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Cleopatra (1963 film)

File:Cleopatra poster.jpg
Original theatrical release poster
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Produced by Walter Wanger
Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Ranald MacDougall
Sidney Buchman
Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra 
by C.M. Franzero
by Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian
Starring Elizabeth Taylor
Richard Burton
Rex Harrison
Roddy McDowall
Martin Landau
Hume Cronyn
George Cole
Music by Alex North
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Edited by Dorothy Spencer
Distributed by 20th Century-Fox
Release dates
  • June 12, 1963 (1963-06-12) (New York, premiere)
  • July 31, 1963 (1963-07-31) (United Kingdom)
Running time
248 minutes[1]
Country United Kingdom
United States
Language English
Budget $31.115 million[2]
Box office $57,777,778 (US)[3]

Cleopatra is a 1963 epic historical drama film chronicling the struggles of Cleopatra VII, the young Queen of Egypt, to resist the imperial ambitions of Rome. It was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and shot in the 70 mm Todd-AO format, with a screenplay adapted by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman from a book by Carlo Maria Franzero. The film stars Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, and Martin Landau.

Cleopatra achieved notoriety during its production for its massive cost overruns and production troubles, which included changes in director and cast, a change of filming locale, sets that had to be constructed twice, lack of a firm shooting script, and personal scandal around its co-stars. It was the most expensive film ever made up to that point and almost bankrupted 20th Century-Fox.

It received mixed reviews from critics, although critics and audiences alike generally praised Taylor and Burton's performances. It was the highest grossing film of 1963, earning US$26 million ($57.7 million total; equivalent to $444.48 million in 2020), yet made a loss due to its production and marketing costs of $44 million (equivalent to $338.94 million in 2020), making it the only film ever to be the highest grossing film of the year yet to run at a loss.[4] Cleopatra later won four Academy Awards, and was nominated for five more, including Best Picture (which it lost to Tom Jones).


After the Battle of Pharsalus where Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has defeated Pompey, Pompey flees to Egypt, hoping to enlist the support of the young Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O'Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). The Romans hold, and the armies of Mithridates arrive on Egyptian soil. The following day, Caesar passes judgment. He sentences Ptolemy's lord chamberlain to death for arranging an assassination attempt on Cleopatra. Cleopatra is crowned Queen of Egypt. She dreams of ruling the world with Caesar. When their son Caesarion is born, Caesar accepts him publicly, which becomes the talk of Rome and the Senate.

After he is made dictator for life, Caesar sends for Cleopatra. She arrives in Rome in a lavish procession and wins the adulation of the Roman people. The Senate grows increasingly discontented amid rumors that Caesar wishes to be made king, which is anathema to the Romans. On the Ides of March in 44 BC, the Senate is preparing to vote on whether to award Caesar additional powers. They kill Caesar and split up the empire: Lepidus receives Africa, Octavian Spain and Gaul, while Antony will take control of the eastern provinces. However, the rivalry between Octavian and Antony is becoming apparent.

While planning a campaign against Parthia in the east, Antony realizes he needs money and supplies, and cannot get enough from anywhere but Egypt. After refusing several times to leave Egypt, Cleopatra gives in and meets him in Tarsus. Antony becomes drunk during a lavish feast. Cleopatra sneaks away, leaving a slave dressed as her, but Antony discovers the trick and confronts the queen. The war is decided at the naval Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC where Octavian's fleet, under the command of Agrippa, defeats the Anthony-Egyptian fleet. Cleopatra assumes he is dead and orders the Egyptian forces home. Antony follows, leaving his fleet leaderless and soon defeated. Several months later, Cleopatra manages to convince Antony to retake command of his troops and fight Octavian's advancing army. However, Antony's soldiers have lost faith in him and abandon him during the night; Rufio (Martin Landau), the last man loyal to Antony, kills himself. Antony tries to goad Octavian into single combat, but is finally forced to flee into the city.

