Epics from Ancient History
With the advent of televisions in the lounge rooms of everyday families in the 1950s, the response from the studios and film-makers was to try and provide their audiences with something TV couldn’t provide i.e. spectacle and widescreen (cinemascope).
The first theatrical film released cinemascope was 1953s The Robe a biblical epic telling the story of what happened to the robe Jesus wore before he was crucified.
The huge success of this film saw other studios embarking on their own versions of cinemascope (ie. VistaVision, Panavision etc) whilst also using the format to shoot large scale outdoor films, whether it be historical epics, biblical dramas and westerns.
Epics from ancient times were particularly popular during these times where they would usually take a historical or a mythical event and add an extravagant setting with lavish costumes, accompanied by an expansive music score with an large all-star ensemble cast, which would make them among the most expensive of films to produce. The most common subjects of epic films were ancient history (including biblical) and important figures from various periods in world history.
Notable films released in this period were The Ten Commandments, War And Peace (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus, El Cid, The Fall Of The Roman Empire etc etc – I’m sure other Cats could nominate some of their favourites.
But here I’ll be reviewing in more detail the film Cleopatra. When it was finally released in 1963 after a change in director; the highly publicised affair between it’s two married stars in Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; Taylor’s serious illness which halted production; the runaway costs which finally saw a final cost of $33M which at the time was the most expensive film ever produced and in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation, would be a cost in excess of $300M; and a running time of well over 4 hours it was an epic in more ways than one.
IMO I wouldn’t rate Cleopatra as a great film, it’s is simply too long with too much padding and the romance between Cleopatra and Mark Antony becomes rather tedious over it’s length. However, there is much to enjoy and admire in the film, in which I’d recommend watching it 2 parts with the cutoff being Caesar’s assassination.
Probably the film’s greatest asset is Rex Harrison’s outstanding portrayal of Julius Caesar, IMO the best performance of this huge figure of history. Unfortunately he encounters the Ides of March half-way through the film. The other notable performance is Roddy McDowell as Octavian (Augustus) where he perfectly captures the intelligent ruthless cunning of this character.
The spectacle of the films is still stunning to behold – no CGI, just practical effects and enormous sets that certainly give you the impression that the film-makers were earnestly trying to re-create the period with splendid detail.
Director Jospeh L. Mankiewicz who took over from Rouben Mamoulian in helming the film, had expressed his intention of directing a two-part epic: “I had in mind two separate but closely linked Elizabeth Taylor films – Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra – each to run three hours, both segments to receive simultaneous release. Unfortunately, the studio insisted on the one film.
The film was the highest grossing film of 1963 but it still didn’t break-even and very near bankrupted its studio 20th Century Fox.
It’s certainly one film they don’t make anymore.
As a postscript, the costumes and sets used in the 1964 British comedy film Carry On Cleo were originally intended for Cleopatra before that production moved to Rome and rebuilt new sets there.
Still, I find Carry On Cleo to be one of the funniest of the Carry On films and it does contain one of the great one-line puns in cinema history, delivered by the incomparable Kenneth Williams.