WolfmanOz at the Movies #43

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.


21 responses to “WolfmanOz at the Movies #43”

  1. calli Avatar

    Thanks for the memories, Wolfman. Years since I’ve seen Cleopatra – loved it the first time in B&W on the old TV. No doubt it would be spectacular on the big SmartTV.

    All those Swords and Sandals epics – my favourites were the stop motion ones like Jason and the Argonauts. Rainy Saturday afternoon fare.

    All winding up to the marvellous, tightly scripted “Gladiator”. Of course tons of CGI, but it wasn’t intrusive. Troy was a let down – more soap opera than epic.

  2. WolfmanOz Avatar

    I agree Calli re Gladiator – a top sword and sandal epic in which the CGI is actually done right.

    Jason And The Argonauts is a classic fantasy adventure which is timeless.

    Yes Cleopatra is spectacular on a big TV screen but watch it over 2 nights – 4 hours plus is too much !

  3. calli Avatar

    4 hours plus is too much !

    We used to call them “bladder busters”! Never, ever buy a large Coke before the movie. Bring back Intermission, I say!

    At least you can put the thing on Pause at home.

  4. Bruce of Newcastle Avatar
    Bruce of Newcastle

    Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn…who could forget Gone With The Wind and the radiant Vivien Leigh?

    My favourite was Waterloo, with all those thousands of Soviet extras. Breathtaking on the big screen.

    Hollywood will find that if they make such movies the punters will come – like they did for Top Gun Maverick, Master and Commander, and our Mel’s Passion of the Christ. Obviously though such movies are anathema to the far-left revisionists, so very few historical epics get made these days. It’s sad.

  5. Old School Conservative Avatar
    Old School Conservative

    Thanks Wolfman.
    Lots of boarding school Saturday nights watching big epics and little failures.
    Changing reels on the Bell and Howell was an excuse to dash outside for a comfort break and for some, a cigarette.
    All the boys enjoyed “Carry On” movies for the ….um……ah…..humour.

  6. Roger W Avatar
    Roger W

    The Biblical epics were the best – The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur at the top.
    Cleopatra was simply boring.

  7. Dragnet Avatar

    “Tell me Joey, do you like watching movies about gladiators?”

  8. lotocoti Avatar

    Land of the Pharaohs may not be one of the notable ones,
    but Joan Collins’ comeuppance is.

  9. WolfmanOz Avatar

    Good one lotocoti.

  10. Pedro the Loafer Avatar
    Pedro the Loafer

    Another classic “sword and sandal” ripper film of the era was Quo Vadis.

  11. Louis Litt Avatar

    Cleapatra – I remeber seeing this as a child on TV – under 10 – Elizabeth Taylor saying to Richard Burton her hips are round and for child bearing, her full figure.
    My Insides – Oh the horror, the horror.

  12. johanna Avatar

    Yes, there was a period where Hollywood was fascinated by the ancient world, albeit seen through the eyes of refugees from Eastern Europe and the Noo Yok garment district. Historical accuracy was not top of the list of priorities, but the results were often very entertaining.

    Every now and then, a quality fillum emerged from the genre, such as Pedro’s Quo Vadis. For the most, they were just Westerns in togas instead of chaps, and featured fabulous (if unlikely) sets and hunky blokes showing plenty of skin. It was gay Paradise for the set and costume designers!

    Others have already made my comments about Cleopatra. The only thing I would add is that it was an example of marketing before release without parallel. The on-set dramas, lovingly catalogued by the Press, meant that everyone knew about the film by the time it was released.

    With all the pomp and ceremony, it didn’t give some of the cast much scope to display their gifts, though. Both Taylor and Burton did far better work elsewhere.

  13. Lee Avatar

    No doubt, if a film featuring Cleopatra were made these days there would be loud and vociferous calls from the left/woke mob to have a black woman playing her, even though she wasn’t, but in fact of Macedonian heritage.

  14. Johnny Rotten Avatar

    I just love the Carry On Mob…………………

    What a line……………..”Infamy, infamy”, they have all got it “in for me”…………………………..lol


  15. Johnny Rotten Avatar

    November 3, 2022 at 10:24 am
    “Tell me Joey, do you like watching movies about gladiators?”

    Dragnet. Wot’ are you doing ‘ere?……………………..lol


  16. Roger Avatar

    No doubt, if a film featuring Cleopatra were made these days there would be loud and vociferous calls from the left/woke mob to have a black woman playing her, even though she wasn’t, but in fact of Macedonian heritage.

    I believe there was a such consternation expressed recently when an Israeli actress was cast as Cleopatra.

    Be that as it may, not how film producers c. 1960 could rely on a general knowledge of biblical and classical history to underwrite interest their epics.

    The same could not be said toay.

  17. Diogenes Avatar

    Never really got into the biiiig ancient classics, but enjoyed the B sword and sandal movies that were shown on “Epic Theatre” Sunday arvo on 9 Melbourne after the wrestling. Therefore, I really enjoyed the great Aussie redub Hercules Returns. Some great lines.

  18. Vicki Avatar

    I really loved the film “Alexander”. Of course all these films have historical inaccuracies – but the spectacle and scenery was spectacular and the interpretation interesting.

    Incidentally, many years ago I planned a trip to retrace the expedition of Alexander to defeat the Persians. We only tracked it through Turkey – but it was unforgettable. One of the most thrilling moments was discovering (with help of a local) the remains of part of the Royal Road to Susa in someone’s paddock.

  19. Christine Avatar

    Elizabeth Taylor was the most beautiful of all

    But not right for Cleopatra

  20. Lee Avatar

    Never really got into the biiiig ancient classics, but enjoyed the B sword and sandal movies that were shown on “Epic Theatre” Sunday arvo on 9 Melbourne after the wrestling. Therefore, I really enjoyed the great Aussie redub Hercules Returns. Some great lines.

    I remember those Sunday afternoons back in the 1970s, enjoying badly dubbed Italian epics.

  21. Steve of Kenmore Avatar

    After remembering the forum entrance by Liz Taylor in Rome in Cleopatra, I was disappointed to see how narrow it really was. The film set was wider of course.

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