Cleopatra (1963 film)

Cleopatra (1963 film)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited)
Rouben Mamoulian (uncredited; fired and replaced by Mankiewicz)
Produced by Walter Wanger
Peter Levathes (uncredited)
Screenplay by Sidney Buchman
Ranald MacDougall
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by
C.M. Franzero
Histories by
Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian
Narrated by Ben Wright
Starring Elizabeth Taylor
Richard Burton
Rex Harrison
Roddy McDowall
Martin Landau
Hume Cronyn
George Cole
Music by Alex North
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Jack Hildyard (uncredited)
Editing by Dorothy Spencer
Elmo Williams (uncredited)
Studio Producers Pictures Corporation
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s) June 12, 1963 (1963-06-12) (US)
July 31, 1963 (1963-07-31) (UK)
Running time 248 minutes
192 minutes (Theatrical cut)
320 minutes (Director's cut)
Country United Kingdom
United States
Language English
Budget $44 million
Box office $57,777,778[1]

Cleopatra is a 1963 British-American-Swiss epic drama film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The screenplay was adapted by Sidney Buchman, Ben Hecht, Ranald MacDougall, and Mankiewicz from a book by Carlo Maria Franzero. The film starred Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, and Martin Landau. The music score was by Alex North. It was photographed in 70 mm Todd-AO by Leon Shamroy and an uncredited Jack Hildyard.

Cleopatra chronicles the struggles of Cleopatra VII, the young Queen of Egypt, to resist the imperialist ambitions of Rome.

Despite being a critical failure, it won four Academy Awards. It was the highest grossing film of 1963, earning US $26 million ($57.7 million total), yet made a loss due to its cost of $44 million, the only film ever to be the highest grossing film of the year yet to run at a loss.



The film opens shortly after the Battle of Pharsalus where Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has defeated Pompey. Pompey flees to Egypt, hoping to enlist the support of the young Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O'Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor).

Caesar pursues and meets the teenage Ptolemy and the boy's advisers, who seem to do most of the thinking for him. As a gesture of 'goodwill', the Egyptians present Caesar with Pompey's head, but Caesar is not pleased; it is a sorry end for a worthy foe. As Caesar settles in at the palace, Apollodorus (Cesare Danova), disguised as a rug peddler, brings a gift from Cleopatra. When a suspicious Caesar unrolls the rug, he finds Cleopatra herself concealed within and is intrigued. Days later, she warns Caesar that her brother has surrounded the palace with his soldiers and that he is vastly outnumbered. Caesar is unconcerned. He orders the Egyptian fleet burned so he can gain control of the harbor. The fire spreads to the city, burning many buildings, including the famous Library of Alexandria. Cleopatra angrily confronts Caesar, but he refuses to pull troops away from the fight with Ptolemy's forces to deal with the fire. In the middle of their spat, Caesar begins kissing her.

The Romans hold, and the armies of Mithridates arrive on Egyptian soil. The following day, Caesar passes judgment. He sentences Ptolemy's lord chamberlain to death for arranging an assassination attempt on Cleopatra, and rules that Ptolemy and his tutor be sent to join Ptolemy's now greatly outnumbered troops, a sentence of death as the Egyptian army faces off against Mithridates. Cleopatra is crowned Queen of Egypt. She dreams of ruling the world with Caesar. When their son Caesarion is born, Caesar accepts him publicly, which becomes the talk of Rome and the Senate.

Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) confronts Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison)

Caesar returns to Rome for his triumph, while Cleopatra remains in Egypt. Two years pass before the two see each other again. After he is made dictator for life, Caesar sends for Cleopatra. She arrives in Rome in a lavish procession and wins the adulation of the Roman people. The Senate grows increasingly discontented amid rumors that Caesar wishes to be made king, which is anathema to the Romans. On the Ides of March 44 B.C., the Senate is preparing to vote on whether to award Caesar additional powers. Despite warnings from his wife Calpurnia (Gwen Watford) and Cleopatra, he is confident of victory. However, he is stabbed to death by various senators.

Octavian (Roddy McDowall), Caesar's nephew, is named as his heir, not Caesarion. Realizing she has no future in Rome, Cleopatra returns home to Egypt. Two years later, Caesar's assassins, among them Cassius (John Hoyt) and Brutus (Kenneth Haigh), are killed at the Battle of Philippi. Mark Antony (Richard Burton) establishes a second triumvirate with Octavian and Lepidus. They split up the empire: Lepidus receives Africa, Octavian Spain and Gaul, while Antony will take control of the eastern provinces. However, the rivalry between Octavian and Antony is becoming apparent.

While planning a campaign against Parthia in the east, Antony realizes he needs money and supplies, and cannot get enough from anywhere but Egypt. After refusing several times to leave Egypt, Cleopatra gives in and meets him in Tarsus. Antony becomes drunk during a lavish feast. Cleopatra sneaks away, leaving a slave dressed as her, but Antony discovers the trick and confronts the queen. They soon become lovers. Octavian uses their affair in his smear campaign against Antony. When Antony returns to Rome to address the situation brewing there, Octavian traps him into a marriage of state to Octavian's sister, Octavia (Jean Marsh). Cleopatra flies into a rage when she learns the news.

