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Movie Review Cleopatra

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    The legendary story of Cleopatra has endured for over two thousand years. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 epic movie, “Cleopatra”, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison and Richtard Burton depicts the end of Ancient Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty with the fall of Cleopatra. Cleopatra was in fact the last of the great the pharaohs of Egypt and it can be said that she was as famous as Elizabeth Taylor who had been chosen to portray the fascinating ruler. Cleopatra was an intelligent woman who was a shrewd leader.

    She had ruled Egypt for approximately twenty-two years with the help of first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony. To preserve her dynasty in the face of the looming Roman expansion she recognized that an alliance with Rome was needed. (Schiff) While Mankiewicz’s movie is generally historically accurate, the director often strays or seems to embellish actual events in order to increase the entertainment value for the audience. The movie’s interpretation of the government structure and politics, historical events and cross-cultural interactions seems to follow accepted historical facts.

    However, the movie does include some minor historical inaccuracies, which can be forgiven based on the director’s objective to produce an extraordinary account of one of history’s most fascinating and enduring figures. On balance, the 1963 movie can be considered to stay true to the major events during Cleopatra’s lifetime and the small embellishments to the story do not detract from the factual events but only serve to heighten the enjoyment of the movie. In the movie, Roman government structure and politics is accurately portrayed. The movie references the conflict between two Roman leaders, Julius Caesar and Pompey.

    Pompey flees to Alexandria where is murdered on the orders of Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemy. The Roman Senate, situated in Rome, is shown to hold much of the power and decision making authority. Later, after Caesar is victorious in his battles, the Senate bestows upon him Dictator of Rome for Life. The movie illustrates that the senate is uncomfortable with Caesar holding all the power. This is clearly demonstrated when they discuss Caesar’s new child with Cleopatra and state that there is no ‘throne’ of Rome that the child can assume.

    Similarly, Nigel Rodgers states that early in 44 BC Caesar assumed permanent control of the Roman Empire. He was a dictator for life, which meant he had assumed leadership power much like a king. Likewise, Schiff writes that Caesar had been declared the dictator of the Roman Empire and thus enjoyed absolute power. Another, factor leading to the political alliance between Rome and Egypt was Rome’s dependence on Egypt’s wealth and this is clearly evident in the movie. Rome needed Egypt vast resources in order to sustain its legions of armies in order to continue their expansion into new territories.

    In the movie, Cleopatra negotiates with Julius Caesar that she be made sole Queen of Egypt and then promises to supply Caesar with all the grain and gold he needs. The movie shows that Caesar’s attraction to Cleopatra and their mutual interests lead to their political alliance. In fact, Cleopatra sees an opportunity to cement this alliance and assure her position by baring Caesar a son, who she named Caesarion. Similarly, Highet in her article about the iconic figure of Cleopatra states that she had a son in order to seal their coalition.

    However, although the movie shows that Caesar publicly acknowledged his son, it is not certain he actually did so. Another area of focus that the director attempts to keep true to, is accepted historical events that he attempts to accurately portray throughout the movie. For example, when Julius Caesar and Cleopatra’s first encounter each other she is in a carpet smuggled into the palace. Both Cleopatra and her younger brother had inherited the throne and were meant to rule together. However, her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, had banished her from the kingdom.

    This event is considered factually accurate, as a number of historians have referred to this event in their writings. For example, Rodgers writes that Cleopatra is delivered wrapped in carpet to Caesar’s quarters. In addition, Highet states that Cleopatra had herself wrapped up in a “bed-linen sack” in order to be able to meet Caesar to request his help to overthrow her brother. Another event that is revealed in the movie is that Pompey, another Roman General that is an enemy of Caesar, is ordered to be killed by Ptolemy XIII in an attempt to please Caesar.

    However, this does not please Caesar and gives him a reason to fulfill Cleopatra’s request to remove Ptolemy XIII from power leaving her as the sole ruler of Egypt. Both Millmore and Schiff include reference to Ptolemy XIII’s involvement with Pompey’s death. Another, historical event that is shown with high spectacle in the movie is Cleopatra’s visit to Rome. She had followed Julius Caesar to Rome and brought their son Caesarion. While Cleopatra’s visit to Rome is cited in most all of the historical sources, her spectacular entrance as shown in the movie may not have actually happened quite that way.

    In her book, “Cleopatra”, Schiff writes that Caesar’s representatives met Cleopatra outside the city walls and lead her to Caesar’s country estate. Another, accurately depicted event in the movie is the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Following the defeat Highet states that they fled to Alexandria. In fact, Millmore also writes that Antony’s failure could be attributed to his reckless and drunken behaviour. The director chose to show Mark Antony as a drunk during the latter part of the movie.

    However, it is questionable if Mark Antony’s excessive use of wine can be substantiated. This allegation probably may have been perpetuated by Romans because he seemed to be under Cleopatra’s power. In fact, a status of Mark Antony is located in Vienna showing him as a debauched drunkard. One of the most famous historical events is the assassination of Julius Caesar by some his trusted Senators fearing that he wanted to be king. This event has been recorded in numerous historical accounts about Caesar’s death. The movie correctly illustrates when, why and how he was killed.

