Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



There are so many superlatives associated with this film that I couldn’t possibly cover them all except at book length. I’ll mention just a few. The Alexandria set was possibly the largest ever constructed … and they had to build it {twice,}} once in England and again in Italy. Filming any outdoor scenes at all in England’s clammy climate was a big mistake. Liz Taylor came down with pneumonia and almost died. Cleopatra’s entry into Rome is probably the single grandest sequence I have ever seen in a non-CGI movie. There was the ongoing scandal of the open affaire between Taylor and Burton. And of course there is the cost. Although it made a ton of money (it was the biggest money-maker of the year), it was so expensive to make that it never really showed a profit. Some say that, adjusted for inflation, it may still be the most expensive movie ever made, or at least the equal of the insanely expensive Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. It came close to bankrupting 20th Century Fox.

So what did Fox get for its money? A surprisingly dull movie. It’s possible that women may see it differently, as a romance, but as an epic it really falls short. There are huge battle scenes and the climactic naval battle at Actium, but even these can’t rescue it. The sets, exterior and cavernous interiors, are fabulous. The costumes are beautiful. Liz set a record with 65 different costumes, a different one for each scene. And it should not surprise you to hear that it plays fast and loose with the historical facts. To cite just one (and possibly the worst) example, the love-stonkered Antony is shown literally rowing through masses of his drowning, pleading troops, who are in the water because of his incompetent generalship, just to chase after his beloved, who is wisely fleeing the carnage. There is little question that the guy was pretty fucked up by love there at the end, but that never happened. Nor did all of his troops desert him when Octavian marched on Alexandria.

(A pet peeve of mine: Why is Octavian invariably shown as a weak, almost cowardly schemer, not really fit to hold Caesar’s laurel wreath? He was to become the first emperor, and while I don’t much hold with emperors over Senates, it was coming anyway, and Rome could certainly have done a lot worse. He did so many good things during his reign, and yet he gets shit on. Here, for example, he is played by Roddy McDowell, and while I adore Roddy, he would be nobody’s choice to play a hero, not even his own choice, probably. I guess it’s one of those imponderables, like the glorification of those opportunistic thugs, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, frontier dentist.)

This was first envisioned by the director as a two-part, six-hour movie to be shown on successive nights. As it is, it is four hours of mostly ho-hum stuff.