Cleopatra (1963)



Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring:  Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra),  Richard Burton (Marc Anthony),  Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar),  Pamela Brown (High Priestess),  George Cole (Flavius),  Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes),  Cesare Danova (Apollodorus),  Kenneth Haigh (Brutus),  Andrew Keir (Agrippa),  Martin Landau (Rufio),  Roddy McDowall (Octavian - Caesar Augustus),  Robert Stephens (Germanicus),   Francesca Annis (Eiras, Cleopatra's handmaiden),  Herbert Berghof (Theodotos),  Michael Hordern (Cicero),  John Hoyt (Cassius),  Carroll O'Connor (Casca).

Oscars: Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costumes, Special Effects

A big block-buster of a movie that lasts 4 hours, but its more block than buster.  


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Good movie.  Rome is engaged in civil war.  At Tarsalia, Caesar beats Pompeii, who then, disguised as a peddler, heads for Egypt.  Caesar soon follows to Egypt in search of Pompeii.  Egypt is also involved in civil war -- this one between Pharaoh Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra.  Ptolemy drove Cleopatra from Alexandria and tried to destroy her.

In Egypt Caesar meets with Ptolemy.  The Egyptian court presents him with a gift they believe will surely please Caesar: the head of Pompeii.  But Caesar is not pleased that one who had been so close to him at one time (and who was his son-in-law) had reached such an ignominious end.  He tells his men to find the rest of Pompeii's body and give him an honorable burial. 

Cleopatra rolled up in a rug sneaks in to the palace to meet with Caesar.  Suddenly Alexandria is on fire; the great library is burning.  Caesar goes on the attack against the Egyptian forces under Achillas.  Ptolemy's key adviser, Pothinus, is sentenced to death and killed immediately.   

Caesar is entranced by Cleopatra and soon they are kissing.  Mar Antony wants Caesar to come home.  Cleopatra, however, wants him to stay in Egypt.  She tells Caesar that unlike his fourth wife, Calpurnia, she can give Caesar sons. 

Marc Antony is in Rome and goes to visit Calpurnia.  She asks if he has heard the rumor that Caesar has married Cleopatra according to the Egyptian custom and that she is carrying his child.  The rumor is true for Caesar is soon shouting "I have a son."  The son is named Caesarion. 

Two years and many wars later, Caesar returns to Rome.  He is made Dictator of Rome for Life.    A year later Cleopatra and her son arrive in Rome with a great deal of fanfare.  Caesar asks the Senate to appoint him Emperor of Rome.  The next step is to be named King and then a God.  Brutus and other senators assassinate Caesar as a threat to Roman freedom.  Cleopatra leaves for Egypt. 

For more than two years Marc Antony searches for the slayers of Caesar.  At Philippi he finds them.  Cassius kills himself, then Brutus follows and then the others.

It is agreed that Octavian (nephew of Julius Caesar), Marc Antony and Lepidus will form a triumvirate to rule Rome.  Antony will govern in the east, Lepidus in Africa and Octavian in Rome and Italy. 

Three years after Caesar's death, Cleopatra awaits the arrival of Antony.  She says: "Antony will come.  He needs me."  News arrives that Octavian has forced Lepidus into exile. 

Antony knows that he needs funds.  After all, the campaign against Parthia (the future Iran) will not be easy.  His main general Rufio tells him to meet with Cleopatra of Egypt.  Antony agrees and the two leaders meet.  Antony stays with Cleopatra over night.  The man is so smitten with the Egyptian leader that he will not even return to Rome for he simply does not want to leave Cleopatra. 

But suddenly Cleopatra learns that Marc Antony and Octavian have made a pact and that Antony has made a political marriage of state to Octavia (the sister of Caesar).  Cleopatra is furious with Antony and will now make him beg for the favors of Egypt.  Antony goes to Egypt and has to grovel a bit before Cleopatra will ease up on him.  She says that he may have a treaty with Egypt if her country is granted Judea, Jordan, Armenia, Phoenicia, Sinai, Arabia, Cypress and Crete; in other words, one-third of the Roman Empire under Antony.  By this stratagem, Cleopatra tries to force an open break between Antony and Octavian.  She tells Antony that he is chained to Octavian like a slave and that Octavian is winning the competition between Antony and Octavian. 

