An entire clear sky afternoon was wasted on this four hour flop, but that’s my job right now. By the third hour I was literally yelling horrible things at the film, trying to get it to hurry up. I knew my history and it ended just like I knew it would.
The next day, with my head less full of rage, I wondered if I was the only one who despised the film. This was supposed to be a classic epic right? With my ruthless review finished, I went to Cleopatra‘s IMDB page and read the posts under it’s board. Most of the comments ripped Cleo a new one and I have to share my favorites: “Perfectly awful film. Gorgeous photography wasted on a dull, dull script full of exposition without any sense of movement or pace” “a shining example of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions” “It’s amazing what people would sit through in 1963.” and “”a lot better to watch whilst high.”
The constant thought going through my head (before the rage became overwhelming) was, “Is this trying to out do Ben Hur?” The sets are beautiful and larger than life and that crazy parade for when Cleopatra enters Rome was jaw dropping, but I always had that thought. Soon, everything felt so pompous, the acting started to swell and stink like road kill and Taylor stared with her huge eye shadow more and more and I started yelling, “This is a terrible attempt at one-upping Ben Hur!” I believe it was around the naval battle that I snapped into a raving fit. This has only happened to me during one other film, Howard the Duck, and I feel terrible relating Cleopatra to that film now.
Cleopatra breaks one of the main rules of storytelling: show, don’t tell. We hear from the Romans how grand Cleopatra is, she’s smart, can speak seven languages, thinks of herself as a living goddess and has beauty to match. The greatest thing Taylor shows off about Cleopatra is her skin. There is just enough skin and cleavage to make this pretty risqué in ‘63. Apart from Cleopatra’s sexual hold over men, she doesn’t seem so powerful. Her eye shadow looks like it could put up a better fight. Most of Taylor’s acting consists of standing like a mannequin and staring, sometimes an angry twitch is thrown in.
I was honestly disappointed to see that Taylor couldn’t make Cleopatra pop out of history any more than a hieroglyphic off a tomb. Growing up, I went through an Egypt phase, where mummies, pyramids and ancient history was suddenly cool, and Cleopatra was Queen of the Nile and an idol. Where was her strength, intelligence and power? Taylor made Cleopatra no more than a dark haired Barbie doll. Just a harlot with only the power to be an enticing dessert for the pent up rulers of Rome.
The one actor I truly enjoyed was Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. Harrison rises to the challenge of portraying an eloquent, smart, intriguing Roman ruler. He truly feels larger than life and human at the same time. He made the first half of the film so much more bearable, and Richard Burton just couldn’t hold up that last grueling half by himself.
I understand why this film can be 4 hours long, there’s a lot of substance here and it can feel like a crime to leave one piece of history out, but, come on. How many people in 63 were really riveted by this all two-hundred forty-three minutes? Today, there’s so much ADD out there that for people to sit through an epic over three hours it has to be full of explosions, giant blue people and in 3-D. This really does feel like ancient history at times. Unless you are a big fan of ancient history, classic epics or any of the actors and want to make a big party out of his four hour epic, I would honestly suggest watching it in two separate sittings, part one and two.
Even better, just watch DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra instead.
On a less serious note, I would like to see this remade in a way that makes Cleo one badass lady. Like Samuel L. Jackson as a chick. And less than two hours long, if you please. The guys who made 300 could put a good spin on this. May I suggest casting Tyra Banks as Cleopatra? And then she can star in a remake of Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, a role I always felt Banks was born to play.