The most spectacular love story of all just gets better with time

Hollywood Classics has re-released Joseph L. Mankiewicz's epic 1963 film, Cleopatra, to celebrate the movie's 50th anniversary. Prepare to indulge in four hours of unabashed pomp, incredible sets, show-stopping costumes and unbelievable on-screen chemistry.


The film tells the story of Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison), Cleopatra (Liz Taylor) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) as they fight for power, favour, love and the Roman Empire. In real life, the making of the film was a battle in itself. Taylor nearly died of pneumonia; they changed sets from the UK to Italy on account of awful weather, re-building everything from scratch. As a result of this and the 10,000 odd extras they'd have on set to play out battle scenes, or the recreation of armadas with battalions of actual ancient Roman ships, the budget was famously overblown at $44million (around $330million today) and the whole process has been described as a 'train wreck' with it taking years, despite box-office success, to regain some of the wealth spent on it. At the same time, this extravagance and refusal to compromise on craftsmanship is what makes it so special to watch now.


That, of course, and the other. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's private life captured the attention, and criticism, of the world when they fell in love during the filming of Cleopatra. Their adulterous affair was the stuff of scandal, with the Vatican newspaper publicly rebuking Taylor for her actions. Taylor was, at the time, married to singer Eddie Fisher, while Burton was also unfaithful to his wife, Sybil. Taylor and Burton became married in 1964, but then divorced a year later although they were briefly remarried in 1975. While off-screen, their relationship was tumultuous tabloid fodder, on screen the pairing of the ridiculously attractive couple was captivating, and worked well for the several films they starred in together.




Cleopatra was extremely well received at the box office and received nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture and lead actor for Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar, winning for its cinematography, special effects, art direction and costume design.


Watching the film in its re-released glory now also makes you appreciate just how alluring Liz Taylor was. Her passion, vulnerability and power combine to make the Egyptian queen mesmerising. The scene where Cleopatra urges Caesar to keep fighting for more power and Marc Antony watches her and then joins in, left me unable to decide if I was watching Antony see his vision for world dominance met by an equally unstoppable force, or watching Richard Burton actually fall in love with Liz Taylor. Taylor's Cleopatra is strong, influential and irresistibly feminine – and while the Romans warn Caesar that Cleopatra gets her own way through her womanly powers, you seem to also see Burton enraptured by Taylor.


In fact, who else but Elizabeth Taylor could pull off those decadent costumes or that most magnificent of entrances, where the crowds in Caesar's palace make way for rows of slaves pulling along a huge gilded Sphinx, at the very top of which sits a bold Cleopatra, being welcomed into Rome. No matter what the Vatican may have termed Taylor's 'erotic vagrancy', I can't watch the scene where Cleopatra demands of Caesar, 'Make me queen', without wishing I could be her, have her make-up artist or at least have a small portion of her gumption.


With its beautiful costumes, production design and monumental sets, this film is a joy to watch – what better way to spend a chunk of your weekend than reliving old-school Hollywood glamour and one of the most famous, yet doomed, romances of all time. Whether that's Antony and Cleopatra as they struggle to gain power in the Roman Empire, or Burton and Taylor as their legendary relationship grows on and off-screen; it's difficult to separate the two couples, and some might say that adds significantly to the film's appeal.



Words by Emily Gravenor.



Cleopatra 50th anniversary opens in cinemas for a limited time July 12th.

“Her passion, vulnerability and power make the Egyptian queen mesmerising.”

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