By Kristin Battestella
Spoiler alert, somebody's going to get stabbed in the back, once, twice, maybe thrice in this list of classic, epic, historical, and dramatic tales bringing Egypt and Rome together again to party like its 44 B.C. Toga! Toga!
Caesar and Cleopatra – Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh make an unlikely comedy team in this 1945 British adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play. Although some temple sets seem small scale cardboard now, the then expensive Technicolor headdresses, plumes, horses, sand, and centurions serve the ancient mood. Considering the wartime strapped production, this is a very fine looking film, and Steward Granger (Scaramouche) makes for a tan, dandy matinee idol, too. This is, however, a wordy picture – we don't see battles, just a lot of leftover standing around and talking in a slightly overlong two hours and change. Fortunately, the humorous arguing on which cousins are descended from gods and which mere mortals are descended from kings add forum self-awareness, a parody on the omnipresent chorus and chattering ladies who feel the need to put in their two cents – er, drachma. Raines (Casablanca) brings an immediate charm as a reflective, even doubtful Caesar more concerned with careful government than Cleopatra's me me me. The ridiculously delightful rug transit moments come after the witty conversations waxing on wrinkly old men, magic dreams, and rumors of Romans having tiger's blood. Caesar doesn't eat women – only girls and cats! And are those Roman sandal wedges he's wearing? Though not without some seriousness, the goofy cleverness of these two empire making titans is a pleasing change from the expected heavy to end all heavies. This Princess Cleo is learning how to rule and toughening up thanks to her mentor Caesar's tips. Yes, throw the obnoxious cry baby Ptolemy off that throne! Leigh's look is as gorgeous as ever, although it will be tough to separate our Gone with the Wind feelings since she still has a southern and shrill if fitting juvenile sound. Sadly, poor Flora Robson (The Sea Hawk) is basically in blackface with jokes about her Ftatateeta name alongside a stereotypical negro slave who is so scared of Caesar he runs away crying “Woe, alas!” Such racist and condescending humor is not a tone to enjoy, however such social layers make for an interesting study. This is Shaw's turn of the century commentary on ancient history remade in the shadow of World War II – Roman salutes recall then current Nazi threats while prophetic “Egypt for Egyptians!” crowds chant. The dated attitudes toe the line, but thankfully, the preposterous plot and not taking itself too seriously keep the fun scene chewing performances and star power bemusing.
Cleopatra – Am I the only one who thinks specifically of Elizabeth Taylor rolling out of the carpet when one mentions Cleopatra? Probably not thanks to this long 1963 Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) spectacle co-starring off screen steamy with Richard Burton, the then most expensive studio bankrupting budget of the time, an emergency tracheotomy, a record amount of Oscar worthy costumes – oh, and Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady), Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes), Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible), and more. Award winning cinematography, vivid outdoor scenery, colorful temple motifs, lavish set dressings, and a lovely score can't always save the restored, four hour windblown when the constantly changing script lags. This should be a straightforward story, a finale with which the audience is ever familiar – crossword clue: three letter word for “Cleo's snake.” But break out the superlatives, hyperbole, and pompous, for the second half here falls prey to the Burton School of Overactingtm. Liz and Dick talk a cat and mouse (guess who is who) game, turning history into tawdry, back and forth, “You hang up. No you hang up first!” semantics. Despite the asp in the basket, the messy battles and increasingly empty scenes don't know when to end. Granted, reshoots and editing are more at fault than the talent – dialogue and characters don't make sense if you think too hard and the distant Todd-AO widescreen lacks emotional up close shots. Everything that could go wrong on a picture did go wrong here, so it's amazing this is so watchable at all. Fortunately, McDowell is in slick control as Octavian and Harrison grounds the superior first leg as a respectable, surprisingly kind but epileptic Caesar. He's going to listen and listen good, because Miss C says so no matter how misogynistic Romans are. It's a serious but charming battle of wills, and a much more palatable chemistry where the empirical politics don't feel superfluous. Risque fabrics, Dame Elizabeth lying pretty – that entrance is indeed epic in representing these egos going head to head in love and war. It's at once fifties old school with tense history and mid century melodrama yet breaking new ground off camera in then changing cinema times. Are there inaccuracies here that will delight or aggravate historians and cinephiles alike? Hells yeah. Nonetheless, this entertaining megalith is great for a toga party marathon and spot the trachea scar drinking game.
