The final years of the Roman Republic are pretty darn interesting.
In the first century BC, it was becoming clear that a famous general and his loyal legions had more power than the boring old Senators in the capitol. Julius Caesar was the first to fully take advantage of this, marching his triumphant army into Italy and pressuring the Senate to name him Dictator for Life.
I hope I am not spoiling the story by reporting that some Senators weren’t 100% on board with Julius Caesar and his ambitions. Though Caesar did not survive, his name and his ideas about Roman power lived on.
Julius’s top general Mark Antony tried to avenge his mentor’s murder and take his place. Meanwhile, a brilliant young nobleman name Octavian had a far-sighted plan to grab all power for himself. Only he did it so methodically and incrementally that no one would know that he was destroying the Republic until it was gone.
The juicy sideshow to all of this fighting and politicking was the semi-independent kingdom of Egypt. Since the time of Alexander the Great, a dynasty of Greek monarchs had ruled the rich, ancient country.
The latest and greatest was Queen Cleopatra. She managed to maintain her independence from Rome while also wooing both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony into her bed.
Elizabeth Taylor does her best to keep us entertained for four hours playing the seductive and ambitious Queen. But the half-baked script doesn’t give her the chance.
The first half of the picture is solid, with Rex Harrison grabbing our attention as the savvy and fearless Caesar.
But after the Ides of March and the Intermission, “Cleopatra” falls apart. Richard Burton was a fantastic actor, but he is embarrassing as Mark Antony. He looks sweaty and befuddled.
And poor Cleopatra is given little to do but pine for Antony. In four hours, we never see her actually rule her country. This is a disgraceful failure on the part of the filmmakers. The actual Cleopatra was the first Greek monarch to take the time to learn the Egyptian language. She was a conscientious leader who took her job seriously.
At a certain point, “Cleopatra” devolves into a substance-free showcase for the hardworking costume designer and for Elizabeth Taylor’s splendid cleavage.
“Cleopatra” takes one of the most spellbinding stories in human history and turn it into a mediocre melodrama.
The only thing good I can say about the movie is that it inspired me to rewatch the HBO series “Rome.” It tells the same tale with incredible intelligence and wit.