When Antony returns to the palace, Apollodorus, not believing that Antony is worthy of his queen, convinces him that she is dead, whereupon Antony falls on his own sword. Apollodorus falls unconscious, and is discovered by Octavian as he enters the palace. She sends her servant Charmian to give Octavian a letter. In the letter she asks to be buried with Antony. Octavian realizes that she is going to kill herself and he and his guards burst into Cleopatra's chamber and find her dressed in gold, and dead, along with her servant Eiras, while an asp crawls along the floor.

Charmion is found kneeling next to the altar Cleopatra is lying on, and Agrippa asks of her: ""Was this well done of your lady?" She replies: "Extremely well. As befitting the last of so many noble rulers." She then drops dead as Agrippa looks on.



The eventual production costs of Cleopatra almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Originally budgeted at $2 million,[5] the film ended up costing $31 million, making it the most expensive film ever made at the time.[2] This was partly owing to the fact that the film's elaborate, complicated sets, costumes and props had to be constructed twice, first during an abandoned shoot in London and once more when the production relocated to Rome.

Filming began in London in 1960 under Rouben Mamoulian. Mankiewicz was brought into the production after Mamoulian's departure. Leon Shamroy replaced Jack Hildyard as cinematographer. Mankiewicz inherited a film which was already $5 million over budget and had no usable footage to show for it. This was in part because the actors originally chosen to play Julius Caesar (Peter Finch) and Mark Antony (Stephen Boyd) left owing to other commitments. Mankiewicz was later fired during the editing phase, only to be rehired when no one else could piece the film together (since Mankiewicz was hired so late in the production, he was rewriting the screenplay during principal photography; there was never a finished shooting script as such).

Elizabeth Taylor was awarded a record-setting contract of $1 million. This amount eventually swelled to $7 million because of the delays of the production, ($53.9 million as of 2020).[6] Taylor became very ill during the early filming and was rushed to hospital, where a tracheotomy had to be performed to save her life. The resulting scar can be seen in some shots. All of this resulted in the film being shut down. The production was moved to Rome after six months as the English weather proved detrimental to her recovery, as well as being responsible for the constant deterioration of the costly sets and exotic plants required for the production. (The English sets were utilized for the British comedy Carry On Cleo.) During filming, Taylor met Richard Burton and the two began a very public affair, which made headlines worldwide since both were married to others. Moral outrage over the scandal brought bad publicity to an already troubled production.

The cut of the film which Mankiewicz screened for the studio was six hours long. This was cut to four hours for its initial premiere, but the studio demanded (over the objections of Mankiewicz) that the film be cut once more, this time to just barely over three hours to allow theaters to increase the number of showings per day. As a result, certain details are left out of the film, such as Rufio's death and the recurring theme of Cleopatra's interaction with the gods of Egypt.[7] Mankiewicz unsuccessfully attempted to convince the studio to split the film in two in order to preserve the original cut. These were to be released separately as Caesar and Cleopatra followed by Antony and Cleopatra. The studio wanted to capitalize on the publicity of the intense press coverage the Taylor-Burton romance was generating, and felt that pushing Antony and Cleopatra to a later release date was too risky. The film has been released to home video formats in its 248-minute premiere version, and efforts are under way to locate the missing footage (some of which has been recovered).

Historical accuracy

On the whole the film followed the history of the period fairly closely, and took fewer liberties with historical accuracy than several other epics. However there are a few minor inaccuracies:

  • Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator and his head scholar are spared by Caesar - in reality, Ptolemy died during the Battle of Alexandria, drowning as he tried to cross the Nile.
  • Ptolemy XIV and Arsinoe IV are 'missing' - This is especially apparent with the former, who in reality was named as co-ruler with Cleopatra between 47 and 44 BC.
  • The film features Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, first as an admiral under Julius Caesar, then later under Octavian. Agrippa (Andrew Keir) appears to be the same age as Caesar and much older than Octavian. Historically, Agrippa was about the same age as Octavian (as were Keir and Roddy McDowall).
  • Following the assassination of Caesar, Agrippa is depicted in two scenes as seated in the Curia wearing a senatorial toga. In reality, Agrippa was a hereditary member of the Equestrian order and therefore prohibited under Republican law from either non-invitational attendance in the Curia, or the wearing of patrician insignia.
    • Likewise, prior to Caesar's death and his succession, Octavian is seen seated in the Curia, when he himself would only appear if he was invited.
  • The claim that Caesar wanted to be made Emperor is false. Though Caesar was hailed by the title of imperator during his lifetime, the Roman sense of the term was far different from that denoted by the word "Emperor," being used to describe a great military commander rather than a supreme monarch.
  • Cicero never attended the Senate during the period of Caesar's dictatorship, nor was he actively involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar.
  • The position of Dictator was not symbolic, nor did he need to have his actions ratified by the Senate, as claimed in the movie.
  • Caesar picking up his child Caesarion in front of other Romans would not have been sufficient to have the boy become a Roman citizen, and consequently Caesar's heir. For that, both parents would have had to be Roman citizens themselves, and Caesar never acknowledged him as his son.
  • The scenes of Cleopatra's magnificent entry into Rome are enacted in front of (and through) a detailed and life-size replica of the Arch of Constantine, built in AD 315 – more than three and a half centuries after the event.
  • The arch was never in the Forum.
  • Her arrival and procession would not have entered the Roman Forum itself, as portrayed in the movie, since during the Republic, all foreign rulers were prohibited from crossing the Pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city, into Rome proper.
  • Several scenes include philodendrons, plants of South America that were unknown in the Roman world.
  • When Rome declares war on Ptolemaic Egypt, Octavian (Roddy McDowall) is portrayed exiting the Curia and spearing Cleopatra's ambassador Sosigenes of Alexandria (Hume Cronyn). There is no historical basis for this depiction, or even Sosigenes being a prime functionary for Cleopatra's regime (he was an astronomer).
  • Much of the interior decor of Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria is anachronistic. Some items of furniture are exact copies of those found in the tomb of queen Hetepheres I (c. 2600 BC). Statues seen on Cleopatra's barge are copies of one found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (c. 1330 BC).[8]
  • Caesarion is depicted as being around the age of 10 when he leaves Egypt for his own safety. In reality, Caesarion was at least in his early teens after Cleopatra's death, and he also didn't leave Egypt, instead taking Cleopatra's place as King of Egypt.
  • Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene II and Ptolemy Philadelphus are all 'missing', and no mention is made to the Donations of Alexandria.


The music of Cleopatra was scored by Alex North. It was released several times, first as an original album, and later versions were extended. The most popular of these was the Deluxe Edition or 2001 Varèse Sarabande album.

Reception and impact

The film earned Elizabeth Taylor a Guinness World Record title, "Most costume changes in a film"; Taylor made 65 costume changes. This record was beaten in 1996 in the film Evita by Madonna with 85 costume changes.

Critics remain divided about the film; Rotten Tomatoes reports 48% of 27 critics reviewed it positively.[9] A New York Times review called it "one of the great epic films of our day,"[10] while Judith Crist dubbed it "a monumental mouse."[11] Newsweek stated: "At six hours, Cleopatra might have been a movie. But for now, it's a series of coming attractions for something that will never come."[10] A reviewer for Time said, "As drama and as cinema, Cleopatra is riddled with flaws. It lacks style both in image and in action."[9] American film critic Emanuel Levy said, "Much maligned for various reasons, [...] Cleopatra may be the most expensive movie ever made, but certainly not the worst, just a verbose, muddled affair that is not even entertaining as a star vehicle for Taylor and Burton."[9]

