Sibling rivalry stirs tensions among world powers in 48 B.C. After defeating Pompey, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) follows the fallen foe to Egypt where the Roman conqueror discovers a battle brewing between the sibling rulers of the country. Ptolemy (Richard O’Sullivan) has ousted his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) and assumed sole possession of the throne.
But when Caesar meets the disposed Cleopatra he is inclined to take her side and eventually helps her rid the kingdom of her younger brother. Charmed by her beauty and her unquenchable thirst for power, Caesar decides to stay on in Egypt rather than return to his wife in Rome. In the meantime, Cleopatra is crowned Queen of Egypt and gives birth to Caesar’s son. She names him Caesarion with the hope he will one day rule the Roman Empire.
When Caesar finally returns to Italy, his insatiable hunger for supremacy puts him at odds with the Senate and leads to some nasty political backstabbing. Caesar’s cohort, Marc Antony (Richard Burton), is equally taken with Cleopatra when she makes a spectacular entrance into Rome with her son. After Caesar’s demise, Antony becomes the object of desire for the Egyptian royal and so forms another power couple.
At 192 minutes, this epic, Oscar winning tale of intrigue and power-mongering could easily have been two films—one focusing on Cleopatra’s adulterous relationship with Caesar and the other following her romance with Antony—since the male characters often seem to be the center of focus rather than the title character. Instead, this lengthy and often lumbering story gives a Hollywood summation of this well known figure’s affairs of the heart and a substantial unveiling of Taylor’s figure (which is only partially concealed at times with the scantiest of coverings).
While the jury is out on the historical accuracy of the movie, Cleopatra showcases filmmaking in the days of huge productions and massive casts. One of the costliest films ever made, Cleopatra nearly ruined 20th Century Fox when its original budget of $2 million swelled to $44 million—an amount equal to over $300 million in today’s dollars (50 years later).
And unfortunately, while the film went on to become the top-grossing film of 1963, it never gained the critical acclaim the studio anticipated. That may be due in part to the dialogue, which is often overwrought and delivered with unconvincing ceremony. And despite Taylor and Burton’s off-screen love affair, their characters lack the emotional tension and chemistry we expect between lovers. The movie seems more concerned with spectacle than substance and it’s hard to justify what drives these men to sacrifice career, reputation and even life to win Cleopatra’s affections.