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Cleopatra came at the tail end of an era of ginormous historical epics and was such a massive financial fiasco that it almost crushed 20th Century Fox. The ridiculous production story now vastly out-weighs any memories of the actual film at this point, but it’s still interesting to revisit the big, beautiful mess of it all every once in a while. The original reviews are still mostly correct – Cleopatra is bloated and unfocused (it’s almost an abject lesson in how not to tell a historically based story) – but it’s also possibly the most beautifully adorned of any of them. It’s not only grand in scale and price – it’s positively baroque. Mankiewicz lacks the skill to direct an action sequence as great as DeMille, Wyler, or Lean (I even suspect that Mamoulian could’ve pulled off a stronger sense of momentum), but he squeezes every ounce of production value out of the famously expensive sets and locations. All of the pricy period pieces of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s tended to hold the audience at arm’s length with their grand visual ambitions, the same way special effects extravaganzas do these days. Cleopatra’s choppy production history (the script was re-written and re-shot on the fly) makes it an especially difficult film to develop any emotional attachment to. Mankiewicz’s strengths with pageantry do not necessarily extend to his direction of actors. The film assembles a vast collection of great performances, but few stick out as endlessly quotable and easy to impersonate as, say, Heston’s Ben Hur, Brynner’s Rameses II, or Douglas’ Spartacus. There’s definitely something iconic about Taylor’s presence here, but so much of the work is done for her by the glorious costume and make-up designs. Richard Burton has some very loud soliloquies, but Roddy McDowall pretty easily steals the show and isn’t on-screen with nearly enough regularity.

Cleopatra: 50th Anniversary Collection

Video


Fox has taken shortcuts lately with some of their Blu-ray releases. The most recent issue was with The Great Escape, which was advertised as being a 4K remaster, but clearly was not. Mankiewicz and cinematographers Leon Shamroy & Jack Hildyard shot Cleopatra using 70mm (65mm, minus the soundtrack) Todd AO film (a stipulation of Taylor’s contract, since she owned the rights to the process, following her third husband Mike Todd’s death), so it’s no huge surprise that the material was ripe for a brilliant restoration, but I was still skeptical until the opening titles set the stage for a very, very strong 1080p, 2.20:1 (not 2.35:1) Blu-ray transfer. The disc’s producers have obviously taken effort to clean up the original negative and delete imperfections, but there are very few signs of active DNR work. The grain is minimized a bit, but still very much a part of the equation and, along with occasional flecks of white print damage, proof that the people behind this transfer knew well enough to keep things looking filmic. Detail levels are crisp all the way back to the ends of the massive sets and locations with only nominal sharpening effects. The textures of skin, hair, fabric, and stone are downright tangible and the patterns are highly complex without vibrating moiré effects.

The colours are incredibly vivid and well-separated. There’s often a wide range of hues within a frame, but the clarity and consistency remain tight in thematic hues, like ‘Roman red’ and ‘Egyptian blue.’ Dynamic range is beyond the capabilities of standard definition, but the producers may have skewed the contrast levels a bit too high. Black levels are crushed enough to deplete some details and there are some highlight-related hot spots, especially on sweaty foreheads and shiny trinkets. The consistency is occasionally diminished by a few odd shots featuring noticeable uptakes in CRT noise effects, edge enhancement, a little frame wiggle (mostly during the credits), and/or colour aberration (specifically during dissolves), but, on the whole, this is an absolutely gorgeous transfer that should make fans and newcomers alike very happy.

Note: The overture, entr’acte, and exit music are presented over 1.78:1 images of curtains.