A year or so later, when Antony next sees Cleopatra, he is forced to humble himself publicly. She demands a third of the empire in return for her aid. Antony acquiesces and divorces Octavia. Octavian clamors for war against Antony and his "Egyptian whore". The Senate is unmoved by his demands until Octavian reveals that Antony has left a will stating that he is to be buried in Egypt; shocked and insulted, the Senators who had previously stood by Antony abandon their hero and vote for war. Octavian murders the Egyptian ambassador, Cleopatra's tutor Sosigenes (Hume Cronyn), on the Senate steps.

Richard Burton as Mark Antony

The war is decided at the naval Battle of Actium. Seeing Antony's ship burning, Cleopatra assumes he is dead and orders the Egyptian forces home. Antony follows, leaving his fleet leaderless and soon defeated. After a while, Cleopatra manages to convince Antony to retake command of his troops and fight Octavian's advancing army. However, Antony's soldiers have lost faith in him and abandon him during the night; Rufio (Martin Landau), the last man loyal to Antony, is killed. Antony tries to goad Octavian into single combat, but is finally forced to flee into the city.

When Antony returns to the palace, Apollodorus, not believing that Antony is worthy of his queen, convinces him that she is dead, whereupon Antony falls on his own sword. Apollodorus then takes Antony to Cleopatra, and he dies in her arms. Octavian captures the city without a battle and Cleopatra is brought before him. He wants to return to Rome in triumph, with her as his prisoner. However, realizing that her son is also dead, she arranges to be bitten by a poisonous asp.



The film is infamous for nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox. Originally budgeted at $2 million[2], the budget eventually totaled up to $44 million — the equivalent of $320 million in 2010 dollars (see the List of most expensive films to produce), making the movie the third-most costly ever produced worldwide and the second most expensive in the United States after Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, which had a budget of US$300 million (accounting for inflation in each case). This was partly due to the fact that the film's elaborate, complicated sets, costumes and props had to be constructed twice, once during a botched shoot in London and once more when the production relocated to Rome.

Filming began in London in 1960. Mankiewicz was brought into the production after the departure of the first director, Rouben Mamoulian; in the early stages of the project, before the casting of Elizabeth Taylor, Mamoulian is said to have favored African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge for the lead role.[3] Mankiewicz inherited a film which was already $5 million over budget and had no usable footage to show for it. This was in part because the actors originally hired to play Julius Caesar (Peter Finch) and Mark Antony (Stephen Boyd) left due to other commitments. Mankiewicz was later fired during the editing phase, only to be rehired when no one else could piece the film together.

Elizabeth Taylor was awarded a record-setting contract of $1 million. This amount eventually swelled to $7 million due to the delays of the production, equivalent to over $47 million today. Taylor became very ill during the early filming and was rushed to hospital, where a tracheotomy had to be performed to save her life. The resulting scar can be seen in some shots. All of this resulted in the film being shut down. The production was moved to Rome after six months as the English weather proved detrimental to her recovery, as well as being responsible for the constant deterioration of the costly sets and exotic plants required for the production. (The English sets were utilised for the spoof Carry On Cleo.) During filming, Taylor met Richard Burton and the two began a very public affair, which made headlines worldwide. Moral outrage over the scandal brought bad publicity to an already troubled production.

The cut of the film which Mankiewicz screened for the studio was six hours long. This was cut to four hours for its initial premiere, but the studio demanded (over the objections of Mankiewicz) that the film be cut once more, this time to just barely over three hours to allow theaters to increase the number of showings per day. As a result, certain details are left out of the film, such as Rufio's death and the recurring theme of Cleopatra's interaction with the gods of Egypt.[4] Mankiewicz unsuccessfully attempted to convince the studio to split the film in two in order to preserve the original cut. These were to be released separately as Caesar and Cleopatra followed by Antony and Cleopatra. The studio wanted to capitalize on the publicity that the intense press coverage the Taylor-Burton romance was generating, and felt that pushing Antony and Cleopatra to a later release date was too risky. The film has been released to home video formats in its 243-minute premiere version, and efforts are under way to locate the missing footage (some of which has been recovered).

Historical inaccuracies

In general, the broad elements of the film's plot follow the ancient historical sources remarkably closely. Historical deviations in the film's details, however, include the following:

  • The film features Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, first as an admiral under Julius Caesar, then later under Octavian. Agrippa (Andrew Keir) appears to be the same age as Caesar and much older than Octavian. Historically, Agrippa was about the same age as Octavian (as were, for the record, Keir and McDowell).
  • The scenes of Cleopatra's magnificant entry into Rome are enacted in front of (and through) a detailed and life-size replica of the Arch of Constantine, built in 315 AD -- more than three and a half centuries after the event. Moreover, it was never in the Forum.
  • Several scenes include plants (apples, philodendrons) unknown in the Roman world.
  • Much of the interior decor of Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria is anachronistic. Some of the furniture items are exact copies of those found in the tomb of queen Hetepheres I (ca. 2600 BC). Statues seen on Cleopatra's barge are copies of one found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (ca. 1330 BC).[5]


The music of Cleopatra was scored by Alex North. It was released several times, first as an original album, and later versions were extended. The most popular of these was the Deluxe Edition or 2001 Varèse Sarabande album.

