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In 1963, the film Cleopatra was released on a flood of hype, delays, cost overruns, tabloid stories, and enormously high expectations. It did not live up to those expectations, but what film could have? Almost forty years later, Fox’s DVD release of Cleopatra offers a golden opportunity to appreciate the film for what it is: a lavish and very entertaining spectacle.

Cleopatra: Five Star Collection
The ambitious story of Cleopatra combines two narratives that have traditionally been told separately: the story of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, and the story of Antony and Cleopatra, the latter immortalized by William Shakespeare. We see Cleopatra as a young princess, eager for power but hampered by the unstable political system in her country; as the powerful, keenly intelligent ruler and manipulator; and as the woman who never quite manages to find the man who can love her and yet also be strong enough stand by her side as an equal.

Cleopatra falls naturally into two narrative sections, which is unsurprising given that director Joseph Mankiewicz’s original vision was to produce two separate movies (Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra) before the demands of the Fox executives forced him to combine them into one epic. These two narrative sections give a natural break between the first and second halves of the movie, which is split between two discs in the DVD edition. Given that the film is over four hours long, even the most die-hard anti-disc-changing viewer will have to acknowledge that changing discs offers a welcome opportunity to get up and visit the bathroom.

The first half of the movie is clearly the stronger of the two, for several reasons. For one thing, the first half showcases the excellent performance of Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar, while the second half focuses on Richard Burton as Mark Antony; Burton provides a good performance as a rather unsympathetic Antony, but Harrison is stronger as Caesar. The earlier part of the movie also showcases a more original storyline than the second half. It’s true that the film draws on history and on previous literary and cinematic renditions of the Cleopatra story, but the first half of Cleopatra explores in detail the relationship between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra’s struggles to gain Rome’s support in the national power struggles of the time. It makes for an engaging and different look at the story. The second half of the movie is still entertaining, but it shifts into a more straightforward rendition of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, even down to the choice of scenes to display.

Cleopatra: Five Star Collection
The visual spectacle of Cleopatra is grand indeed, with lavish sets in both Rome and Egypt, lush costuming, hordes of extras (there was no such thing as computer-generated crowd scenes in 1963!), and undertakings on a grand scale, as with the scenes on Cleopatra’s gilded barge, or her triumphant entrance into Rome nestled in the paws of a sphinx. But it can’t be overlooked that the actors turn in generally strong performances amongst all this gold and glitter as well; in addition to the stars, the cast includes excellent actors such as Roddy McDowell as Octavian, Hume Cronyn as Sosigenes, and Martin Landau as Rufio.

All in all, Cleopatra succeeds at what it aims for: it’s an entertaining, epic feast for the senses, an assessment that’s reflected in the five Academy Awards that it won, out of ten nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Effects. It’s not perfect, as it doesn’t manage to sustain its originality and energy all the way to the end (for reasons that are abundantly clear once you watch the documentary feature), but it’s fun to watch.

Cleopatra was given a full restoration job for the DVD release, and it shows. The anamorphic 2.35:1 image is bright and clean, with minimal noise. There's a nice balance between realistic-looking skin tones and the bright, vibrant colors of the costumes.

Cleopatra’s audio track has been remastered into Dolby 5.1 for the DVD. Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout the film, and the musical soundtrack is handled well, though it does tend to get a bit on the loud side at times.

Cleopatra: Five Star Collection comes as a three-disc set: two discs to hold the movie, and another disc to hold the special features. One fault that I have with the packaging is that while Fox used a double-DVD case for Cleopatra, only two of the three DVDs are secured on spindles in the case. The "extras" DVD is enclosed in a paper packet and stuck inside the case. This is annoying, especially considering some reports that this packaging can result in scratches on the DVD. My copy was unscratched, but I did take the subsequent precaution of putting it in a spare DVD case separately. Come on, Fox, there was plenty of space in the DVD case for a third spindle, so why the annoying packaging of the third disc?

Cleopatra: Five Star Collection
The animated menus are artistic, but it does get a little tedious to maneuver through the menus with the animations always on.

The necessity for three discs becomes clear when you realize just how packed this set is. The star of the extras is a two-hour documentary feature (yes, two hours): “Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood.” This documentary is completely amazing with the depth of its behind-the-scenes information. Unlike many modern-day documentaries which feature a lot of self-congratulatory speeches from the various people involved with the film, Cleopatra’s documentary is absolutely unsparing in its revelations about what went on behind the scenes. There’s also a 1963 featurette, “The Fourth Star of Cleopatra,” which is interesting as a period piece, revealing the approach to promoting the movie at the time.

The other special features include archival footage from the New York and Hollywood premieres of the film; an audio commentary by Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, Martin Landau, and Jack Brodsky; and a still gallery with photos, costume sketches, and concept art. All in all, Cleopatra is loaded with good extras.