Elizabeth Taylor Larger than Life: I Caught ‘Cleopatra’ in 70mm Yesterday

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Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Before yesterday afternoon, the only time I’d ever seen Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s 1963 epic Cleopatra was on DVD. When I first watched it all I could remember thinking was “Hey, that wasn’t so bad.” After all, I’d only ever heard of the famed and troubled production in the terms of what a mess it was, with little to no attention paid to its virtues. Strangely, while watching a 70mm print of the 48-year-old film I heard someone behind me at intermission say the same thing… “It’s actually not too bad,” he said. No, it’s not… in fact, if you give yourself over to the massive epic it can actually be quite good.

The production, which cost a reported $44 million to produce (about $325.7 million today), is still considered the most expensive movie in history based on inflation (though, depending on what calculator you use, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End may actually have it beat). It took two-and-a-half years to make, ended the marriages of both Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, almost bankrupt 20th Century Fox and almost saw the death of Taylor who had to undergo an emergency tracheotomy after falling comatose in March of 1961, six months after the film began production under the direction of Rouben Mamoulian. When Taylor returned to the feature, she returned to a new director.

The troubles of the film are well-documented, an easy enough way to catch up on it is to read David Kamp’s 1998 Vanity Fair piece “When Liz Met Dick“, approaching the film with an emphasis on the scandalous affair between Taylor and Burton, or, should I say, Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

As far as the film goes, yes, it’s flawed. It’s Hollywood to the hilt and despite how much it cost you can see where corners were cut or the money simply wasn’t there to finalize sets, particularly moments inside Cleopatra’s palace and the battle sequences. A lot of people get upset about the way action is shot in today’s films, so close and in your face. Mankiewicz did no such thing, but you can instantly see why filmmakers of today would resort to such tactics, by shooting so close to the action you can hide a films flaws and areas where the production may not have had enough money to create epic sequences to rival those in Braveheart.

To compare the ground battles in Cleopatra to Braveheart or the battles at sea to Master and Commander would be folly, but had the production not wasted $7 million right out of the gate and had it not continued to hemorrhage money due to poor planning and rushed attempts to get it made (among other things), this could have been the masterpiece it was originally envisioned to be. Considering Mankiewicz wrote so much of it on the fly, it’s actually quite brilliant all things considered.

In fact, I find Cleopatra incredibly inviting and so large in scope I can’t help but get lost in all 242 minutes of it. I’m sure historians will have a field day with its story, but I will say, after reading the first 100 pages or so of Stacy Schiff’s “[amazon asin=”0316001945″ text=”Cleopatra: A Life”],” I was surprised to see so many similarities. Granted, the similarities are presented with a faux Hollywood gloss by comparison and I still have 200 pages of her book to read, but it isn’t a total farce, barring the exception of narrative omissions.

The performances are hit and miss. I don’t mind Rex Harrison as Caesar as much as most seem to, I can watch Taylor on screen all day and while Burton’s Marc Antony is clearly the brute force in comparison to the more eloquent lines given Harrison, I still find his performance to be quite powerful at times. I also like Martin Landau as Rufio, but I will say Roddy McDowall as Caesar’s successor, Octavian, is the one performance that goes way over the top. For some reason, while watching McDowall’s performance, I also couldn’t get the animated characters in “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” out of my mind.

On the Seattle Cinerama’s curved 2,700 square foot screen, the Todd-AO presentation was exciting, though not pristine. The size of the image was impressive to say the least, and I made sure to sit up close so it felt as if the image was wrapping around me, having to occasionally look left and right to see bits of the story outside the center.

Iwas , unfortunately, disappointed the projectionist seemed to have issues going from reel to reel, but all in all I was excited to have finally seen the massive venture as it was meant to be seen. I’m not sure Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome should be seen any other way.

This is only the first film I will be seeing at the Cinerama’s 70mm Festival, which runs through October 16. I still plan on catching Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and I may try and find time for How the West Was Won.

All things considered, I urge you to give this film a chance if you’ve avoided it until now based on any negative things you’ve heard. Yes, it’s over the top. Yes, it is sometimes quite clunky, with a few time lapse edits and fades that clearly attempt to cut down what Mankiewicz hoped would be a five hour and twenty minute, two-part feature rather than that four hour film it is today. However, I still find it wholly engrossing.

For more information on the troubled production I suggest your click here and if you have four hours to spend, I actually found a copy of the film in its entirety on YouTube… watch below.