizabeth Taylor, as a kind of a Ben-Hur (1959) with more sex appeal. And so may have commenced the making of 20th Century Fox’s colossal folly, a melodrama in itself: either way, the Fox executives found a ready partner in producer Walter Wanger, who had been wanting to trying to get a film about Cleopatra off the ground for several years. Filming began with Peter Finch playing Julius Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Marc Antony, on sets built at Pinewood Studios in England, in a climate that caused a recurrence of Taylor’s chronic pneumonia. This setback helped to hold up the shoot for months, necessitating relocation of the production to Cinecitta in Rome, and Finch and Boyd were replaced with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. Lacking a workable screenplay, the producers brought in Joseph L. Mankiewicz, four-time Oscar winner and a late choice to save the project, to replace the fired Rouben Mamoulian. Mankiewicz often wrote scenes the night before they were shot. Cleopatra finally cost so much (Fox had to sell part of its studio for real estate development to pay the bill) it managed to be both the biggest hit of the ’60s and nearly the biggest flop, finally eking out a profit after a number of years. The execs may well have thanked the movie gods that they made as much back as they did thanks to the publicity generated by Burton and Taylor’s legendary on-set romance.
The resulting movie has been largely dismissed as a lumbering and bloated misfire, and there are indeed points where it threatens to collapse under its own weight. But it’s still a fascinating and underrated film, being generally far more ambitious, not just in scale of production but in narrative scope, than even its many rivals in the genre of the epic. At the very least, it can be seriously regarded as a superior Joe Mankiewicz film, certainly his most cinematically expansive work. Blockbuster cinema of the ‘50s and ’60s still generally has a hard time of it in terms of critical appreciation, but I admit some nostalgia for an era of filmmaking when event movies meant tackling meaty historical subjects with grand productions rather than bland CGI battles between toy robots.
Moreover, Cleopatra displays the split personality of many of those mega-productions on the most gloriously erratic of scales. Making epics had a different meaning in this period than it had in the ’30s, when it entailed DeMille, dancing girls, and hilarity-inducing historical invention. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra is, by and large, historically accurate, and more than that, presents in Mankiewicz’s script a conflation of some serious literary sources. Cleopatra is not a better film than, say, Spartacus (1960), but it is in many ways a more complex and intriguing drama. Mankiewicz had hoped that Fox would release the film in two parts, but the studio insisted on one colossal hunk, slicing out a lot of substance from the script that, rather than streamlining the work, rendered its development clumsier and making the last hour gracelessly protracted.
The bifurcated structure is still, however, more or less intact, with the first half detailing Caesar’s coming to Egypt in pursuit of his enemy Pompey and to sort out the civil war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy (Richard O’Sullivan). He falls in love with and marries her, and they have a son, Caesarion. He returns to Rome with Cleopatra’s idea that he take up the mantle of Alexander the Great and attempt to erect a worldwide empire, ringing in his ears. As the dictator of Rome, the example of her rule by divine right is all too tempting to him, finally inspiring his enemies to assassinate him. The second half accounts her disastrous romance and alliance with Mark Antony, their defeat at Actium, and their suicide in preference to being captured by rapacious rival Octavian (Roddy McDowall).
Cleopatra presents its titular character as neither outright femme fatale nor a victimised martyr, but as an anti-heroine admirable in her ardour and determination, but disturbing in her belief in her own divinity, a relentless self-promoter with a thirst for power who has monstrous hissy fits when other people use her in the same way she uses them. The depth of Mankiewicz’s engagement with the epoch is quite absorbing, as he illustrates the burning of the library of Alexandria as a side effect of Caesar’s campaigning, which he’s only vaguely embarrassed by, illustrating a barbed notion of militarist zeal overwhelming cultural iconography. Cleopatra is constantly accompanied by her Greek tutor Sosigenes (Hume Cronyn), who laments the library’s burning and whose murder by Octavian signals the commencement of an age of dictatorship. How many other movies like this spared time for moments such as when Caesar and Cleopatra discuss their liking for the poet Catullus in spite of Catullus’ well-known contempt for Caesar?
The first half sticks with some fidelity to the template of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (which had previously been filmed in 1946 starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh), as the two titanic figures taunt and tantalise each other, and try to outwit the traps set for them by Ptolemy’s noxious courtiers and warrior hordes. The second half, naturally, takes its cues from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and from Plutarch’s history. The film’s greatest asset is Harrison’s strident performance of Caesar, full of high wit and feeling, warming up for and in many ways outclassing his Oscar-winning turn as Henry Higgins the following year. He wraps his lips around Mankiewicz’s sharp dialogue with aplomb, refusing the offer of a slimy Egyptian eunuch, Pothinus (Grégoire Aslan), to escort him with a disgusted “Anyone but you!” or beadily eyeing Cleopatra after she suggests she’s done nothing but rub him the wrong way, stating, “I’m not sure I want to be rubbed by you at all, young lady.” And the same goes for the remarkable depth of the supporting cast: Martin Landau as Caesar and Antony’s loyal offsider Ruffio, Andrew Keir as Octavian’s tough-minded henchman Agrippa, George Cole as Caesar’s mute servant Flavius, Michael Hordern as Cicero, the teenaged Francesca Annis and Isabel Cooley as Cleopatra’s favourite handmaidens Iras and Charmion, Robert Stephens as stalwart soldier Germanicus, and particularly MacDowall’s inspired ham of an Octavian.
