Once known as an expensive failure, Cleopatra can fairly be judged now without the glare of the scandalous love affair between its stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, getting in the way. Cleopatra is possibly the biggest epic that Hollywood ever attempted to produce, incredibly ambitious in its scope and complexity. Every aspect of the Oscar-winning film’s production is laid bare on the screen, from the enormous throngs of the Roman masses to the elaborate sea battles. A disjointed mixture of romance, history and warfare, Cleopatra is a choppy ride that would have been more coherent if broken up into two separate movies.
Elizabeth Taylor acts with a certain amount of class and guile in the titular role. The last queen of Egypt, Cleopatra is desperate to hold onto power as the mighty Roman Empire has problems of its own. Through a series of events, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) enters Alexandria and eventually ousts the reigning Pharaoh. Caesar has been on Cleopatra’s radar since his entry into Egypt and she immediately recognizes her future is tied to that of Caesar’s fortunes. She quickly seduces the Roman General, falling in love with the future dictator and gets named the queen of Egypt in the process. Cleopatra and Caesar have a son together, Caesarion, further cementing their relationship.
In one of history’s great betrayals, a cabal of Romans turn on Caesar, famously assassinating him. In steps Mark Antony (Richard Burton), one of Rome’s most beloved Generals and a trusted confidant of Julius Caesar, to restore order to the Roman Empire. To maintain the peace, the Roman Empire is split three ways, with Anthony the head of the Eastern territories and Octavian and Lepidus receiving the other portions.
At first frustrated with the Queen of Egypt for her obstinate ways, Antony soon falls madly in love with Cleopatra. The off-screen romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor was a hot topic in the media culture of its day, because both were married to other people when it began. Anthony’s rivalry with Octavian rises to a boil, as Anthony practically abandons Rome to remain in Alexandria with Cleopatra. A war is brewing and Cleopatra pushes Anthony into a conflict, manipulating his strategies from behind the scenes.
Cleopatra only works as Hollywood spectacle, though it drags in places and dialogue turns into little more than glorified speeches at times. The sprawling cast and unwieldy plot heavily relies on the interplay between Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Mark Antony. The glorious epic attempts to digest too many pivotal events in its purview, far too frequently using the incredible set design to replace elements of a coherent story. Strong chemistry between Taylor and Burton, and the spectacular set pieces, saves the film in the end.
The extravagant tale of Cleopatra was shot on 65mm film and Fox has given the film elements an extensive restoration for the included transfer. The visual results are certainly impressive, befitting the spectacle of large-format filmmaking from one of the most expensive productions in Hollywood history. Running over four hours in length, Cleopatra has been split over two BD-50s, with the Entr’acte appropriately placed at the beginning of the second disc. There is a reason this 1963 film won the Oscar for best cinematography and it still serves up an outstanding feast for the eyes.
The main feature has been encoded in AVC at excellent levels of compression, averaging 27.96 Mbps for the first half alone. More importantly, the transfer meticulously avoids the worst excesses of modern digital tools. The filmic presentation preserves the fine grain structure of the 65mm format while retaining a strong level of fine object detail. The saturated color palette highlights lavish costumes within Cleopatra’s wardrobe and her make-up. Properly framed at 2.20:1, the panoramic compositions showcase the brilliant stage and set design that are as breath-taking now as they were upon release.
Cleopatra has never looked so good since its premiere. The new transfer by Fox has done the expensive production the justice it so rightly deserves, producing a visual extravaganza which still holds up as eye candy. The film elements have a pristine appearance with few notable defects, unmarred by sharpening or filtering. The color-timing brings out a strong level of contrast and inky blacks, without straying too far from the vintage look of the raw film. The depth of field and consistent focus are extraordinary for its period, matched by few older films.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is a fine presentation of vintage audio. Alex North’s classic score is heard in proper fidelity and tonality. It is not a mix completely devoid of surround content, some elements can be heard coming from the large crowds and the score itself is nicely spread out on occasion. Dialogue is thin and tinny at times, though it is largely intelligible and clear. A lossy version in 4.0 Dolby Digital has also been included.
Fox has intended this Blu-ray to serve multiple territories,as it comes with a plethora of subtitles and dubbed soundtracks. Dub options include: French DTS 5.1 Surround, Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Spanish DTS 5.1 Surround, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. Subtitles include: English, English (SDH), Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Hebrew, Icelandic, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish. The subtitles are presented in a white font displayed inside the 2.20:1 framing of the movie.
A sprawling Hollywood epic deserves a massive set of special features and Fox has mostly delivered on this 50th Anniversary edition of Cleopatra. The engaging commentary is probably the highlight, though the feature-length documentary about the film is no slouch and well worth a look. Most importantly, the provided special features place the production in its proper historical context and the media circus around the film’s stars. Special features are spread out over both discs. The normal Blu-ray package includes a glossy slipcover, while a fancier digibook edition with the same content is also available.
Commentary featuring Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, Martin Landau and Jack Brodsky – Sons of Cleopatra’s director, Joseph Mankiewicz, offer up a wealth of insight and information about their father’s work. Martin Landau shares anecdotes about his experiences on the film while Jack Brodsky fills in the gaps left unsaid by the other three. The full-length commentary covers just about everything one would want to know about Cleopatra, including gossip and comments concerning Taylor’s personal foibles and romance with Burton. One of the better and more honest commentaries found on home video, this tag-team effort is easily worth a listen.
Cleopatra Through the Ages: A Cultural History (07:51 in 1080P) – Some factoids on the depiction of Cleopatra in prior eras.
Cleopatra’s Missing Footage (08:12 in 1080P) – A featurette discussing the possibility of deleted material that has gone missing, as collectors have horded it and Fox threw most of it away.
The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence – Reproductions of private letters during the filming of Cleopatra.
Fox Movie Channel Presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman (29:29 in 480i) – Former Fox president Tom Rothman covers the troubled production history of Cleopatra and its initial failure at the box office.
Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood (119:07 in 480i) – A lengthy documentary on Cleopatra’s production and its lasting impact on Hollywood. An excellent overview of the movie’s problems and background detail on its creation.
The Fourth Star of Cleopatra (09:06 in 480i) – A featurette that focuses on the lavish costumes and production design.
Fox Movietone News (06:19 in 480i) – Vintage newsreel footage of the New York and L.A. Premieres.
Trailers (10:03 in 480i) – Two trailers and a tease are included for Cleopatra.
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