The 1963 Cleopatra film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is one of those movies most people have heard of. Not only was it one of the most expensive movies ever made, but it was also famous for igniting the start of the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton love affair as well as their popular onscreen partnership.

SUMMARY (SPOILERS)

Photo of Elizabeth Taylor in the Cleopatra movie.
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The film condenses almost two decades of Cleopatra’s life into its four hours run time. 

In 48 BC, Julius Caesar arrives in Rome to mediate between the Egyptian queen and her co-ruling brother.  Cleopatra persuades Caesar to help her regain the throne as the sole monarch. In the process, the two begin an affair producing a son. Caesarion’s birth encourages Cleopatra in her ideas of building a world empire.

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Eventually, she travels to Rome where she’s unpopular with the people due to her influence with Caesar. She then meets Marc Antony, the general of Caesar’s army, who helps her return to Egypt after Caesar’s assassination.

Even though Caesar named Octavian as his successor, the Roman Republic is split among Octavian, Lepidus, and Marc Antony. Octavian and Marc Antony eventually neutralize Lepidus’ power.

Their power struggle forces Marc Antony to turn to Egypt for support where he meets Cleopatra again. The two fall in love and begin an affair, ultimately leading to the downfall of them both.

CLEOPATRA MOVIE REVIEW

Romantic photo of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra.
Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor as Marc Antony and Cleopatra – Lovers onscreen and off. Photo: 20th Century Fox

I’m a big fan of classic film and epic historical dramas. Even when I read poor reviews of these movies, I always hope they’re wrong. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Cleopatra. I must agree with many other reviewers labeling this as an empty, bloated spectacle of excess.

Perhaps, it wouldn’t seem so bad if Cleopatra’s run time matched the average length of other films, instead of dragging on interminably. It’s hard to keep an audience’s attention for so long without a compelling story or high-intensity action and drama.

Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as Marc Antony and Julius Caesar
Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as Marc Antony and Julius Caesar

Sadly, the actors in Cleopatra aren’t enough to save the film from poor direction and editing. Rex Harrison gives a good performance as Julius Caesar. But his chemistry with Taylor as Cleopatra is nil and he only appears in the first quarter of the film.

Roddy McDowell’s portrayal of Octavian, on the other hand, was good enough to merit an Oscar nomination. But a snafu by his studio left his name off the final list of nominees.

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However, for a film capitalizing on the public relationship between its’ two main leads, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s performances failed to match the hype. Taylor is an Oscar winner with real talent. But her Cleopatra vacillates between manipulative seductress and ambitious queen. She is cunning and qualified to rule.

Yet, she often descends into histrionics and temper tantrums unfitting to her character.  Taylor’s talent is visible in a scene where she thinks Marc Antony has betrayed her, but otherwise, she’s given much better performances.

Richard Burton is often praised as an excellent actor. I’ve never understood the hype, personally. And in this movie, I really dislike his portrayal of Marc Antony. This is a man of influence and power, feared in battle and known for his loyalty to Caesar.

Instead, he becomes the whiny, lovesick pawn of a foreign queen. Antony willingly sacrifices everything he has accomplished for the power-hungry Queen Cleopatra.

However, it’s true that like other real-life movie star couples, Taylor and Burton’s onscreen chemistry sizzles. It’s just a shame it takes over an hour before we meet Antony and even longer before they share a scene together.

SETS AND COSTUMES

Though I found much to criticize about Cleopatra, I must say the sets and costumes are absolutely stunning and one of the highlights of the movie. Just don’t expect those costumes to be historically accurate.

Still, they are impressive and serve to help Elizabeth Taylor mesmerize while on camera.

The settings are just as eye-catching, both the natural ones and those built for the film. From the brief research I’ve done, Cleopatra does portray true historical events on a condensed timeline. However, the actions and the motives of these historical figures have obviously been embellished for the screen.

OVERALL IMPRESSION

Cleopatra is a perfect example that bigger isn’t always better.  With its enormous budget, and highly respected talent both in front of and behind the camera, one can be forgiven for expecting better. Honestly, I would have settled for simply entertaining. However, since it holds such a memorable place in film history, I still recommend watching it once. If only to understand why its’ fame endures.

Content Note: There are some battle scenes with mild violence and some female nudity, although nothing explicit.

Where to Watch: You can rent or buy on digital and DVD.

Are you a fan of historical epics? Do you love the Cleopatra film? What is your favorite Cleopatra movie? Let me know in the comments.


OVERALL RATING
“We’ll always have Paris.”
ROMANCE RATING
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a
matter of chance.”
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