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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

50th Anniversary Edition


Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall and Martin Landau
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
RRP: £15.99
Certificate: PG
Available 30 January 2012

The Roman Republic is tearing itself apart with another civil war, this time Caesar and Pompey, which culminates in the Battle of Pharsalus, where Pompey faced defeat and fled to Egypt, where Cleopatra VII and her brother, Ptolemy XIII have descended into civil war. When Caesar arrives he is greeted by Ptolemy who presents Pompey’s severed head as a token of friendship, to Caesar's displeasure. Late that night a carpet seller approaches Caesar with a particularly exquisite rug, which when unfurled, reveals the nubile form of Cleopatra, a young woman who is determined to go to any lengths to take and keep the throne of Egypt...

Cleopatra: 50th Anniversary Edition (1963) is a historical drama directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Rouben Mamoulian, who had been fired from the film. The film won six awards, including four Oscars and was nominated for a further twelve.

It is difficult to discuss the film without addressing some of the famous stories about its production. Cleopatra was, and is likely to always be, the most expensive film ever made, at today’s money the film would cost a tad under five hundred million to make. Elizabeth Taylor got an unprecedented one million for her performance and of course, there is the famous affair between Taylor and Richard Burton, which added an extra level of believability in their love scenes.

The original print was over six hours long, though this was cut down to five and a half hours for its first studio showing. For the anniversary of the film, the intention was to reinstate as much material as possible, only for the restoration team to discover that the film elements had been destroyed decades before. The print provided here equates to the version shown at the film's New York Premier.

So, for all its hype, is the film any good? The answer is very much a matter of personal perspective. Some see it as a magnificent, lavish visual poem; the opposing view would consider the film as a rambling mess, neither of these two extremes do justice to the film.

The first thing which strikes you about the movie is its sheer size. In the age before CGI, the only way to get magnificent vistas, massive crowd scenes and large buildings was to either use paintings (relatively cheap) or actually build the sets and hire extras, an expensive option, especially for Cleopatra, which had to relocate from England, meaning that the sets had to be built twice. On the bright side, Carry on Cleo was able to use much of the abandoned material to make one of the better looking Carry On films. As spectacle there are few films which can touch this.

The sets would have dominated had not the actors been able to command the screen. The first half of the film tells of Cleopatra’s affair with Caesar and the birth of their child and his subsequent murder. In this section Rex Harrison dominates the screen as Julius Caesar a man whose ambition is fuelled and fired by Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), whose own political machinations are aimed at securing her dominance of Egypt and its place in the world as one of it preeminent kingdoms, all the time knowing that her survival is intertwined with that of whoever controls Rome. His ambition finally ends in his assassination and Cleopatra's flight back to Egypt.

The second part of the film is a story of doomed lovers. Mark Antony (Richard Burton), a friend of Caesar is no less ambitious, but being made of rougher material, is the lessor statesman. His pursuit of Cleopatra ostracises him from Roman society, not least because he was married to Octavian’s (Roddy McDowall) sister at the time. The power struggle between Octavian and Anthony sparks the last civil war which would finally destroy the republic, leaving the way for Octavian to become Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. The doomed lovers lose their play for power, both commit suicide, thus ended the story of Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemy’s.

The film sported a particularly good supporting cast, including George Cole (Flavius), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes), Andrew Keir (Agrippa) and Martin Landau (Rufio).

Given its length the film is split over two Blu-ray discs. The first disc (1 hr, 59 min, 34 sec) equates to the first part of the story and the restored print is wonderful, bright and sharp. The film’s audio is presented in English 5.1 DTS HD MA, with an aspect ratio of 16:9. There are further audio tracks for English 4.0 and 5.1 tracks for the Spanish, French, Castellan and Portuguese languages, with a plethora of subtitle options. Both discs sport an interesting full length commentary with Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, Martin Landau and Jack Brodsky

Disc one hold a number of extras, some of which are new to the set.

New extra: Cleopatra Through the Ages: A Cultural History (7 min, 51 sec) recounts Plutarch’s version of Cleopatra story with Stuart Tyson Smith, Professor and Chair of Anthropology, UC Santa Barbara.

New extra: Cleopatra’s Missing Footage (8 min, 12 sec) with Brad Gearly about the original print of the film which was five and a half hours. The length meant that the film was taken away from the director, who was fired from the project. The film was trimmed right down, but in a cost cutting exercise the extra material was destroyed.

New extra: Fox Movie Channel Presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman (29 min, 29 sec) which is a retrospective of the film repeating much of the information already known about the movie and its history.

New extra: The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence which consist of a number of pieces of correspondence between Jack Brodsky and Nathan Weiss about the film.

Disc two (2 hrs, 11 min 33 sec) has the same basic set up but with different extras.

Cleo: The Film That Changed Hollywood (1 hr, 59 mi 07 sec) narrated by Robert Culp. The documentary places the film's production in its sociological place, including the advent of television and the decline of the studio system, against this backdrop Fox embarked on the most expensive film ever made. The documentary is full of contemporary footage and contributions from the surviving participants, actors, film historians and those behind the scenes.

The Forth Star of Cleopatra (9 min, 06 sec) is an old program which looks at the making of the film in the shallow way, which only television could match; mostly it is a look at the production of the film.

Fox Movietone News, which is split into two further subsets, with Footage of the New York Premier (3 min, 55 sec) and the Hollywood Premier (2 min, 24 sec). The second disc closes with three theatrical trailers.

Without a doubt, Cleopatra is event filming at its grandest; on a scale not seem since the early years of movie making. The new print get the film as close to a theatrical experience as you are likely to get and if you take a gander at the price, for a two Blu-ray set, this is a really good bargain.


Charles Packer

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