The European premiere

Missing a slam dunk

Cleopatra is not a terrible movie, but this failed Hollywood history is


This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The likes of Ishtar and Waterworld may have succeeded it in the public imagination as bywords for Hollywood excess, but for a certain generation 1963’s Cleopatra is the quintessential more-money-than-sense film. 

Throughout the 1950s, “sword and sandal” movies did huge business, from Quo Vadis (1951) to Ben-Hur (1959). An epic about the female pharaoh who purely as political tactic seduced first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony therefore seemed a slam dunk.

Taylor as Cleopatra

So much so that Elizabeth Taylor, in the role of the Queen of the Nile, became the first actor to receive a $1 million fee. As if that weren’t enough, she insisted for tax reasons that filming take place outside the USA. The terrible decision-making that afflicted the production started there, leaving aside the fact the script hadn’t been finalised when cameras first rolled in September 1960. Only when vapours rode the actors’ breaths did the drawbacks of recreating sultry Alexandria in the depths of Buckinghamshire fully dawn. 

By the following May, by which time production had switched to balmier locations, particularly Italy, the budget was exceeded with not a single foot of film shot. Eye-watering costs continued to mount until photography finally wrapped in March ’63, either through ineptitude (5,000 wigs were commissioned that were invisible beneath centurion helmets) or corruption (for scenes filmed in Almeria, $10,000 protection money had to be gifted to a police chief). 

The schedule overrun necessitated the recasting of actors with prior commitments, but Richard Burton’s belated engagement as Mark Antony probably saved the enterprise — even if it did not seem so at the time. 

It soon leaked out that he and Taylor were an item, much to the public distress and humiliation of their respective spouses and the disgust of the Vatican, which condemned this “erotic vagrancy”. The press preferred the term “le scandale”, which was plastered across front pages the world over. 

At one point, 20th Century Fox threatened to sue Taylor over the negative publicity, but in the end the studio realised the only chance it had of recouping its immense outlay was to exploit the affair’s notoriety. 

The Cleopatra shenanigans and Marlon Brando’s intolerable behaviour on the set of MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) marked the death knell of the “star system”, whereby a picture’s fortunes were staked on one player who, however unreliable, was too big to fire.

Cleopatra and the Undoing of Hollywood: How One Film Almost Sunk the Studios, Patrick Humphries (The History Press, £20)

This is indubitably enough material for a compelling book. Nobody, though, would know it from Patrick Humphries’s feeble exploration of the subject. 

The first time he tells us of the likes of the pop hits, technological limitations and social mores of the time, it seems like useful context. Long before we get to the three-page section in which he takes in Bergman and Rossellini, the rise of fascism, Edward and Mrs Simpson and the immolation of the Crystal Palace, we realise this is the padding of an author who, even though he only employs secondary sources, can’t be bothered seeking out sufficient directly relevant material. 

There are remarkably few anecdotes from the film set. Humphries barely mentions the extraordinary fact that, following the studio’s dismissal and ostentatious public condemnation of screenwriter-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Fox had to beg him to return when it glumly realised that only he knew how to piece together the mountains of footage.

Humphries is guilty of much contradiction and endless repetition. He tells us that Taylor’s exorbitant fee was only obtained because she was trying to put off the studio with impossible demands, only for him later to observe that Taylor’s canny insistence on the sum proves that she knew her pulling power. One loses count of the number of times Humphries declares that Burton entered into a Faustian pact whereby prestigious theatre achievement was exchanged for tawdry celluloid celebrity.

Humphries seems to have shuffled his chapters like a deck of cards, his lurching narrative exploring at length an actor’s career trajectory and even death in one passage, then jarringly swinging back to his activities during the Cleopatra shoot in the next. 

The book is also not what it professes to be: rather than being exclusively about the titular motion picture, it’s just as much focused on mid-20th century Hollywood — or perhaps Humphries’s vast knowledge thereof. Cleopatra is not a terrible movie, merely a mediocre one. Humphries’s denunciatory volume should at the very least have matched its failings. 

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