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Cleopatra

Year: 1963
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Writer: Joseph L Mankiewicz/Ranald MacDougall/Sidney Buchman
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall, Hume Cronyn

Way back in the 1960s the studios had become expert at generating buzz. Back when creative people interested in art ran them, they seemed more willing to take gambles like this than they are today.

Not that they didn't try to make this action melodrama costume extravaganza a success through sheer weight of brute marketing force. The most expensive film ever made, Fox threw what seems to be every cent they had at the most breathtaking costumes, sets, scenery and effects and made sure everybody knew it.

Behind the scenes, egos as big as Hollywood flared and blustered. Taylor shut down the production for months after an illness and caused the whole thing to move to another country. She demanded approval of the director. Harrison demanded his image accompany Burton's in all the marketing, his lawyers sicced onto the studio when a Broadway billboard failed to comply.

Production designer John De Cuir tore down and rebuilt Alexandria three times, the sweeping arrival scene of Cleopatra into Rome took four months to shoot and directors and actors walked off, were fired, or were released after long delays. The result was generally accepted to be a gigantic flop that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox even though it actually broke even in 1973 after a record $5m sale to TV.

For sheer scope, it's a close cousin to Ben-Hur, and remains anchored in filmmaking styles of another time, of lavishly-appointed sound stage-controlled sets, melodramatic dialogue, top-tier actors and as many scenery and costume changes as the production could manage.

As far as the story goes, it's actually a good primer for the whole story of Julius Caeser, Cleopatra and Marc Antony and the love triangle that united them and changed the world. When Caeser (Harrison) takes a delegation to oversee civil strife brewing in Egypt, he falls in love with the fiery young Queen Cleopatra (Taylor), helping install her to rule ahead of her rival siblings and with their affair promising a new era of peaceful relations.

But if the film tells us nothing else, it's that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and when Caeser maneuvers to remove any limits to his power a close circle of Senators plot to assassinate him, leaving Marc Antony (Burton) – his benevolent military lieutenant – to rule Rome.

When Antony too becomes Cleopatra's lover, he starts to lose judgement, abandoning his principles and then his country, leaving the ruthless young Senator Octavious (McDowall) to engineer a coup during his long absences.

At four hours (originally planned for two three hours films detailing the two affairs of Cleopatra's life), there's plenty of room for secondary characters, political intrigue, romance, battles and more. Every scene of the film wears its credentials loudly on its sleeve, be they in the thespian arts or production values.

Say what you like about the train wreck Burton and Taylors' lives became both apart and together (more than once), the pair can act, even if subscribing to the staginess that dictated the style of the day. You only have to watch them in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to see what they can do without spectacles and sets.

If you're at all interested in where Hollywood came from in the recent past, or even if you like the cinematic equivalent of a rip-roaring Dan Brown novel, look no further.

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