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Historical epic. The triumphs and tragedy of the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.
For more about Cleopatra and the Cleopatra Blu-ray release, see Cleopatra Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on May 24, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Pamela Brown, George Cole, Hume Cronyn
Directors: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Darryl F. Zanuck
» See full cast & crew
Cleopatra Blu-ray Review
History comes alive in one of the all time greatest epic films.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, May 24, 2013
It was the end of an era. Once mighty rulers found themselves powerless in the wake of events beyond their control. New alliances formed, sending shock waves across the bow of the existing world order. Communities that once teemed with activity were left barren and empty, mere husks of their former selves. A once incredibly opulent society was brought to its knees, never again to be the same. Wait a minute: are we talking about the decline of Ancient Egypt or 20th Century Fox circa 1962-63? The fact is, the descriptions are equally apt for either situation. If Cleopatra ostensibly was about the last Pharoah of Ancient Egypt, the film also stood as a metaphor for the bloated excesses which would continue to create problems for many of the major Hollywood studios, ultimately leading to either their outright demise or at least their radical reorganization. Fox seemed to be the most prone to stumbling in the 1960s, though it certainly had competition from other once mighty studios. Cleopatra probably looked stellar on paper, with a trio of A-list stars and (ultimately) the participation of Joseph Mankiewicz, an intellectual filmmaker of protean capabilities who had nonetheless never attempted a film of this magnitude before. But the actual production was weighed down by so many calamities, including the near death of star Elizabeth Taylor, that the already large budget ballooned into previously unheard of territory, coming very close to bankrupting Fox in the process. There's a certain irony in watching Cleopatra, especially its closing scenes which offer vistas of a deserted royal lair and realizing that Fox would soon suffer much the same fate, selling huge tracts of its now desolate backlot to create Century City in suburban Los Angeles (no jokes please about how desolate Century City turned out to be). Cleopatra was as famous for its cost overruns and the supposed scandal of the hyperbolically publicized affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton which occurred during the film's prolonged shoot as it ever was for anything inherent to the film itself, but the intervening decades since the film's release have offered some perspective on a famously troubled production that actually resulted in a rather awe inspiring film.
Cleopatra obviously had anything and everything that money could buy, and one of the glories of this film is that unlike many films which shower their productions with piles of loot but have little to show for it in their finished products, in this case that money bought a lot—an incredible cast, impeccable production design, one of the greatest scores in the history of films, and perhaps most importantly an unusually literate screenplay by a consortium of top flight writers, including Joseph L. Mankiewicz himself. As is discussed in one of the featurettes augmenting this release, our knowledge of the historical Cleopatra is colored by it having been written largely by "the victors", in this case the Roman historian Plutarch. How could a "mere" Egyptian have so easily outwitted not one but two of the greatest Roman Generals in the annals of history? Why, by being a wily, seductive female, of course. Cleopatra's screenplay relies quite a bit on Plutarch, as well as the perhaps less agenda driven The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Italian historian Carlo Maria Franzero. What emerges is a surprisingly accurate recounting of the major events that brought Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison, Academy Award nominated for this role), Marc Antony (Richard Burton) and Cleopatra together in one of the most infamous—if not the most infamous—love triangles of all time.
The film is a true epic, opening on the aftermath of Caesar's rout of Pompey and quickly moving on to Alexandria where Caesar arrives to quell a simmering case of sibling rivalry between Cleopatra and her infantile brother Ptolemy (Richard O'Sullivan) which could erupt into a civil war. When Ptolemy overplays his hand, Caesar strikes back and installs Cleopatra as the sole ruler of her land. In the meantime, the two leaders have discovered they have more than mere politics uniting them, which leads to their romantic entanglement and the ultimate air of tragedy which hangs over the bulk of the final two thirds of this already quite long film. When Caesar's deportment toward Cleopatra raises suspicions in Rome, especially after Cleopatra bears him a son, the handwriting is on the wall, and of course Caesar is betrayed, Christ like, by his own Judas, Brutus. That opens the door for Mark Antony to rout the assassins but to then make the same fatal misstep that brought down Caesar himself—mainly, falling in love with Cleopatra.
Despite its huge (actually gargantuan) scope, the film is resolutely centered on the interplay between Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra. Unlike many historical epics where the larger than life characters seem unapproachable, there's a refreshing naturalness to the portrayals in this outing which make Cleopatra rather improbably accessible, given its setting and opulence. Taylor is perhaps just a tad too much of a shrill harridan at times in the film, but the measured excellence of Harrison and the passionate excesses of Burton are often riveting. The film's huge supporting cast, which includes everyone from Martin Landau to Hume Cronyn to Roddy McDowall, is similarly excellent, bringing spice and color to roles that are by their very nature often shunted to the background.