Octavian knows that war with Antony and Cleopatra is coming.  But he adds he must not appear war-like.  He says: "I must be forced into war by the Roman people."  But to force the war, Octavian has the last will and testament of Antony read in the senate; a document that says that when Antony dies, his wish is to be buried in Alexandria (and not Rome).  The Senate bursts out in shouts of "War!"   Octavian kills the Egyptian ambassador Sosigenes, a favorite of Cleopatra. 

Against the advice of all his generals, Antony decides on a sea battle with Rome off the coast of Grece at Actium. In the battle, Antony foolishly drives straight up the middle only to have the Roman ships surround his ships.  Antony's ship goes down and Cleopatra, being told that Antony is dead, sails for Egypt (with Antony right behind her). 

Octavian and his 20 legions soon arrive in Egypt.  Antony only has 2 legions with which to oppose them. 

Antony is in the depths of depression, thinking that Cleopatra had abandoned him.  She begs him to understand that she only left because they told her he was dead.  Antony replies: "You are quite right.  I am dead."

Octavian tries to make a separate peace with Cleopatra in exchange for Marc Antony, but she rejects the offer.  Cleopatra tries once again to get Antony out of his doldrums.  The two declare their love for each other and Antony heads off to lead his two legions in battle.  The morning of the planned battle Antony awakens to find everyone gone.  By himself, he attacks the 20 legions hoping that he will be killed.  But the Roman army will not oblige him.  Octavian wants both Antony and Cleopatra alive. 

Cleopatra sends her son away to hide, but he and his escort are found and killed. 

Antony thrusts his own sword into his gut.  Before he dies, he is taken to the palace where Cleopatra watches him take his last breaths.   Octavian arrives and tells Cleopatra that she can rule in Egypt under Rome as long as she makes a return visit to Rome.  Seeing her son's ring on a finger of Octavian, Cleopatra agrees to the conditions in order to buy herself time enough to take her own life.  The Egyptian queen takes her own life by letting herself be bitten by an asp. 


When I was a kid, this was a big, spectacular movie accompanied with scandal.  The beautiful Liz Taylor and the British actor Richard Burton fell in love and had an affair while making the movie and this in spite of the fact that both were married.  The Queen of Hollywood was playing the Queen of Egypt.  And Liz, looking oh so beautiful, did not disappoint.  Richard Burton as Marc Antony and Roddy McDowell as Octavian both gave good performances, but it was all Liz all the time.  (I thought the intellectual looking Rex Harrison was out of place as Caesar.)

The movie was long and at times was just too talky for my tastes.  Shakespeare this is not, so why so many wordy scenes?  But seeing Liz Taylor as Cleopatra is reward enough in and of itself and makes the movie clearly worth viewing.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Historical Background:


-69 -- Cleopatra born, the daughter of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra VI. When her father dies, she and her brother Ptolemy XIII were to rule Egypt jointly, but Ptolemy exiles her and takes over the throne himself. Cleopatra gathers an army and tries without success to get back her position.

-48 --  Caesar defeats Pompey at Pharsalia; lands in Egypt on his search for Pompey.

-47 --  Pompey murdered in Egypt by order of Cleopatra, but instead of being pleased, Caesar mourns the death of Pompey. Cleopatra has herself rolled up in a carpet and delivered as a gift to Caesar. Caesar is charmed.

-46 --  Africa made a Roman province; Caesar returns to Rome, taking Cleopatra with him; they have a son who Cleopatra names Caesarion.

-45 --  Caesar, dictator in Rome, adopts his nephew Gaius Octavius as heir.

-44 --  Caesar murdered by conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius Longinus. Roman people never liked Cleopatra and so she decides it best to return to Egypt. After Caesar's death she got her second brother out of the way by poisoning him. She then ruled jointly with her infant son. Meanwhile, in Rome a Second triumvirate appears of Mark Antony, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, & Gaius Octavius, now renamed Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian). Rivalry between Marc Antony and Octavian heats up and Antony demands that Cleopatra commit to his side. Cleopatra appears at his camp via her royal barge. Antony falls in love and eventually marries Cleopatra.

-42 --  Brutus & Cassius defeated by the triumvirs at Philippi; commit suicide.

-40  --  Herod, at Rome, appointed king of Judaea.

-38 --  Mark Antony returns to Egypt.

-34 Dalmatia a Roman province.

-31 Battle of Actium; Mark Antony & Cleopatra's fleet defeated by Octavian's and two months later commit suicide; Egypt becomes a Roman province.

-30 to 14 A.D. -- Octavian retitled Augustus & becomes virtual emperor.


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