The faults are occasionally, however, as marked as the virtues. The production is gorgeous to look at, almost turning into something like the science fiction film set in the past as Fellini wanted his Satyricon to be, with its lustrous set design suggesting the ancient world was a helluva lot prettier than you ever guessed. But there’s also a variety of high-camp pizzazz infusing the proceedings, especially the DeMille-via-Playboy evocations of Cleo’s palatial splendour, constant changes of costume, and her cohort of pneumatic multiracial gal pals dispensing baths and massages. Mankiewicz keeps suggesting ironic layers to the gilded spectacle, emphasising that Cleopatra is, in essence, a showwoman of statecraft who knows how to dazzle statesmen and the populace alike. Having overheard Caesar’s aides bandy stories of her immorality, she contrives artfully to have Caesar come across her lying around semi-naked, surrounded by her beautiful bevy of servants, to give him an eyeful. The film’s split personality reaches an apogee in the staggering, sometimes silly recreation of Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome. Mankiewicz makes clear that event is Cleopatra’s greatest coup of political theatre, which the lady herself caps off with a sly wink to Caesar, but it’s also a splashy opportunity for Hollywood hype: Hermes Pan’s choreography of scantily dressed dancers shaking their boobs at the screen is less an evocation of classical decadence than a reminder of the Hollywood variety.
Another not exactly minor problem is theoretically indispensable star Taylor. Even at her best, in films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Taylor was a limited, archly affected actress, and she’s downright clumsy in trying to portray a woman of titanic guile and intellect to match the ego she wears on her sleeve. Not that there were many rivals of the era who might have provided the necessary looks, charisma, and innate, exotic complexity: the closest I could come up with were Irene Pappas, or possibly, in some glorious alternative universe, Barbara Steele (legend has it Dorothy Dandridge was also considered). But Taylor sure ain’t it, wading in with a grating mid-Atlantic accent brayed in graceless tones, before offering a scene of nihilistic rage when she finds Antony has married Octavian’s sister (Jean Marsh) for political reasons and trashes her bedroom; this display completely misses whatever emotion it was supposed to inspire other than mild hilarity. Taylor’s few interesting moments come towards the end when she quietens down. Nor does it help that Burton flounders through much of the film. To a certain extent, his look of bewildered, almost exhausted confusion suits his character, envisioned as a macho sot who goes to pieces when he realises he’s not the man Caesar was. But it also sees Burton reduced to throwing a lot of his pet actor tricks at the screen with little real investment in the part.
That neither actor is at anything like their best saps the dramatic force that the project ought to have possessed. Nonetheless, Mankiewicz’s hoped-for balance in portraying Caesar as brought down by external forces and Antony as consumed by internal faults emerges largely intact, as well as that of Cleopatra as a genius politician who finally commits fearlessly to a self-destructive path rather than submit to a merely macho, Machiavellian age. She’s presented as both an arbiter of single-minded rule by right and an heir to Greek and Egyptians cultures; she’s fascinated by Alexander’s ideal of uniting the peoples of the Earth under a common law and tongue and achieving peace, only to run into the less equitable version of the same idea welling from Octavian Augustus. Inevitably, their drama is romanticised—excising how, for instance, they actually offended Roman public opinion by murdering Cleopatra’s sister in a temple to ensure Cleopatra’s grasp on her throne, and the vindictive nastiness behind Antony’s assassination of Cicero. But historical storytelling is always a hard task of picking compelling narratives out of the mess of history.
Mankiewicz languished for a long time in being considered a talented wordsmith but not a forceful wielder of the camera. That reputation isn’t entirely deserved: some of his best films, like The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) and House of Strangers (1949), have a lucid cinematic intelligence, and here he pulls off a few excellent visual coups. As Antony gives his oration to the crowd outside the Forum over Caesar’s dead body, Mankiewicz has his words drowned out by the outrage thrum of the crowd piling furniture onto Caesar’s pyre, as the camera drifts back in a long crane shot to find Flavius weeping the truest tears for his dead master. When he’s left alone by his troops, Antony saddles up in one corner of the frame whilst an endless number of enemy legionnaires streams over a hill in the distance. When Caesar is assassinated, Mankiewicz has the scene projected, as a vision a priestess (Pamela Brown) conjures, over Cleopatra’s distraught face. And there’s the affecting shot of Cleopatra’s ship fleeing Rome after the assassination disappearing into the darkness.
The film stalls more than a little on its lack of action, skipping around the Battle of Philippi, and then offering some rather stodgy shipboard dueling in a Battle of Actium that’s not half as punchy as the similar set piece in Ben-Hur. Then we have the oddly wasteful sequence in which Antony confronts Octavian’s army single-handedly after his own soldiers desert, frustrated by their refusal, at Octavian’s order, to kill him, thus forcing him into the less martially vainglorious recourse of stabbing himself in the stomach and expiring in Cleopatra’s arms. All that’s left for Cleopatra and her handmaidens is take the bite of the asp and cheat Octavian of his hoped-for prize in a close replication of Plutarch’s account. Her end, like the film, is a stab at making the best of an impossible situation, and likewise Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra retains more than a little of her dignity, because for all its unwieldiness, it deserves recognition as a lush, witty, dramatically rich work. l