Cleopatra (1963 film)

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Cleopatra poster.jpg
Original theatrical release poster
Directed byJoseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay by
Based onThe Life and Times of Cleopatra
by C. M. Franzero
by Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian
Produced byWalter Wanger
CinematographyLeon Shamroy
Edited byDorothy Spencer
Music byAlex North
Distributed byTwentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Release date
  • June 12, 1963 (1963-06-12) (United States)
Running time
251 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States[2]
Budget$31.1 million[3]
Box office$57.8 million (US and Canada)
$40.3 million (worldwide theatrical rental)

Cleopatra is a 1963 American epic historical drama film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, with a screenplay adapted by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman from the 1957 book The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero, and from histories by Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian. It stars Elizabeth Taylor in the eponymous role. Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, and Martin Landau are featured in supporting roles. It chronicles the struggles of Cleopatra, the young Queen of Egypt, to resist the imperial ambitions of Rome.

The film achieved notoriety during its production for its enormous 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 co-stars Taylor and Burton. It was the most expensive film ever made up to that point and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox.

Cleopatra was the highest-grossing film of 1963, earning box-office of $57.7 million in the United States and Canada, and one of the highest-grossing films of the decade at a worldwide level. However, it initially lost money due to its production and marketing costs of $44 million. It received nine nominations at the 36th Academy Awards, including for Best Picture, and won four: Best Art Direction (Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Visual Effects and Best Costume Design (Color).


After the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) goes to Egypt, under the pretext of being named the executor of the will of the father of the young Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O'Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor).

Cleopatra convinces Caesar to restore her throne from her younger brother. Caesar, in effective control of the kingdom, sentences Pothinus (Grégoire Aslan) to death for arranging an assassination attempt on Cleopatra, and banishes Ptolemy to the eastern desert, where he and his outnumbered army would face certain death against Mithridates. Cleopatra is crowned Queen of Egypt, and begins to develop megalomaniacal dreams of ruling the world with Caesar, who in turn desires to become King of Rome. They marry, and 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, a group of conspirators assassinate Caesar and flee the city, starting a rebellion. An alliance between Octavian, Caesar's adopted son, Mark Antony (Richard Burton), Caesar's right-hand man and general, and Marcus Ameilius Lepidus put down the rebellion and split up the republic between themselves. Cleopatra is angered after Caesar's will recognizes Octavian instead of Caesarion as his official heir, and she returns to Egypt.

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 on her royal barge in Tarsus. The two begin a love affair, with Cleopatra assuring Antony that he is much more than a pale reflection of Caesar. Octavian's removal of Lepidus forces Antony to return to Rome, where he marries Octavian's sister, Octavia, to prevent political conflict. This upsets and enrages Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra reconcile and marry, with Antony divorcing Octavia. Octavian, incensed, reads Antony's will to the Roman senate, revealing that the latter wishes to be buried in Egypt. Rome turns against Antony, and Octavian's call for war against Egypt receives a rapturous response. 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 lead ships of the Antony-Egyptian fleet. Cleopatra assumes Antony is dead and orders the Egyptian forces home. Antony follows her, leaving the rest of his fleet leaderless and soon defeated.

Several months later, Cleopatra manages to convince Antony to resume command of his troops and fight Octavian's advancing army. However, Antony's soldiers 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, tells him that she is dead, whereupon Antony falls on his own sword. Apollodorus then confesses that he misled Antony and assists him to the tomb where Cleopatra and two servants have taken refuge. Antony dies in Cleopatra's arms.

Octavian and his army march into Alexandria with Caesarion's dead body in a wagon. He discovers the dead body of Apollodorus, who had poisoned himself. Octavian receives word that Antony is dead and Cleopatra is holed up in a tomb. There he offers her his word that he will allow her to rule Egypt as a Roman province in return for her agreeing to accompany him to Rome. Cleopatra knows her son is dead and agrees to Octavian's terms, including an empty pledge on the life of her son not to harm herself. After Octavian departs, she orders her servants in coded language to assist with her suicide. 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 servants, and the asp that killed her.