Cleopatra – The slightly elusive bare bones DVD edition of this three hour 1999 ABC/Hallmark miniseries based on the Margaret George novel has no subtitles but lots of whispering low volume. Viewers can't expect much spectacle from a fifteen year old television production either, and the distant CGI landscapes, faux sphinx, small scale battles, and on the seas action are unnecessary distractions. Though, like other bibliophiles, I still mourn the Library of Alexandria, the nighttime scenery is too dark, and the slow starting pace remains uneven thanks to pointless dalliance and superfluous happenings. Ironically, this famous femme tale feels like a boy's club thanks to better male actors – even the lovable Irish centurion Daragh O'Malley (Sharpe) – and the unknown, pretty models look laughable in soap opera-esque costume party catfights. Whew! Fortunately, the opening scroll sets the scene for Egyptian exile, dynastic strife, and alliances with Rome alongside colorful statues, red capes, legion gear, familiar headdresses, and bustling temples. The slightly sheer robes and saucy sex romps are somewhat surprising for a Hallmark production, too – not to mention those Ptolemies intermarrying and all. Initially, Timothy Dalton (License to Kill) as Caesar is level headed and all business, educating Cleopatra in how to rule. His romantic scenes with Leonor Varela (Blade II) are awkward, however, their age gap and the historical culture clashing is also fitting. Maybe his feelings are genuine, but Rome will always come first for Caesar. Rather than responding shrewdly to her poor reception in Rome, this Cleo drops the baby scandal in public like a crazy clueless side chick. Sean Pertwee (Gotham) as Brutus gets his back stabbing moment halfway through, but Billy Zane's (Dead Calm) accent wavers once an unfortunately wimpy Marc Antony gets his Egyptian enchantment. The last hour looses steam by dropping much of Marc Antony in Egypt – including his children with Cleopatra – and dragging out the snake action finale too long. Told properly with more suave and trim finesse, this story could have been done in two hours and change. While not as epic or memorable as the 1963 telling, this update feels more palatable for today's audiences or condensed classroom showings. But where in the heck was Richard Armitage in this?
Empires: The Roman Empire in the First Century – Sigourney Weaver narrates this 2001 documentary overflowing with more than three hours of history detailing the final BC years of Caesar's love triangles, the Augustus establishment, and the unlikely Claudius before Caligula's madness, Nero's infamy, Vespasian's military might, and everyone in between. The two show legs are actually four episodes titled “Order from Chaos,” “Years of Trial,” “Winds of Change,” and “Years of Eruption” with further chapter breakdowns, maps, and onscreen notations wrangling the dense subject matter full of epic scandals and battlefield prowess versus political shrewd. The Italian locations, ruins, and frescoes make for a lovely video tour while today's scholars, historical sources, and Ovid poetry add a tangible anchor to the relatively quick, by Emperor chronological order peppered with a Roman who's who of Tiberius, Germanicus, Seneca, and Agrippina. The lack of sources on Roman women is discussed alongside at times emotional first hand accounts, social mobility, and the all importance of status in Rome. Turns out the struggles of the common people were not all that different from today, and the baths, feasting, frolicking, and chariot races shine thanks to ancient satire and gossips. The narrative touches upon Jesus, Christianity, Paul, and Josephus as well as strife from Egypt to Britannia changing Roman culture – and the ironic, so-called Roman Peace bought with warfare. Pompeii is a fitting place to conclude, however, the time lingers with a tacked on Domitian and too brief a discussion of slavery and freedmen in Rome before almost an afterthought on Trajan glory. Some saucy subject matter, naughty poetry, and erotic frescoes are addressed, and the Judeo-Christian themes are perhaps not for a secular classroom. Fortunately, the individual segments make it easy to skip any problematic moments for education viewings. From its rocky birth to the Colosseum, this is a pleasant and informative encapsulation of the Rome we know and love.
The Robe – Delightful color, scenic detail, and perfectly B.C. splendor with a score to match anchor this 1953 biblical drama based upon the popular Lloyd C. Douglas novel. Distant matte backdrops are occasionally apparent, and a final half hour of sword fights, dungeon rescues, and chariot pursuits feel like fast, shoehorned in action in a largely quiet, introspective, and timeless tale. However, the debut Cinemascope technique captures all the foreground and background movement within the frame, making coming and going or asides and internal angst a much nicer visual treat for the eye than today's at the screen, in your face effects. Perhaps now this two hour and thirteen minute ode has become somewhat second tier compared to later biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur, but the crucifixion scenes are excellent, a harrowing and stormy montage that remain powerful, perennial viewing. Yes, Richard Burton is sometimes stiff in his scenes with the classy and ever lovely Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls). He's overwrought at times, too – just a little – but Marcellus is the tribune being haunted by Christ's blood stained garment won in a bet beneath the Cross. If ever there was a time where some hysterical is okay, this would be it! Nevertheless, Burton is also surprisingly somber and subtle, making for some fine tender, reflective moments. The supporting ensemble is also reverent and wonderfully soft spoken, with convert catalyst Victor Mature (also of the sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators) on his own touching character arc. Of course, depending on the mood you're in, Jay Robinson (The Virgin Queen) as Caligula is either maniacally evil perfection or an annoying brat – but it is Caligula, what did you expect? Commentaries, Martin Scorsese analysis, Cinemascope conversations, Bible in Hollywood documentaries, and more lengthy behind the scenes features accent the Special Edition blu-ray release as well. There is a whiff of blacklist turmoil paralleling the tolerance onscreen, however such veiled statements are made without overtaking the picture. This well done story handles spiritual change with honestly rather than as something abstract or mystical, resulting in a seemingly simple but no less transformative picture brimming with redemption for spirited folk, church classrooms, and classic film fans of all ages.