[box cover]

Cleopatra: Five Star Collection

Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1963 Cleopatra isn't a movie. It's a Super Bowl halftime show. Taken by itself, the film's just another bloated epic, albeit one of unprecedented scope. But after viewing the more than 10 hours of material available on Fox's gorgeous, three-disc Cleopatra set, one can't resist considering the film in light of its production history — a deeply, deeply troubled production history, one that almost wrecked Fox in the early '60s and absolutely wrecked a few people's lives. Yes, this four-hour movie has become famous for its infamy, not for its actual content, and that's the angle Fox seems to be taking in marketing and packaging this three-disc set. To which I write: Good! Budgeted at something like $200 million in today's dollars, the production was a tsunami of waste, conceit and bowel-shaking career genocide that washed a certain breed of epic filmmaking right out of Hollywood in the early '60s. From the near-revolt of its wigmakers to the stimulants that had to be given to Mankiewicz to keep him from collapsing to the petty arguments over who got to be on the billboard, the Making of Cleopatra is a killer tale — and it gets a killer treatment in the disc's extras. Still, let's spend a little time on the movie, shall we? It's a two-act story (and one that Mankiewicz originally wanted to release in two three-hour installments; here we have the four-hour cut that was released to a handful of American theaters). Act I: Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) and Caesar (Rex Harrison) fall in love. Cleopatra urges Caesar to focus on his career. Caesar goes bonkers. Caesar is killed. Act II: Cleopatra and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) fall in love. Cleopatra urges Marc Antony to focus on his career. Marc Antony goes bonkers. Suicides abound. The whole thing plays like Greek tragedy, with everyone's fatal flaws (ambition, hubris, a fatal weakness for haughty white women masquerading as Egyptian princesses) coming back to bite them on the derierre. But what's essentially wrong with Cleopatra probably boils down to the fact that the story and characters are all but swallowed up by (a) the sheer vastness of the gorgeous production design and (b) a script that tries so hard to be profound with every note sounded that it ends up playing as one-note opera. Still, that all-consuming production design is jaw-droppingly beautiful — and receives a pristine transfer on DVD, though you may find yourself squinting to catch all the details in the 2.35:1 widescreen. The costumes boast a lovely attention to detail that may never be topped. And Rex Harrison, Richard Burton and Roddy McDowall almost match the scope of the film, thanks to their utterly appropriate Heston-level gesticulations. Most of Cleopatra's extras are vacuum-packed onto a third disc — and they're abundant, informative, historically intriguing, and deeply, powerfully sad, for reasons explained (in excruciating detail) in the long review. Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), English 5.1, English Surround, French Surround, English, Spanish subtitles, commentary track featuring Joseph L. Mankiewicz's sons Tom and Chris, Martin Landau and "Cleopatra expert and former Fox executive" Jack Brodsky, the documentary Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood, six theatrical trailers, two Movietone Newsreels covering the East Coast and West Coast premieres, extensive still galleries, and the 1963 featurette: The Fourth Star of Cleopatra. Two-disc keep-case (third disc in booklet pocket).
—Alexandra DuPont

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