Taylor as Cleopatra


Costume worn by Richard Burton in the film, displayed at the Cinecittà studios in Rome, Italy
Headdress worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the film

The story of Cleopatra had proved a hit in 1917 for silent-screen legend Theda Bara. Paramount's 1934 production, using different source material and starring Claudette Colbert, was a huge success. In 1958, 20th Century Fox executives hired veteran Hollywood producer Walter Wanger to shepherd another film about Cleopatra into production. Although the studio originally sought a relatively cheap production of $2 million, Wanger envisioned a much more opulent epic, and in mid-1959 successfully negotiated a higher budget of $5 million. Rouben Mamoulian was assigned to direct and Elizabeth Taylor was awarded a record-setting contract of $1 million. Filming began in England, but in January 1961 Taylor became so ill that production was shut down. Sixteen weeks of production and costs of $7 million had produced just ten minutes of film. Fox was reimbursed by the insurance company and Mamoulian was fired.[4]

To replace Mamoulian, Elizabeth Taylor granted she would approve one of two directors she had worked with: George StevensA Place in the Sun – or Joseph L. Mankiewicz – Suddenly Last Summer. Stevens was tangled up in pre-production for his epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, so Mankiewicz was courted to take over. By hiring Mankiewicz, the producers got two birds with one contract: Mankiewicz would direct and write the screenplay. However, to attract Mankiewicz to a project that he was not enthusiastic about cost Twentieth Century Fox a major expense: the studio agreed to take Mankiewicz's independent production company off his hands for $3 million.[5] The production moved to the more appropriate climes of Cinecittà, outside of Rome. Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd left the production owing to other commitments and were replaced by Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, as Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony respectively. During filming, Taylor met Burton and the two began an adulterous affair; the scandal made headlines worldwide, since both were married to others, and brought bad publicity to the already troubled production. Mankiewicz was later fired during the editing phase, only to be rehired to reshoot the opening battle scenes in Spain.[4]

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.[6] Mankiewicz unsuccessfully attempted to convince the studio to split the film in two in order to preserve the original cut. These would have been released separately, as Caesar and Cleopatra followed by Antony and Cleopatra.[4]

Cleopatra ended up costing $31 million, not including distribution costs making it the most expensive film ever made, at the time.[3] It almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox.[7] Fox shut down a number of other productions to pour money assigned to them into Cleopatra, including the Marilyn Monroe film Something's Got to Give. In his book Marilyn: A Biography, Norman Mailer puts some of the blame for Monroe's suicide on the studio's halting production on her movie.[8] In a bid for cash, the studio sold a 180-acre backlot to developers, resulting in the creation of Century City.[9]


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.


Critical response[edit]

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "one of the great epic films of our day", crediting Mankiewicz for "his fabrication of characters of colorfulness and depth, who stand forth as thinking, throbbing people against a background of splendid spectacle, that gives vitality to this picture and is the key to its success."[10] Vincent Canby, reviewing for Variety, 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."[11] For the Los Angeles Times, Philip K. Scheuer felt Cleopatra was "a surpassingly beautiful film and a drama that need not hide its literate, intelligent face because it happens to have been written, not by Shakespeare or Shaw, but by three fellows named Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also directed it, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman. These are, at any rate, the names on the screen credits, and they have done their job with integrity."[12]

Time magazine harshly wrote, "As drama and as cinema, Cleopatra is riddled with flaws. It lacks style both in image and in action. Never for an instant does it whirl along on wings of epic elan; generally it just bumps from scene to ponderous scene on the square wheels of exposition."[13] James Powers of The Hollywood Reporter wrote "Cleopatra is not a great movie. But it is primarily a vast, popular entertainment that sidesteps total greatness for broader appeal. This is not an adverse criticism, but a notation of achievement."[14] Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune summarized Cleopatra as a "huge and disappointing film". Of the cast, she lauded "Rex Harrison's brilliantly quizzical Caesar, the best written role in Joseph Mankiewicz's erratic script, and haunted by Richard Burton's tragic Marc Antony, an actor's triumph over a writer's mediocrity. And with a prodigal gesture of futility, all of it is focused on Elizabeth Taylor, hopelessly out of her depth as a fishwife Cleopatra."[15]

Penelope Houston, reviewing for Sight & Sound, acknowledged that Mankiewicz tried "to make this a film about people and their emotions rather than a series of sideshows. But for this ambition to hold up, over the film's great footage, he needed a visual style which would be more than merely illustrative, dialogue really worth speaking, and actors altogether more persuasive. As the sets seem to grow bigger and bigger, so progressively the actors dwindle."[16] Judith Crist, in her review for the New York Herald Tribune, concurred: "So grand and grandiose are the sets that the characters are dwarfed, and so wide is his screen that this concentration on character results in a strangely static epic in which the overblown close-ups are interrupted at best by a pageant or dance, more often by unexciting bits and pieces of exits, entrances, marches or battles."[17] Even Elizabeth Taylor found it wanting, saying, "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."[18]

