If nothing else, CLEOPATRA ($27) is one of spectacularly beautiful film epics ever made. Of course, CLEOPATRA has every right to look as good as it does, since it was, at the time, the most expensive film ever made. In 1963, there was no such thing as digital effects, so CLEOPATRA was forced to recreate the ancient world the old fashioned way- on real full sized sets that were built in meticulous detail. Every dollar of the film's 42 million dollar cost is clearly up on the screen- from the incredible sets, to Cleopatra's golden barge, to the lavish costumes worn by the film's star Elizabeth Taylor, to the thousands of extras that also had to be dressed in elaborate costumes. Truly, CLEOPATRA is the kind of movie that no studio could afford to make today.
Over the years, CLEOPATRA has earned a reputation of being a less than great movie; perhaps this is due to the fact that the film took a critical drubbing at the time of its release. Admittedly, the film has some problems, but I am amongst those who have come to see CLEOPATRA as one of the truly great Hollywood epics. Every time I've watched CLEOPATRA, I've come away from the movie thoroughly entertained and totally appreciative of every extravagance that the film places before its audience. CLEOPATRA also features an incredible cast of moviedom legends with Elizabeth Taylor taking center stage as Cleopatra, Rex Harrison essaying the role of Julius Caesar and Richard Burton portraying Marc Antony.
Although CLEOPATRA runs over 4 hours, this movie is actually a condensed version of two separate 3 hour films, and it is possible that the 2 hours of excised footage may still exist somewhere in a 20th Century Fox film vault. After seeing CLEOPATRA more times than I care to admit, I can understand why the two films may have been pared down into one. The first half of CLEOPATRA tells the story of the Egyptian Queen's romance and marriage to Julius Caesar, and is upbeat and triumphant. However, the second half of CLEOPATRA seems anti-climatic in comparison, with its focus being the tragic love affair of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, which leads to both their downfalls. As two separate movies, the story of Caesar and Cleopatra works a lot better than that of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, so the second film may have been deemed too downbeat by the studio to drawn large crowds into a movie theater. But then again, at the time, the Liz and Dick romance was hot tabloid fodder, so the studio probably wanted to capitalize on the free publicity that their affair was generating. In addition to the three leads, the cast of CLEOPATRA also features Hume Cronyn, Cesare Danova, Martin Landau and Roddy McDowall.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has done a truly magnificent job with their DVD release of CLEOPATRA. Framed at close to the Todd-AO aspect ratio 2.20:1, the wide screen presentation feature the anamorphic enhancement for playback on 16:9 displays. The transfer is an absolutely exquisite rendering of Leon Shamroy's breathtaking cinematography. Almost every shot in the movie is sharp, glossy and beautifully defined. This transfer truly shows off the majestic sets and superbly beautiful costumes in all their glory. Colors virtually leap off the screen, which makes me wonder if the original DeLuxe theatrical prints of CLEOPATRA looked as good as this presentation. While the flesh tones are wonderfully appealing, it is the crimson reds, golds, purples and blues that impressed me the most during the presentation. All of these vibrant hues are completely stable and are rendered without a trace of chroma noise of smearing. Blacks are flawless and the image boasts very good shadow detail and excellent depth. The film element used for the transfer is in excellent shape, with only minor flaws being visible. CLEOPATRA is spread across two dual layered DVDs, with the intermission being the logical break between the two discs.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack is a very good remix of an older film into the new format. Alex North's regal score is the highlight of the track, with the 40-year-old recordings providing very good fidelity. The score has a very good stereo image in the front and the music effectively fills into the rear channels. For the most part, directional sound effects emanate from and pan across the forward soundstage. However, I did detect a little bit of split surround activity. Dialogue reproduction is crisp and clean, although the age of the recordings sometimes made the actors voices sound a bit thin. The track has a decent bottom end that enhances music and effects, but the bass really can't be compared to what one finds on a modern soundtrack. Overall, this is an excellent translation of an older multi-channel film soundtrack. English and French Dolby Surround soundtracks are also encoded onto the DVD, as are English, Spanish and French subtitles.
Full motion video, animation and sound enhance the nicely designed interactive menus. Through the menus, one has access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as a running audio commentary with the director’s sons Chris Mankiewicz and Tom Mankiewicz, plus Martin Landau and film historian Jack Brodsky. While the commentary does provide a lot of insight and detail on the production, casual listeners may have difficulty sitting still for another four hours to hear it all. All of the other supplements are contained on a third DVD, which was not included with my screener. Since I don't have them available to comment on, all I can do is list out the additional supplements: a two-hour behind-the-scenes documentary: Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood, a 1964 "making of" featurette: The Fourth Star of Cleopatra, plus Fox Movie Tone News footage from the Hollywood and New York premieres. Six trailers and an extensive still collection fill out the supplements.
I am quite taken with CLEOPATRA because it is an entertaining and lavish screen epic. The DVD presentation is absolutely glorious and even without the third disc of supplements; I have to recommend this disc to movie buffs everywhere.
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