Entire family: Yes (and no)
1963, 251 min., Color
Unrated (would be PG for some violence and sensuality)
Aspect ratio: 2.20:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: A-
Until 1993, Cleopatra was the most expensive film Hollywood produced, and it’s also the last of the BIG Hollywood spectacles—which makes it a film every movie-lover ought to see at least once.
Cleopatra would probably merit a PG stamp because of some violence and sensuality—though it all seems tame by today’s standards. There’s more drama than action, with the most violence occurring when Julius Caesar is stabbed on the Ides of March. Other killings are offstage, and while there’s talk of a rival general’s head, only the top is shown pulled from a jar, not the features. As for sensuality, star Elizabeth Taylor is shown in a bath and it’s clear she’s nude, though you can’t see anything. She also appears in several scenes nude but artfully covered with drapery. The most revealing shot shows the full-length contour of her body from the side, with her buttocks covered. African dancers later wear what could be called oversized “pasties,” but many families will find nothing here to prevent younger family members from watching. It’s all pretty tastefully handled.
Of more concern for family movie night is the film’s length—more than four hours—and the talky nature of many scenes. Though Cleopatra is an epic, the emphasis is the politics and relationships among three historical figures: Cleopatra, Caesar (Rex Harrison), and Marc Antony (Richard Burton). Children under 13 may need an explanation of what’s going on, as director and co-writer Joseph Mankiewicz stayed pretty close to Plutarch’s published account of Julius Caesar’s life. Most of what you see really happened, but Caesar’s interests in Egypt and senatorial politics in Rome can seem confusing.
In the first half (there’s an intermission) Caesar is charmed by Cleopatra, and their relationship runs parallel to each of their political ambitions. The second half of the film picks up after Caesar’s death, with Cleopatra leaving Rome for Egypt again. She’s pursued romantically by Caesar’s trusted lieutenant, Marc Antony, who wants to build a political base for himself and his army in Egypt, because of the threat to his own dreams of empire posed by Caesar’s nephew, Octavian (Roddy McDowall).
If the action is dwarfed by politics, the plot seems secondary to the spectacle itself. Cleopatra earned nine Oscar nominations and also won for cinematography, costume design, and special effects. Our teenage son, who enjoyed the film despite its length and overlong scenes, said he’d give it three-and-a-half stars, while our ‘tween daughter appreciated the glam but found it too slow-going.
Adults will find that it still plays pretty well, though it will strike many of today’s viewers as being too “talky” in spots, with romantic and political conversations that probably could have been rendered in half the time. All of the sets are lavish, though some of them seem more accurate than others. Most of the 65 costumes Taylor wears are stunning, Cleopatra’s grand entrance into Rome is still impressive, and the dialogue has far more wit and subtle humor than you’d expect from a historical epic.
Of the three stars, Burton comes across as being the hammiest. Every speech sounds like a Shakespearian soliloquy. Contemporary audiences will find Harrison’s understated portrayal of Caesar far more gratifying. In fact, he was the only star of the picture to earn an Oscar nomination.
It may not be as compelling and tightly edited as Ben-Hur, but Cleopatra is still a Hollywood epic that tells a grand story in a grand way. Save it for a night when the family feels like a four-hour spectacle.