Retrospective reviews have been more forgiving towards it. 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."[19] Billy Mowbray for the website of British television 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."[20] Rotten Tomatoes assessed 39 reviews and determined 62% of them to be positive. The website's consensus reads: "Cleopatra is a lush, ostentatious, endlessly eye-popping epic that sags collapses from a (and how could it not?) four-hour runtime."[19]

Box office[edit]

At an audience level the film was a major hit, grossing $57.8 million in the United States and Canada,[21] and in the process became the most successful film of 1963.[7] The film was also a major hit in Italy, where it sold 10.9 million tickets.[22] It sold a further 5.4 million tickets in France and Germany,[22] and 32.9 million tickets in the Soviet Union when it released there in 1978.[23] Fox's income of $40.3 million earned from its share of the global ticket sales made it one of the highest-grossing films of the decade, but it was not enough to cover the film's $44 million costs. Fox eventually recouped its investment in 1966 when it sold the television broadcast rights to ABC for $5 million,[24] a then-record amount paid for a single film.[25]

Awards and nominations[edit]

The film won four Academy Awards and was nominated for five more.[26][27] It also earned Elizabeth Taylor a Guinness World Record title, "Most costume changes in a film"; Taylor made 65 costume changes. This record was beaten in 1968 in the film Star! by Julie Andrews with 125 costume changes.

Due to a clerical error, Roddy McDowall was misnominated by 20th Century-Fox as Best Actor as compared to Best Supporting Actor for the Academy Award; the nomination was declared ineligible, and was unable to be corrected to supporting Actor in time for the award ceremony.

Award Category Nominee Result
1963 National Board of Review Awards Best Actor Rex Harrison Won
1964 Eddie Awards Best Edited Feature Film Dorothy Spencer Nominated
1964 Golden Globes Best Motion Picture – Drama Cleopatra Nominated
Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama Rex Harrison Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Roddy McDowall Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture Joseph L. Mankiewicz Nominated
1964 Laurel Awards Top Roadshow Cleopatra Won
Top Male Dramatic Performance Rex Harrison Nominated
1964 Academy Awards Best Picture Walter Wanger Nominated
Best Actor in a Leading Role Rex Harrison Nominated
Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Color Art Direction: John DeCuir, Jack Martin Smith, Hilyard M. Brown, Herman A. Blumenthal, Elven Webb, Maurice Pelling, and Boris Juraga; Set Decoration: Walter M. Scott, Paul S. Fox, and Ray Moyer Won
Best Cinematography, Color Leon Shamroy Won
Best Costume Design, Color Irene Sharaff, Vittorio Nino Novarese, and Renié Won
Best Film Editing Dorothy Spencer Nominated
Best Music Score – Substantially Original Alex North Nominated
Best Sound James Corcoran (Twentieth Century Fox Sound Department) and Fred Hynes (Todd-AO Sound Department) Nominated
Best Special Effects Emil Kosa Jr. Won
1964 Grammy Awards Background Score from a Motion Picture or Television Alex North Nominated
2014 Golden Trailer Awards Most Innovative Advertising for a Brand/Product Cleopatra / Bulgari Nominated

50th anniversary restored version[edit]

Schawn Belston, serving as senior vice president of library and technical services for 20th Century Fox, was put in charge of creating a restored version of the film for the company. After a two-year process in 2013 he was able to restore a four-hour, eight-minute version. One of Belston's finds for this version was the original camera negative which was shot on 65mm. (Any longer version, which has yet to be found, would have existed only to show then–studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck.) Fading and damage to the negative were corrected digitally with an eye on preserving detail and authenticity while avoiding digital manipulation.[28] Belston's team also had the original magnetic print masters which they used to restore the sound. They removed the clicks and hisses, then with the aid of the trained ears of musicians reconfigured the track for 5.1 surround sound.[28]

