Cleopatra Movie Review

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Star in Intimate Epic

Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall and Richard Burton light up the screen while leading an A-list cast in the 1963 Fox Studios classic Cleopatra.


Set amid the turbulent final years of the Roman Republic, Cleopatra is at once both sweeping and intimate. The film opens in the immediate aftermath of Caesar’s defeat of Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus. Caesar, played by a wry and cynical Rex Harrison, pursues Pompey to Egypt where he becomes embroiled in a power struggle between Cleopatra and her brother King Ptolemy XIII. Caesar meets with Ptolemy who presents him with a gift, the head of Pompey in a jar of oil. Caesar is reviled at the manner in which the Egyptians treated what was once his closest friend and sides with Queen Cleopatra against her brother.

After fending off an attack by Ptolemy’s forces, and having him banished from Egypt, as well as having several of his councillors killed, Caesar becomes romantically involved with Cleopatra, who eventually bears him a son, Caesarion. However, Caesar returns to Rome to find that his enemies have been agitating against him while he was in Egypt. Upon the arrival of Cleopatra and Caesarion in Rome, they begin to fear that he will attempt to set up Caesarion as the king of Rome. As a result, Brutus and Cicero, among others arrange to have Julius Caesar murdered.

Fearing for her life, knowing that she is the reason Caesar was assassinated Cleopatra resolves to return to Egypt where she and her son will be safe. In the meantime, the Roman Empire has once again been plunged into chaos as Marc Antony, played by Richard Burton, has spent the last several years searching the Empire for Caesar’s killers.

When Marc Antony is first seen it is standing over the dead body of Brutus. Meanwhile, Octavian, Julius Caesar’s grand nephew and successor, played with Shakespearian ruthlessness by Roddy McDowall, has been skilfully manipulating the passions and prejudices of the Roman Senate. He is successful in turning the Senate and by extension, the Roman people, against Marc Antony. Octavian is also able to manipulate the Senate into declaring Antony an enemy of Rome. Octavian eventually succeeds in destroying Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet at Actium and pursues them to Egypt where they both chose to commit suicide so that they will be spared the humiliation of falling into the hands of Octavian alive.


With a total running time of more than four hours, Cleopatra represented the pinnacle of the sword and sandal genre when it was released in 1963. Cleopatra has become famous, not only for its lavish sets and enormous sets, but for the scandal that it attracted. Of particular note was the torrid and very public off-screen affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as numerous production delays and cost over runs.

Despite its somewhat antiquated special effects, Cleopatra is worth watching for the onscreen chemistry present in the Taylor-Harrison-Burton triangle, as well as the almost Shakespearian eloquence of Roddy McDowall. The historical legacy of Cleopatra is upheld through the sultry passion and beauty of Elizabeth Taylor as she brings some of the greatest men in history to their knees and changes the course of world history.


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