April 4th, 2011



Elizabeth Taylor died, so I watched Cleopatra.

I had never seen it before, though not because of any opinion one way or another on Taylor, or even Richard Burton (who, as drunk Welshmen go, had the appropriate appreciation for literature), nor because I have anything against the big old Roman epics. It was just one of those things. I liked Taylor well enough in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and I liked both her and Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, though neither rate as favourite films. In comparison, Cleopatra is an intensely different film, one that I had to admit, I was so thoroughly entertained by, but which I can simply not tell if you if it is a good film or not. Messy, historically incorrect, with such moments of over acting, it probably isn't a good film: but as a relic from the past, one that is an artifact for such excess that it remains still one of the most expensive films ever made, I had such a good time with it.

At four hours long, Cleopatra is reported to have an original length of six hours, and it is easy to see that the film has been cut, that characterisation has been skipped and scenes pared back, and that, perhaps, within six hours, a truly good film would have existed--though, perhaps not. The best of the actors is Rex Harrison as Caesar, who occupies the centre of the first half of the film, and is its commanding presence. Taylor is, of course, beautiful, and is surrounding by such lavish and intricate sets that the fact that they're historically incorrect is very easily over looked. Her sixty five costumes and multiple hair pieces and moments spent naked in a bath tub are all, utterly, wonderful for their lavish excess, but there is no denying that within the film, that Cleopatra, no matter how much the film wishes to present her as a manipulator, a power within her own right, has cast her as an object, just as lavish and full of excess as everything surrounding her. Cleopatra is to be fought over, to be claimed, to be won: she is the prize for Caesar and, later, Marc Antony.

With such a limited role within the film, Taylor doesn't really do much as an actor. You remember her (and you surely do) because she is beautiful and because she is adorned in beautiful clothing and because she enters Rome on the back of what Marc Antony later calls, "A huge stone monstrosity."

Which, incidentally, is one of the film's best, most excessive scenes.

Burton, for all his charm of being a well read man who was married to Taylor twice, comes pretty close to chewing on the scenery in most of his scenes, if we're to be perfectly honest. The truth is, he is probably miscast in his role, as there were plenty of films and roles through his career that he was actually good in, but since he cannot be removed, you watch him in his scenes with Taylor to see the start of what would become a tempestuous love. And, also, he appears on the most beautifully crafted boats, barges that cost millions of dollars, and which look it, and which also have the odd side affect of making modern films look cheap.

It was strange, actually, but while I was watching Cleopatra, I was comparing the look of the film to modern films, and I was just struck by how... cheap and fake new ones looked, in comparison. The nearest I could figure to explain it was I guess, that even on film, the construction of real sets and costumes and real extras and ships come across with a stronger and more tangible sense than those that have been digitally inserted. It was a strange and, I admit, surprising experience to have while watching the film, especially the first half. Maybe people will agree with that, or maybe not, and I myself am not making a blanket statement about the production values of films now and then. I hate such statements, really, but there is no denying the sheer excess that existed Cleopatra.

Watching the film now, close to fifty years after it was made, is a bit like watching an artifact from a lost age. It's not a great film, but it's a great spectacle, an ode to excess and decadence in which the characters eventually lose everything, are deserted by their comrades, and kill themselves.

You could almost be talking about Hollywood.