On May 21, 2013, the restored film was shown at a special screening at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, to commemorate its 50th anniversary.[29] It was later released as a 50th-anniversary version available on DVD and Blu-ray. Unfortunately Fox had long ago destroyed all of the trims and outs from negatives to save costs, preventing the release of traditional outtakes. The home media packages did include commentary tracks and two short films: The Cleopatra Papers and a 1963 film about the elaborate sets, The Fourth Star of Cleopatra.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cleopatra". British Board of Film Classification. Archived from the original on April 15, 2021. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
  2. ^ "Catalog of Feature Films: Cleopatra". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on 2015-09-16. Retrieved 2016-03-20.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ a b c Gachman, Dina (2010). "Cleopatra". In Block, Alex Ben; Wilson, Lucy Autrey (eds.). George Lucas's Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success. HarperCollins. pp. 460–461. ISBN 978-0061778896.
  5. ^ Vanity Fair: Tales of Hollywood, David Kamp
  6. ^ Cleopatra from Johnny Web
  7. ^ a b John Patterson "Cleopatra, the film that killed off big-budget epics" Archived 2020-12-17 at the Wayback Machine, The Guardian, 15 July 2013
  8. ^ Mailer, Norman (1973). Marilyn: A Biography. New York: Grossett & Dunlap. ISBN 978-0-448-01029-8.
  9. ^ Blum, Gary (September 26, 2013). "Why Century City Ranks Among the Worst Real Estate Deals in Hollywood History". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on June 30, 2020. Retrieved June 29, 2020.
  10. ^ Crowther, Bosley (June 13, 1963). "The Screen: 'Cleopatra' Has Premiere at Rivoli". The New York Times. p. 29. Retrieved June 6, 2021.
  11. ^ Canby, Vincent (June 19, 1963). "Film Reviews: Cleopatra". Variety. Retrieved June 6, 2021.
  12. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (June 19, 1963). "'Cleopatra' Magnificent, Liz 'Positive Revelation'". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 8. Retrieved June 6, 2021 – via open access
  13. ^ "Cinema: Just One of Those Things". Time. June 21, 1963. Retrieved June 6, 2021.
  14. ^ Powers, James (December 7, 2014) [June 13, 1963]. "'Cleopatra' is Colossal Box Office Attraction — Wanger-Mankiewicz Production Vast Popular Entertainment; Performances Outstanding; Elizabeth Taylor Tops". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved June 6, 2021.
  15. ^ Cassidy, Claudia (June 27, 1963). "On the Aisle". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 5. Retrieved June 6, 2021 – via open access
  16. ^ Houston, Penelope (Autumn 1963). "Cleopatra". Sight & Sound. Vol. 32 no. 4. p. 198. Retrieved June 6, 2021 – via Internet Archive.
  17. ^ Crist, Judith (June 13, 1963). "Cleopatra: A Monumental Mouse". The New York Herald Tribune. Archived from the original on 2013-12-03. Retrieved 2014-11-25 – via Columbia Journalism School.
  18. ^ Rice, E. Lacey. "Cleopatra (1963)". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on 2016-04-28. Retrieved 2014-04-13.
  19. ^ a b "Cleopatra (1963)". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on September 25, 2020. Retrieved December 14, 2012.
  20. ^ Mowbray, Billy. "Cleopatra". Channel 4. Archived from the original on January 3, 2004. Retrieved June 6, 2021.
  21. ^ "Cleopatra (1963)". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on November 5, 2018. Retrieved March 27, 2013.
  22. ^ a b "Cleopatra (1963)". JP's Box-Office. Archived from the original on 29 August 2019. Retrieved 29 August 2019.
  23. ^ ""Клеопатра" (Cleopatra, 1963)". KinoPoisk (in Russian). Archived from the original on 28 April 2015. Retrieved 29 August 2019.
  24. ^ Block, Alex Ben; Wilson, Lucy Autrey, eds. (2010). George Lucas's Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success. HarperCollins. pp. 434 & 461. ISBN 978-0061778896.
  25. ^ "TV 'Cleo' Price: $5-Mil". Variety. September 28, 1966. p. 3.
  26. ^ "The 36th Academy Awards (1964) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on 2017-11-02. Retrieved 2011-08-23.
  27. ^ "Cleopatra (1963)". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Baseline & All Movie Guide. 2012. Archived from the original on 2012-02-19. Retrieved 2016-03-20.
  28. ^ a b c Atkinson, Nathalie (May 21, 2013). "Queen of the Nile: Inside 20th Century Fox's restoration of Cleopatra". National Post. Toronto. Archived from the original on May 20, 2021. Retrieved June 22, 2020.
  29. ^ Rosser, Michael; Wiseman, Andreas (29 April 2013). "Cannes Classics 2013 line-up unveiled". Screen Daily. Archived from the original on 2020-10-07. Retrieved 2016-03-20.

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