An epic is defined as an artistic work that celebrates the feats of a legendary figure. The film Cleopatra actually deals with many such figures, the title character being merely one of them. The truth is the film was never really about the Egyptian queen as much as it was about Rome and its relationship with Egypt.. Of course, Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal has achieved something of a classic status that is not completely deserved. Much has been made of the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor pairing in this film. Certainly both delivered entertaining and even at times compelling performances. However, these efforts pale in comparison to the brilliance of Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar and Roddy McDowall as Octavian. Others like Martin Landau add considerable weight to often underused characters. It is doubtful much would have been made of this film at all, let alone Burton and Taylor’s overrated contributions, without such help. Taylor in particular makes more use of her looks than any thespian grandeur here. Elaborate and frequent costume changes are designed to take full advantage of her more obvious attributes. She does appear a stark contrast to the unusual woman most notable in recent years for her staunch loyalty to Michael Jackson. The enormously grand cinematography also plays no small role in the film’s ultimate success. This release is intended to pay homage to the Academy Awards taken by this film, which included statues for cinematography and visual effects.
Cleopatra runs over four hours and can be broken down into four distinct parts. Hour one is clearly a setup for things to come. Julius Caesar (Harrison) is close to a glorious victory over his rival Pompey Magnus in a Roman civil war. His quarry has fled to Egypt, where Caesar is in pursuit. Upon his arrival Pompey’s head is presented by the boy king Ptolemy. Caesar inserts himself into Egypt’s civil war in favor of the King’s exiled sister, Cleopatra (Taylor). Upon his fathering a son with the Nile Queen, the hour ends with her safely back upon her throne.
In the second hour Caesar is presented with his son. A jubilant return to Rome ends in a proclamation that he shall be made dictator for life. Cleopatra, meanwhile, grows inpatient to share in the glories found at Rome. Her own arrival is a spectacle likely never before seen in the Empire’s capital. Brutus begins to play out his infamous betrayal, and we reach intermission with Caesar’s assassination and Cleopatra returning to Egypt.
As the third hour begins, three years have passed. The Roman Empire suffers with too many leaders and not enough gold. Cleopatra and her Egypt appear the obvious answer to the Republic’s problems. Cleopatra flexes her new power, and now the story of Antony and Cleopatra plays itself out.
The final hour is ushered in with Rome and Egypt at war. The war is in reality yet another Roman civil affair pitting Antony against Octavian. The inevitable Roman victory brings us to a very Romeo and Juliet ending.
Cleopatra is presented in its original theatrical release aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Colors are at once subtle and soft and suddenly bright and engaging. Reds of Rome often leap from the screen, while the grandeur of Cleopatra’s palace often stands muddled in softer earth tones and a lack of vibrancy. Even in this subdued look colors are at least natural. Taylor’s costumes often share some of the wonderful color possibilities. Again, this is the same transfer as the 2001 release.. I am impressed by the lack of grain, likely owing to the 70mm film. Without showing any signs of a good remastering or restoration, the print still refuses to look its age. Perhaps that is the mark of a truly great restoration when there is no evidence of the process, merely a stunning result. Print artifacts are minimal. Black levels are a little above average, while shadow detail fluctuates considerably throughout.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is terribly underused. Granted, the original material was never intended in this format. Still, if a 5.1 mix is to be created, why not make better use of the wide sound field? With little exception there is no real utilization of anything but front and center. Cleopatra’s brilliant arrival in Rome stands as one of the few notable exceptions. That scene further demonstrates how much larger and, yes, more epic this film could have been made to appear. Dialogue is always clear. The score is reproduced with some respect, although not quite as dynamic as it could have been. This is the identical sound used in the earlier 3-disc release.
The same commentary from the 2001 release is also included here. It brings together Martin Landau, Jack Brotsky, and Chris and Tom Mankiewicz. The commentary is certainly informative if not very entertaining. I am impressed with the great amount of detail and information these men provide.
Only the recycled commentary.
Cleopatra is an overrated film, but that’s not to say it is not still very well done. The production has achieved almost mythic proportions, but the truth is that HBO’s Rome series captures the same time in history with a much more convincing take on the events. Of course, 40 + years of advances in technology make the job easier. The trouble I have with this release is that it is at least the third time the title has been available on DVD. There’s likely a hi-def version on the horizon to qualify for at least triple dipping here. Even that would be fine if anything new were to be offered, but this 2-disc set is exactly the same as the first two discs of the 2001 3-disc set. There’s just nothing new about this disc. So, if you were thinking of picking it up to upgrade your present copy, “You have my apologies for what almost happened to you.”