    The movie shows that Caesar is stabbed on the ides of March (or March 15th) and is killed by a group of Senators including his trusted friends, Brutus and Cassius. This event is corroborated by both Rodgers and Schiff who describe his death at the hands of a faction of Senators. Perhaps one of the most legendary moments of Cleopatra is her death. In his movie, Mankiewicz chose to include the widely assumed version of her death where she commits suicide by allowing an asp to bit her and is laid out in her royal clothes. When Octavian and his men reach her, she is dead. They ask her servant, “Was this well done of your lady”.

    Cleopatra’s servant answers, “’Extremely well”. This movie scene seems to follow the description provided by Plutarch, the Greek Philosopher in his writings on the “Life of Antony”. Plutarch writes that Cleopatra had a letter with her seal sent to inform Octavian of her death. Millmore also states that Cleopatra committed suicide by allowing an asp to bit her. Another element in the movie that demonstrates historical accuracy is the director’s interpretation of the cross-cultural interaction of the people. For example, the movie revealed that Cleopatra was not Egyptian at all but was of Greek descend.

    Cleopatra was a Ptolemy, a long line of Macedonian rulers dating back from Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt. These Ptolemaic kings and queens were portrayed in art as though they were of Egyptian descent to ensure they would not offend their Egyptian subjects. In fact, Cleopatra was the first of her Ptolemaic line to bother to learn the Egyptian language. The movie demonstrates Cleopatra’s intelligence into ensuring her position she used her charm to lure first Julius Caesar into helping her secure the throne of Egypt and then she entices Mark Antony to marry her and give Egypt territories held by Rome.

    Rodgers writes that this act was used by Octavian and his supporters to entice the Roman people that Mark Antony was a traitor. Millmore also confirms Mark Antony obsession with Cleopatra as he states that Antony proclaimed Caesarion to be Caesar’s son and this weakened Octavian’s status as Caesar’s adopted heir. In retaliation Octavian, as shown in the movie, confiscates Antony’s will from the temple it was entrusted to and reveals to the Roman people that at his death that his Roman possession were to be transferred to Cleopatra.

    This so enraged the Roman senators that they declared war against Cleopatra. Another, accurate account of Cleopatra’s life is that she gave Caesar the son he always wanted and the movie showed how this solidified their relationship. Some of the inaccuracies in the movie are that Julius Caesar was actually murdered outside the Senate building in Rome; however, director chose to show his murder occurring inside the Senate building. Since the epic 1963 movie, Cleopatra’s image has undoubtedly been linked to the beauty of Elizabeth Taylor.

    However, many historians and other writers speak to her actual image as being elusive. Highlet writes that according to the coins that were minted during her rule her beauty was questionable. The image on the coins showed she had a nose like a hawk’s. During the latter part of her reign, the coins showed “bony, lined, forceful face, like a noble bird of prey. ” In addition, the Greek philosopher, Plutarch (46 -120 AD) also spoke of Cleopatra’s beauty as not being remarkable in his writings.

    He nevertheless concluded that it was her overall charm that everyone found irresistible: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased… In conclusion, the 1963 movie of Cleopatra by Joseph L. Mankewicz undoubtedly attempts to capture the sweeping allure of legendary Queen of the Nile. The director’s approach to recount her life and death was to remain faithful as much as possible to the accepted historical accounts of Cleopatra. This was probably easy since Cleopatra’s actual life contained an over abundance of drama. Where small changes were introduced this served to heighten the entertain value for the audience.

    For example, her grand entrance when visiting Rome likely never happened that way instead she probably was directly to Caesar’s country estate. Some other information, like the children she had with Mark Antony, etc. , were not included in the movie. This may have been for the simple fact that director did not see an importance to mentioning it as it would not affect the plot of the film. The story of her life is shown through her interactions with two of the Rome’s greatest leaders, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

    This epic film truly captures the grandeur of Egypt and Rome during Caesar, then Antony’s pursuit of power with the help of Cleopatra who mission was to keep Egypt’s independence in the face of Roman expansion. Joseph L. Mankewicz’s 1963 movie reintroduced the story of Cleopatra to the modern world. Historical movies and other sources of entertainment that are based on actual events and are historical accurate can be a very powerful tool to teach future generation about the events of the past.

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    Movie Review Cleopatra. (2016, Dec 20). Retrieved from

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    Is Cleopatra a good film?
    Cleopatra is not a great movie. But it is primarily a vast, popular entertainment that sidesteps total greatness for broader appeal. This is not an adverse criticism, but a notation of achievement.
    Was the movie Cleopatra a flop?
    It was not a flop. It was too expensive. It was a financial mess, but it made $24 million in its initial release. It was one of the top 10 grossing films of the '60s.

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