Reception and impact

When the end of principal photography was finally in sight, it became clear that in order for Cleopatra merely to break even it would have to be one of the two or three most successful films made up to that time. Cleopatra went on to a $48 million take in North America, making it the highest-grossing film of the year. Fox's share of the receipts ($26 million) returned just over half of the film's total cost. Worldwide box-office receipts and television sales eventually recouped most of the film's cost. As a result of the continual pouring of money into the long-delayed production, the studio was forced to undertake drastic retrenchments. Meanwhile, Fox's fortunes were restored with the release of The Sound of Music in 1965, which became one of the most popular films in cinema history.

A contributing factor to the film's problems was the hype, both internal and public, which surrounded Cleopatra. Billed as the next great cinematic masterpiece, Fox continued to invest more and more money into the project, confident that audiences would adore it. Yet as production continued to falter, the top studio executives took much more direct and personal control of the project, complicating it even further. Films that were to be funded from the profits of Cleopatra were delayed or canceled, tying the fate of the studio to this one film. The extensive marketing campaign reflected how optimistic—or desperate—Fox was about the movie as they printed posters with new release dates every few months as production ground on.

When the film was finally released, the problems that had plagued production were finally fully evident. Historians criticized the inaccurate depictions of Octavian as a weak-stomached yet power-mad teenager and disliked the rewrite of how and why Julius Caesar was killed. Stage actors cited the disjointed script and directing styles as the root of the film's problems. (Mankiewicz had been able to write less than half the shooting script when filming commenced, so he ended up writing much of the script on the fly as filming went on.) Critics found the acting to be over the top in many scenes, scoffing that it took a special class of film maker to get such great actors to act so badly. And as talented as the actors may have been, the extreme length and breadth of Cleopatra made it difficult for audiences to grasp the general plot and theme; the two halves tended to focus more on Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, respectively, than on Cleopatra herself.

Part of the fallout of chaotic production was a shifting away from the traditional "studio system" prevalent in Hollywood up to that time. While studios would continue to finance major films, financial burdens would increasingly be shifted onto independent production companies as a way to buffer the "parent" studio from a loss. It was reported, and widely believed, that the financial situation at Fox was so dire in the wake of Cleopatra that the studio executives were forced to sell most of the studio's large backlot in Los Angeles to developers. In fact, discussions of the sale had begun years earlier, before the movie was filmed, and was only completed after the movie was released. The backlot today forms the core of Century City.

The film earned Elizabeth Taylor a Guinness World Record title, "Most costume changes in a film"; Taylor made 65 costume changes. This record stood until 1996's Evita with Madonna's 85 changes of wardrobe.

The film was banned in Egypt[citation needed], and numerous other Arab states due to Taylor's public endorsement of Zionism[citation needed], including financial support for the State of Israel, with whom Egypt was at war[citation needed].

References in other works

The French comic book Asterix and Cleopatra, published first in serial form the same year the film was released, parodies the film. In particular, the cover of the comic book mocks the film's massive casts and sets by claiming it is the "Greatest story ever drawn" and that "14 litres of India ink, 30 brushes, 62 sofft pencils, 1 hard pencil, 27 rubbers, 1984 sheets of paper, 16 typewriter ribbons, 2 typewriters, 366 pints of beer went into its creation!". Cleopatra herself is drawn to look somewhat like Elizabeth Taylor.

New Zealand band The Mockers' song "Cleopatra" references the prima donna attitude of Elizabeth Taylor during the making of the film.

Italian comic film Totò e Cleopatra (Totò and Cleopatra), released in 1963 and directed by Fernando Cerchio, is a spoof of the original classic, featuring Italian comedy star Totò as Mark Antony and renowned French actress Magali Noël as Cleopatra. Although a farce from beginning to end and completely deviating from both the plot of the original and historical events, the film does effectively satirize on some of Cleopatra's elements, such as the lavish and costly production and the tormented nature of Antony and Cleopatra's relationship.

Awards and nominations

The film won four Academy Awards and was nominated for five more:[6][7]

1963 Academy Awards
1963 Golden Globes
  • Nominated, Best Motion Picture - Drama
  • Nominated, Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama
  • Nominated, Best Motion Picture Director
  • Nominated, Best Supporting Actor

See also


  1. ^ Cleopatra at Box Office Mojo
  2. ^ Null, Christopher. Cleopatra Review
  3. ^ Bogle, Donald. Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography. New York: Amistad. 1997. p. 457.
  4. ^ Cleopatra from Johnny Web
  5. ^ compare: File:Tutanhkamun tomb statue edit 1.jpg with File:1963 Cleopatra trailer screenshot (63).jpg
  6. ^ "The 36th Academy Awards (1964) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  7. ^ "NY Times: Cleopatra". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-25. 
  • Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood, a 2001 television documentary

External links

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