Cleopatra: 50th Anniversary Collection

Audio


Cleopatra was released in 6-track stereo in theaters that could display the 70mm format and 4-track or standard stereo otherwise, meaning that this remastered DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix was made working from a better than mono source. Like most ‘good’ 5.1 remixes, this one doesn’t go too far beyond the boundaries of the source material. The bulk of the sound sits in the center channel and the bulk of the effort has been put into cleaning that center channel up well enough to stand up against modern equivalents. The dialogue has some minor inconsistencies with volume levels and warmth (sometimes within a single scene), but is generally comparable to new movies in its clarity and natural roundness. Things get a little awkward when the sound designers try to press directional effects, especially when vocal performances are spread from the stereo channels towards center, but this doesn’t happen often enough to really worry about. Otherwise, the stereo and surround channels are actually very well used for minor immersive embellishments (during battle and crowd scenes in particular) and to support Alex North’s musical score (which is a lot jazzier than I remember). The music is incredibly rich-sounding and stretches well across the front channels. The LFE support is nice and thick where music is concerned as well. Don’t worry, purists, the disc’s producers have also included an original 4.0 track. The only catch is that it’s compressed and it shows in terms of volume levels.

Cleopatra: 50th Anniversary Collection

Extras


The extras begin with a group interview-style commentary track, featuring Joseph Mankiewicz’s sons Chris & Tom, actor Martin Landau, and ‘The Cleopatra Papers’ co-author Jack Brodsky. Because the film itself is less interesting than the complicated behind-the-scenes story, watching this pristine new print with the commentary playing might actually be the preferred way of viewing the film, though, I suppose you would miss out on North’s score. It was also available on the previous special edition and covers the movie over both discs. Up next on disc one is   Cleopatra Throughout the Ages: A Cultural History (7:50, HD) – a new, but all too brief look at the historical Cleopatra. It is hosted by historian/professor Stuart Tyson Smith, who discusses the truth hidden within the legends. Cleopatra’s Missing Footage (8:10, HD) covers the process of gathering the longest version of the film for home video release. Disc one wraps up with a Fox Movie Channel Presents legacy featurette hosted by Fox executive Tom Rothman (30:30, SD), which covers the film’s fiasco-level costs and compares them to Titanic. I suggest skipping it in favour of the second disc’s similar extras.

Cleopatra: 50th Anniversary Collection
The disc two extras begin with Cleopatra: The Film That Changed History (1:59:00, SD). This feature-length behind the scenes documentary, which was made for AMC and also accompanied the DVD special edition, covers the film from all sides, starting by contextualizing 20th Century Fox’s dire straights in the mid-‘50s and recalling the events leading up to Cleopatra’s inception. Then the film’s rocky production period is covered in great detail, from script and casting issues to production/costume design, Taylor’s health issues, her affair with Burton, and the ballooning budget (a much more complex issue than you might assume). Other goodies include Joan Collins’ screen test (dial it back, Joan…), costume tests, outtakes, archival newsreels, archival advertisements/product tie-ins, and a bevy of behind the scenes video. Interview subjects include actors Roddy McDowall, John Karlson, Martin Landau and Hume Cronyn, Darryl Zanuck biographer Mel Gussow, publicist Jack Brodsky, former Fox executives David Brown and Richard Zanuck, authors Joe Hyams and Kim Masters, film historian Brad Geagley, archivists Geofrey Sharpe and Richard Green, historian Richard Meryman, Walter Wanger’s daughter Stephanie Guest, and Mankiewicz’ (then) surviving family members Rosemary, Chris and Joe.

The extras end with The Fourth Star of Cleopatra (9:10, SD), an archival behind-the-scenes EPK, Fox Movietone News from the New York premiere (6:20, SD), and trailers.

Cleopatra: 50th Anniversary Collection

Overall


Cleopatra continues to be a theoretically fascinating film that is a chore to sit through due to its impossible length and jagged screenwriting. I’m sure that the people that know and love the film have an absolutely fantastic new 1080p transfer to look forward to, along with a strong DTS-HD MA 5.1 and original Dolby Digital 4.0 soundtrack options, and wonderfully informative special features, including a feature-length documentary and group commentary – both of which are actually more entertaining than the movie.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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