Cleopatra is easily one of the most amazing visual feasts in the entire history of film. The sets and costumes are unbelievable (the costumes and art direction, along with Leon Shamroy's sumptuous cinematography, and the special effects won well deserved Oscars that year), but perhaps the most amazing thing about Cleopatra is its unusually intelligent screenplay. Despite the film having been removed from Mankiewicz's control after he delivered a debilitating five-plus hour initial cut, there is a really visceral intensity to much of this film that makes it one of its era's most compelling epics. Cleopatra the historical figure will live in history forever, and chances are Cleopatra will as well.
Cleopatra Blu-ray, Video Quality
Cleopatra is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.22:1. As fans of this film no doubt know, Fox released a Cleopatra Blu-ray in the United Kingdom last year which my colleague Dr. Svet Atanasov reviewed here. I imported this region free title since I am such a huge fan of the film and couldn't wait for its announced domestic release. I have included five screenshots from the UK edition (the last five accompanying this review in locations 31-35) which show there is no appreciable difference between these two releases, leading me to believe these are almost certainly the same transfer. In fact the only major difference between the UK and US releases was the decision to place the Entr'acte at the beginning of the second disc rather than the end of the first disc, something that had riled the more persnickety consumers who picked up the UK release. Otherwise, this domestic release is very much in line with what Svet discussed in his review of the UK edition. Some people have grumbled about the color timing of this release, alleging a blue tint, but if anything I feel this may be just slightly (and I emphasize slightly) on the brown side, something that tends to happen with aging elements (I have subtracted a half a point due to this, but obviously your mileage may well vary). That said, this is simply a staggering transfer of large format source elements, one absolutely rife with impeccable fine object detail and some amazing depth of field in the location sequences. There is no damage that I noticed anywhere throughout this transfer, and also no compression artifacts. Best of all, there hasn't been any over aggressive digital tweaking here, and the result is a beautifully filmic presentation.
Cleopatra Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Cleopatra features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (as well as a Dolby Digital 4.0 mix). There's some very slight brittleness in the DTS mix that is quite noticeable in some of the dialogue, especially in the first scene with Caesar and Cleopatra, where Harrison's voice sounds just slightly boxy (I almost wonder if this scene was post-looped, which might account for the quality difference). Otherwise, though, this is a spectacular sounding track, one that really makes the most of Alex North's absolutely miraculous score (easily one of my all time favorites, and one that I personally believe should have easily bested John Addison's charming but less ambitious Tom Jones for that year's Academy Award). The doublebasses and cellos are so much more vibrant in this lossless mix it's almost unbelievable, as is the huge battery of exotic percussion North marshaled for this incredibly visceral score. Other than the slight anomalies mentioned above, dialogue is very cleanly presented and there is some incredible immersion in several of the film's huge set pieces (some of which depend again upon North's simply incomparable scoring).
Cleopatra Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Cleopatra comes in a handsomely designed DigiBook full of pictures and text, and it's housed in a nicely illustrated slipcover (one of the few times I personally can recall a DigiBook being housed this way). This is undoubtedly a more handsome presentation than the UK edition which came out last year. The on disc supplements include:
Cleopatra Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I have loved Cleopatra since I first saw it on television when I was a kid and then managed to find the original soundtrack LP for a mere 49 cents at a bargain basement store. The film was unfairly pilloried at the time of its release due to the cost overruns and the infamous Taylor- Burton affair, but time has been more than kind to this enterprise. Unusually intelligent and impeccably produced, Cleopatra is a one of a kind entertainment that is both epic and intimate. This Blu-ray features fantastic video and audio and has superior supplementary material. Highly recommended.
Cleopatra: Other Editions
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Cleopatra Blu-ray, News and Updates
• This Week on Blu-ray: May 28-June 4 - May 25, 2013
For the week of May 28th, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment is bringing Joseph Mankiewicz and Darryl Zanuck's Cleopatra to Blu-ray. This historical epic about the iconic Egyptian queen was, for a time, the most expensive film ever made. In 1963, it cost ...
• Cleopatra 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Available for Pre-Order - February 15, 2013
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is yet to officially announce and detail its upcoming 50th Anniversary Blu-ray editions of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's legendary Cleopatra, but Amazon already has them available for pre-order. Early retail information indicates that ...
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