The legendary story of Cleopatra has captured the hearts and imaginations of both artists and the public many times over, from plays to paintings to motion pictures. There have been many good, some infamous (the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor film) and some that sucked. For my money, however, the best adaptation is still this one, directed by Hollywood’s favorite megalomaniac epic director, Cecil B. Demille. Yes, the same man who gave us epics like Samson & Delilah and The Ten Commandments. This is pre-Code Demille however, and is my favorite, since he literally pushed the boundaries with the films he made in the period, and this one is no exception. The story is simple enough: Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert), Queen Of Egypt, is loved and hated by everyone around her. She’s what would be called in the 30’s as a ‘liberated woman’, someone who has power and doesn’t mind sleeping around. The story details her two greatest love affairs, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony.
Now, let’s set this straight: there was a real Cleopatra, and she was the last of the Pharaohs. She also did love and have affairs with Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony. However, this is where history ends and the film takes itself into more literary influences, particularly the plays by William Shakespeare, like Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. The cast is pretty damn good. Claudette Colbert is beautiful and truly lust-worthy, and her costumes are pretty damn impressive. She might not look like the historical Cleopatra, but she sure makes an attractive one. Warren Williams (Julius Caesar) carries a lot of dignity to his role, while Henry Wilcoxon (Mark Anthony) is very intense and carries a lot of emotional baggage. The three are good enough to keep you interested, however. We get bit parts by character actors like Irving Pichet (Dracula’s Daughter) which makes it more interesting.
Of course, the cast goes right out the window when you compare the film with it’s production design and sheer scope. Demille was more than famous for going over-the-top and doing everything above any sane expectations, and this film is no exception. The temples and chambers for both the Egyptian and Roman scenes are huge, and of a grand scale. There are thousands of extras for almost every scene, from slaves to dancers and secondary characters. Two set-pieces in particular, however, shine above: first, when Cleopatra seduces Mark Anthony and the whole set changes and moves with a dance interpretation that implies the sexual implications that are going on, and the sequence where Cleopatra surrenders to the Roman Army, to the chagrin of Mark Anthony. The gates in that scene are the size of a building. It’s so satisfying looking at something that has no CG and it’s all there, even when it comes to the scenario. This film is a great epic drama done by one of the masters, carrying great performances and a hint of old-time sexuality that will surely satisfy classic film fans.