Cinema: Just One of Those Things

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Cleopatra. In scarlet letters volted with excitement the notorious name hung throbbing and enormous in the night sky over Broadway. Beneath it 10,000 rubberneckers milled on the macadam and roared at the famous faces in the glare. One by one, smiles popping like flashbulbs, they disappeared in the direction of the screen. What did it hold for them? Surely no Shavian conversation piece could conceivably have cost all that money. Surely no noble Shakespearean poem could possibly be recited by Elizabeth Taylor. No, Cleopatra was bound to be one of those colossal Things that periodically come charging out of the acetate jungle and gobble up millions of dollars. It was bound to be a superspectacle. But as such might it not prove as memorable as Gone With the Wind? Or, at a minimum, as competent as Ben-Hurl Might it not tell a grand tale in the grand manner and illuminate old legend with new art?

Such was clearly the intention of Director Joseph Mankiewicz. Story, he insisted, must dominate spectacle, and with that in mind he constructed not one drama but two—both broadly true to Plutarch, each about two hours long.

The first, which tells the story of Caesar and Cleopatra, begins with the battle of Pharsalia, which breaks the power of the republic and makes Caesar (Rex Harrison) master of the Roman world. Having ordered his affairs in Europe, Caesar marches into Egypt, where civil war is raging between King Ptolemy and his seductive sister, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). "Overcome by the charm of her society," as Plutarch discreetly puts it, Caesar gives Egypt to the fascinating bitch and seems inclined to crown her the first empress of Rome. But the Ides of March intervene, and Cleopatra sadly says goodbye to all that.

The second, which tells the story of Antony and Cleopatra, begins with the battle of Philippi, which once more breaks the power of the republic and this time makes a triumvirate (Antony, Octavian, Lepidus) master of the Roman world. Antony (Richard Burton) is allotted the East, and Cleopatra's reveries of empire revive. She amorously regales him on her gilded barge, and the charms that captivated a cerebral Caesar enslave the sensual Antony the old war dog degenerates into a lap dog.

A few years later, when Cleopatra flees the battle of Actium, Antony runs after her. He abandons his legions, abandons his empire at a woman's whim. Back in Egypt, he falls on his sword as Octavian (Roddy McDowall) approaches, and Cleopatra receives from an indifferent asp the famous kiss of death.

Physically, Cleopatra is as magnificent as money and the tremendous Todd-AO screen can make it. The De Luxe Color is perfection; the sets, for the most part, are harmonious modules of the Golden Section to which all good classical architecture answered; and a capital ship for an ocean trip is Cleopatra's barge—250 ft. from prow to poop and covered with gilt linoleum.

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