Director: Cecil B. DeMille
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It is unthinkable that a filmmaker with as much pomp and circumstance in his blood as Cecil B. DeMille would not tackle the irresistible story of Cleopatra. With a great beauty and queen endowed with divinity by her subjects bewitching two mighty Romans, hubristic overreaching for power, betrayal and murder, internecine warfare, and a double suicide, the story would have been fit for the Theatre of Dionysus had it not already fallen into disuse well before Cleopatra walked the earth. The story has been filmed several times for the big screen, most notably by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1963—the bloated costs of that film made it a financial disaster of such epic proportions that it appears to have scared off other comers, though curiously, Hallmark Entertainment came up with a version in 1999, which is a strange project on its face from such a family-friendly company.
DeMille’s reputation rests mainly on his epic pageantry and action, which his Cleopatra contains, but in smaller doses than in his other historic and biblical films. He wasn’t known for being adept with actors, and accordingly, the emotional resonance of Cleopatra is weak. But he cut his teeth in the silent era making a variety of films, including such delightful domestic comedies as Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), so the intimacy of the film about larger-than-life historical figures, while perhaps not expected, is not entirely incongruous either. Importantly, this isn’t Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, but, as advertised, a vehicle that starts and ends with the queen herself. DeMille’s focus is not unlike that of Josef von Sternberg concentrating his gaze on his creation Marlene Dietrich, as cinematographer Victor Milner captures an uncharacteristically glamorous Claudette Colbert, ravishing her and managing to make even her unflattering right profile look pretty good (a feat that perhaps put him over the top to win his only Oscar of nine nominations).
DeMille immediately gets our adrenaline pumping by showing a bound and blindfolded Cleopatra being driven by chariot into the desert on orders of her brother, who wants sole control of the throne of Egypt. Quite gratuitously, she is bound to a stake, but even before her captors depart, Appollodorus (Irving Pichel), the schoolmaster and adviser taken with her as an aid to her survival, unties her. She makes her way back to Egypt to appeal for her life and place on the throne to Julius Caesar (William Warren), who is in Alexandria to manage Egypt’s affairs and receive financial tribute to Rome. She appears to him as a gift wrapped in a rug, spilling out seductively in a skimpy outfit and with appeals to his vanity. Eventually, she seduces him with visions of an vast empire in which he and she will rule side by side as Emperor and Empress, and returns to Rome with him to be his bride after he has cast aside his wife Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael). His tyrannical aims bring about his death at the hands of several Roman Senators, including his friend Brutus (Arthur Hohl), and Cleopatra flees back to Egypt.
Eventually, Rome ends up on Egypt’s doorstep again, this time in the person of Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon). Cleopatra forces Antony to come to her barge, where she has lain a silken trap—dancing girls, seashells filled with jewels, wine and food, and, of course, the pleasure of her company. Antony stays in Egypt to be with Cleopatra, angering Octavian (Ian Keith), the co-ruler with Antony of the empire, and forcing a war in which Antony commands the outmanned, outarmed Egyptian army against Rome. When the Egyptians are utterly defeated and his disgrace is complete, Antony plunges a dagger into his stomach. Rather than live without Antony as a slave to Rome, Cleopatra clutches a poisonous asp to her breast and takes its fatal bite. As the Romans enter her palace, we are left with a final long shot of the queen—dead but still seated on her magnificent, winged throne.
Of all the DeMille epics I have seen, Cleopatra strikes the best balance between action and intimacy, with a truly cinematic approach that mainly overcomes the director’s tendency to turn his epics into the Ziegfeld Follies. In the gaudiest scene in the film—Cleopatra’s seduction of Antony—some awkward fan dancing gives way to bright choreography and a titillating low-rent scene of women in leopard costumes having a cat fight for Antony’s amusement. Quick cuts between the women and a lustily laughing Wilcoxon add energy to the film and make us complicit in the delirium overtaking Antony through this lavish spectacle.
Milner and film editor Anne Bauchens are equally adept at amping the brutality of the war between Egypt and Rome and making it vibrant by cutting between the massing of the troops on both sides, the charge of the Egyptian chariots, and the close fighting between the soldiers, with close-ups of blood-smeared faces, fallen soldiers, and clashing swords against process shots that might have been recycled from other DeMille films. I was surprised at how the artificiality of the process shots actually added to the intensity of the battles, and use of the models Caesar examined during his first scene with Cleopatra were deployed during the war scenes as actual weapons, a great echoing of the fall of two Romans in thrall to the same woman.
Milner’s close-ups work extremely well during the assassination of Caesar, as we see the Senators from Caesar’s point of view closed around him with their daggers plunging. Although the scene is filled with movement, Hohl takes his time in approaching Caesar with a dread determination. Only when his face and drawn dagger fill the screen do we switch to Caesar and his famous last words, “You, too, Brutus?” as he succumbs.
Of the three lead actors, Warren William is the least interesting. He’s a cold bureaucrat with virtually no nuance; it’s hard to believe Cleopatra’s grief at hearing of his death, which seems emotional and not tied to her plans for empire. His polar opposite, Henry Wilcoxon is a handsome, vigorous man whose lusts and ardor are completely believable and extremely enjoyable to interact with. He’s incredibly magnetic, and one wonders why his talents could not have made him the equal of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power on the big screen.
Finally, Colbert never looked more beautiful, with her perfect make-up, extravagant costumes, and smooth demeanor. She is perfect in the art of seduction, full of playfulness and vulnerability. I did not see the heart of ambition beating in her, however, but that may have been by design. When Herod, King of Judea (Joseph Schildkraut), comes to her suggesting that Octavian would be very grateful if she would poison Antony, she does not reject the plan—indeed, her testing of poison on a condemned prisoner seems the height of efficiency—but is regretful and enormously relieved when Octavian’s declaration of war allows her to abort the plan. Colbert’s Cleopatra seems completely the woman, not the queen, a relatable and sympathetic creature who seems only to have loved and lost. Absurd, of course, but romantic and beautiful to experience.