Cleopatra is probably the most intriguing female in human history. Her name is eponymous for female beauty and her life is famous both for romance and tragedy. Shakespeare immortalized her with his tragic play Anthony and Cleopatra and the search for the tomb of these lovers continues to this day amidst the sands of Egypt. Recently, I had the chance to learn all about her life and times in an episode of BBC In Our Time. As a complement, I ended up watching the movie Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor.
Roman general Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) arrives in Egypt in the midst of a tussle for the Egyptian throne between the brother Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). Using her considerable wit and beauty, Cleopatra wins the heart of Caesar and becomes the Queen of Egypt. Having had no child from his marriages, Caesar consummates the relationship and Cleopatra promises him a son who will rule the world. Caesar returns back to Rome and due to his many victories around the world the Roman Senate makes him dictator. He invites Cleopatra to Rome and she arrives in pomp with their son, named Caesarion. Afraid that Caesar might gain more power due to his popularity, some Senate members (including the infamous Brutus) stab Caesar to death. In the chaos, Cleopatra escapes back to Egypt helped by Caesar’s general Marc Anthony (Richard Burton).
After Caesar’s death, control of the Roman Empire is split between Anthony and Octavian. Anthony has been in love with Cleopatra for a long time, he finally expresses it and is reciprocated by her. Afraid of their combined power, Octavian tricks Anthony into marrying his sister Octavia. Unhappy with this, Anthony soon separates and returns back to Cleopatra. Octavian convinces the Roman Senate to declare war against Anthony. At the Battle of Actium, Anthony is tricked, defeated and flees with Cleopatra back to Alexandria (Egypt). Octavian pursues them, hoping to capture them alive and parade them in Rome. The lovers end their lives tragically in Cleopatra’s tomb, Anthony kills himself and Cleopatra has herself bitten by an asp.
Running a full four hours, this is the longest English movie I have watched till date! The length is somewhat justified by the detailed story which I found to be pretty faithful to the history I learnt from the In Our Time podcast. The story of Cleopatra is epic and full of love, hate, jealousy, war, greed and betrayal. The movie was the most expensive venture of its time and the expansive sets of Rome and Alexandria bear witness to that. I loved the fact that the movie is written like a play, especially the latter half with Anthony and Cleopatra. Elizabeth Taylor is at the top of her game playing a ravishing Cleopatra, with stunning costumes, she burns herself into the viewer’s eye as the image of Cleopatra. Rex Harrison and especially Richard Burton as a troubled, but loving Anthony have acted well. Cleopatra is a grand historic spectacle that is a must watch for every movie fan.