Even Elizabeth Taylor found it wanting. She had said, "They had cut out the heart, the essence, the motivations, the very core, and tacked on all those battle scenes. It should have been about three large people, but it lacked reality and passion. I found it vulgar."[12]

Positive reactions came from such publications as American entertainment-trade magazine Variety, who wrote, "Cleopatra is not only a supercolossal eye-filler (the unprecedented budget shows in the physical opulence throughout), but it is also a remarkably literate cinematic recreation of an historic epoch."[9] Billy Mowbray for the website of British digital channel Film4 remarked that the film is "A giant of a movie that is sometimes lumbering, but ever watchable thanks to its uninhibited ambition, size and glamour."[9]

Rex Harrison as Caesar was the only one of the three principal actors to receive unanimous good reviews for the film. Harrison was also the only one to receive an Oscar Nomination.

The film was shown as part of the Cannes Classics section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival,[13] to commemorate the film's 50th Anniversary.

References in other works

The French comic book Asterix and Cleopatra, published first in serial form the same year the film was released, parodies the film. In particular, the cover of the comic book mocks the film's massive casts and sets by claiming it is the "Greatest story ever drawn" and that "14 litres of India ink, 30 brushes, 62 soft pencils, 1 hard pencil, 27 rubbers, 1984 sheets of paper, 16 typewriter ribbons, 2 typewriters, 366 pints of beer went into its creation!" Cleopatra herself is drawn to look somewhat like Elizabeth Taylor.

The Italian comedy film Totò e Cleopatra ("Totò and Cleopatra", 1963), directed by Fernando Cerchio, is a parody of the original classic, featuring Italian comedy star Totò as Mark Antony and French actress Magali Noël as Cleopatra. Although a farce from beginning to end and completely deviating from both the plot of the original and historical events, the film does effectively satirize some of Cleopatra's elements, such as the lavish and costly production and the tormented nature of Antony and Cleopatra's relationship.

Awards and nominations

The film won four Academy Awards and was nominated for five more:[14][15]

1963 Academy Awards
1963 Golden Globes

See also


  1. ^ "CLEOPATRA (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. 1963-05-30. Retrieved 2013-05-21. 
  2. ^ a b Hall, Sheldon; Neale, Stephen (2010). Epics, spectacles, and blockbusters: a Hollywood history. Wayne State University Press. p. 166. ISBN 978-0-8143-3008-1. With top tickets set at an all-time high of $5.50,Cleopatra had amassed as much as $20 million in such guarantees from exhibitors even before its premiere. Fox claimed the film had cost in total $44 million, of which $31,115,000 represented the direct negative cost and the rest distribution, print and advertising expenses. (These figures excluded the more than $5 million spent on the production's abortive British shoot in 1960–61, prior to its relocation to Italy.) By 1966 worldwide rentals had reached $38,042,000 including $23.5 million from the United States. 
  3. ^ "Cleopatra (1963)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved March 27, 2013. 
  4. ^ John Patterson "Cleopatra, the film that killed off big-budget epics", The Guardian, 15 July 2013
  5. ^ Null, Christopher. Cleopatra Review
  6. ^ Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–2014. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
  7. ^ Cleopatra from Johnny Web
  8. ^ compare: File:Tutanhkamun tomb statue edit 1.jpg with File:1963 Cleopatra trailer screenshot (63).jpg
  9. ^ a b c d e "Cleopatra - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved January 13, 2012. 
  10. ^ a b Burns, Kevin; Zacky, Brent. "Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood." American Movie Classics. 3 April 2001. Television.
  11. ^ 1963: Movies as Art. Columbia Journalism School. [1]
  12. ^ Rice, E. Lacey. "Cleopatra (1963)". Turner Classic Movies. 
  13. ^ "Cannes Classics 2013 line-up unveiled". Screen Daily. Retrieved 2013-04-30. 
  14. ^ "The 36th Academy Awards (1964) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  15. ^ "NY Times: Cleopatra". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-25. 

External links