20th Century Fox celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Cleopatra (1963) with an impressive two-disc Blu-ray set. Historical in two ways, this epic mirrors real life as pride and ego of the main players, in front of and behind the camera, led to their downfall.
The story is told in two parts, each centering upon a romance of Cleopatra. In 48 BC, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and his forces arrive in Egypt in pursuit of Roman general Pompey the Great. Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O'Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), she 18 and he even younger, are fighting for rule of country and seek support from Caesar. The beautiful Cleopatra has an advantage over her brother and gains favor with Caesar, leading to their having a son.
Caesar returns home to Rome and leaves Cleopatra as the queen. Two years pass, before they see each other. Her arrival is such an astounding spectacle I can't think of anything else that rivals it in cinema. Just from this sequence alone, it's easy to see why the film won two of its four Oscars for Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Color and Best Costume Design, Color. Friends and rivals aren't happy about Cleopatra showing up with Caesar's bastard son, especially because he is still married to his third and last wife, Calpurnia (Gwen Watford).
Caesar makes it known he wants to be made Emperor of Rome, which upsets some Senators. However, it's not clear why this is an issue from either side. Caesar has already been named Dictator for Life, which sounds quite powerful already. There's no indication what more the title would bestow and why no one is shown bothered by the "Dictator for Life" designation, which sounds quite powerful in its own right. History has dictated what occurs on the Ides of March, which brings the film to an intermission.
Three years pass. Cleopatra returned home since her son was given no power to rule. The Second Triumvirate was instituted, but two of the members, Ceasar's nephew Octavian (Roddy McDowall) and Mark Antony (Richard Burton), aren't satisfied with what they've been given. Antony seeks out help from Cleopatra and they become lovers. Word gets out and when he returns to Rome, Antony is forced into marrying Octavian's sister, to Cleopatra's anger and disappointment. He eventually returns to her, leading to the Battle of Actium where the Roman navy defeats its opponent. I am surprised this sequence hasn't received more praise over the years. It was my favorite in the entire film and it's easy to see why Emil Kosa, Jr. won an Oscar for Best Special Effects. Those who know their history know how the rest of the film plays out.
Although a major financial failure due to the out of control production costs, its original $2 million budget swelling to $44 million, Cleopatra is not as bad as its reputation suggests even if it nearly bankrupted the studio. While the pacing is too slow and little is offered for viewers to connect with the characters, it's on par will similar cinematic spectacles of the era like The Robe. Remove the chariot scene, and Ben-Hur is a boring melodrama. Cleopatra delivers good acting performances, an impressive naval battle, and Alex North's great score.
The Blu-ray is presented in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 2.20:1 and the visuals are exquisite. All the money spent can be seen on the screen. The costumes appear in bold, rich colors and offer magnificent ornate detail, as does the set decoration. Film grain appears. The one negative is the high definition contributes to the matte paintings and rear projection looking false. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround offers a satisfying experience. The score fills surrounds. The actors can be heard clearly and accentuate the space as they can be heard in different position about the soundscape. No signs of age or defect on the track.
Cleopatra is spread across two Blu-rays and each disc offers extras about the making of the film that should delight its fans and those of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans.
Actor Martin Landau (Rufio) and director Joe's Mankiewicz son Tom, who was a second assistant director, deliver audio commentary in separate interviews on Part 1. "Cleopatra Through the Ages: A Cultural History" (HD, 8 min) is a brief examination of the woman and the accuracy of how she has been depicted throughout history. "Cleopatra's Missing Footage" (HD, 8 min) talks about the deleted footage from the long-running production and a man who looked around the world in '90s for old elements from the film. "Fox Movie Channel Presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman" (SD, 29 min) finds the studio president hosting this look at the film's fascinating yet troubled production. "The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence" (HD) is the title of created from the correspondence between Nathan Weiss, publicity manager at 20th Century Fox, and his assistant Jack Brodsky as they dealt with the PR headache that was this project. This gallery presents excerpts from 21 letters and telegrams that were written between 10/20/61 - 7/28/62.
Disc Two continues the Audio Commentary with Marin Landau and Tom Mankiewicz. Tom's brother Chris, another second assistant director on the film, and publicist Jack Brodsky join in with their recollections. "Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood" (SD, 119 min) is a 2001 documentary that offers an extensive look at the production. Interviews include commentary track contributors as well as new additions like Roddy McDowell to offer a more complete picture of what went on. The doc offers a peek at the cast that might have been with a look at Joan Collins' screen test as Cleopatra and Peter Finch as Caesar. "The Fourth Star of Cleopatra" (SD, 9 min) is the film itself as revealed in this 1964 featurette. Fox Movietone News (SD, 6 min) presents the film's premiere in New York and in a second clip shows premieres in both Hollywood and Washington, DC.
What Cleopatra may lack in terms of drama was certainly made up for behind the scenes during the waning days of the Classic Hollywood era. For those who enjoy off-screen stories as much as on, the 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray delivers a wealth of entertainment. The film looking and sounding great in high definition is a bonus.