FILM (1963)

The grandest epic of them all still looks fantastic

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2012, 9:45am


Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

"Was this well done of your lady?" Roman general Agrippa barks at a servant after discovering the sumptuously attired body of Egyptian queen Cleopatra, who had taken her own life by poison. "Extremely well, as befitting the last of so many noble rulers," she replies.

So ends 20th Century Fox's 1963 epic Cleopatra, a film as famous for the off-screen antics of stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as it is for those of its historical characters.

Cleopatra, who died in 30BC, wanted to escape the ignominy of being paraded in Rome as a defeated queen, and is thought to have killed herself by allowing an asp - or Egyptian cobra - to bite her.

Her death was the result of an ill-fated love affair with the self-destructive Roman Mark Antony. Roman historian Plutarch documented the tragic story, and it was expertly told by Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra. Hollywood had filmed the story before, notably in 1917 with silent star Theda Bara.

The 1963 version was made using widescreen technology, with Burton playing Antony to Taylor's erotically charged Cleopatra. The story tells of an honorable Roman seduced by the opulent East, and a proud queen who refuses to humble herself before the leaders of the West.

"The motion picture that all the world has been waiting for!" shouted Fox's publicity department on the film's release. That was undeniably true - but for the wrong reasons.

Cleopatra's many troubles had been detailed by the press during its long production cycle. Delays and onset disasters caused its budget to balloon to US$44 million, making it still the most expensive film ever made when adjusted for inflation. The production had been through two directors, a change of location, and an alleged suicide attempt by Taylor.

But it was the off-screen romance between Burton and Taylor that piqued the public's imagination. Taylor was then married to Eddie Fisher, and Burton to Sybil Williams. Accounts have Taylor falling head over heels for Welshman Burton, a well-known womaniser. This kind of publicity would not harm a film today, but it was damaging in the early 1960s and Fox tried hard to cover it up but failed.

Cleopatra received bad reviews, and its troubled history ended the cycle of widescreen epics that began in the 1950s. But it has weathered well and still looks glorious - as does Taylor's Cleopatra.

Richard James Havis