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Age cannot wither her, but it doesn’t improve her much either. Not when she is Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Age seems simply to have left her alone, as it often does with movie actors. But then the chance of time travel is very real, especially since a restored print of the film is now showing at various cinemas around the country. The trip doesn’t have to be nostalgic. It might be exploratory, a way of wondering what it meant to be the way we thought we were. Or the way they thought they were, if you feel remote enough from the occasion.

We know we are in 1963 even before the film starts. We are staring at a thick red curtain under a proscenium arch, and a handsome title card with small golden sphinxes at its corners tells us that this image, and the lush music that goes with it, is the Overture. The Overture persists for several (very long) minutes. Later, about halfway through the film, there is an Intermission; and when the film ends curtains close on the final scene. Quite a few movies go in for this effect, from Gone with the Wind and perhaps before, but it’s always meant to be special: a posh night at the theatre, a step up from your ordinary flick, and totally different from anything you could get on TV. Cleopatra was also over four hours long, and so meant to make television look small in every way. In fact the whole genre of the Hollywood epic, which had a vogue in the late 1950s, relied a great deal on the supposed competitive opportunities of the big screen.

Cleopatra started out as two movies, as what we might think of as retakes of the Bernard Shaw and the Shakespeare versions of the queen’s life (first Caesar, then Antony), but became one as the costs escalated. It’s usually described as the American cinema’s most spectacular failure, because it signed the death warrant of the epic and nearly closed (did close for a while) Twentieth Century Fox, the studio that made it. But it was actually a great success, took a lot of money at the box office, and collected four Oscars. It just cost too much – way too much – to make.

Taylor said the film was ‘not at all bad’ when she saw it again in 1971. We learn this from Richard Burton’s Diaries. Burton himself ‘popped in at one point for about ten seconds and went away and slept’. ‘No reflection on the film’, he adds, but it’s hard not to believe that another film might have detained him a little longer. Taylor was right, it’s not at all bad, but this was and is part of the problem. It’s not good enough to live up to the mildest expectations anyone will have of it, and it’s not bad enough to acquire the lurid glow of DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1956) or Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). It’s too intelligent for one thing: its director is, after all, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had made not only Julius Caesar (1953) but also All About Eve (1950) and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). What he couldn’t do here was get the actors to rise to some of the wit in the lines, and so what might have been bleak comedy keeps turning into bathos. This is mainly Burton’s fault. He can do grand lines, and feel sorry for himself in all kinds of lavish ways, but he can’t handle the wisecrack. When Cleopatra arrives in Rome, preceded by dancing girls and fire-twirling slaves, the queen herself and her son perched aloft in front of a giant mock sphinx, Burton as Antony says to Caesar, ‘Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus.’ No one laughs, and you think he must be right – short on spectacles, those Romans. When he is about to die by plunging his short sword into his stomach, he attempts a brave bit of self-deprecation, the grim farewell with the light touch. ‘I have always envied Rufio his long arms,’ he says. A tight smile appears on his face, so we know he knows what the effect is supposed to be. The effect isn’t there though. He’s been whinging about one thing or another ever since he appeared in the movie, and we think he’s complaining again, and to the last.

There is also the problem that the epic isn’t an epic. Films in this genre are characteristically about revolts against oppression of one kind or another, slaves upsetting the empire, Christians taking over the world, great success stories, and we may suspect them of being semi-intentional allegories of the American Revolution, if only because the bad guys always have English accents. Cleopatra represents an epic ambition in its early moments. Together Caesar and Cleopatra will realise Alexander the Great’s ancient project and unite the whole world. This will bring peace – Cleopatra is keen on culture, and in one of film’s truly disastrous lines we are told that ‘were she not a woman she would be considered an intellectual’ – because there won’t be any other empires, so no one to fight with. This ambition seems rather more fascist than libertarian, and Cleopatra is certainly given to anti-democratic remarks. ‘The world is full of little people,’ she says. And ‘Gods are not elected.’ This puts the film a bit out of tune with the genre, to say nothing of America’s mythology about itself, but in any case this epic proposal does nothing but dwindle throughout the movie. It’s a shaky proposition when Caesar espouses it, and it vanishes when he dies. Antony is too infatuated with Cleopatra to think straight, and doesn’t have those kinds of ambitions anyway. So not only is there no one for the audience to root for, there is nothing to root for, no cause we can care about. But then these problems with the film may represent finds for the time-traveller, pieces of documentation about the imagination in history. Mankiewicz and his writers were not looking for a failed epic, but perhaps somewhere among the nation’s worries in the early 1960s, among the half-confessed worries of the kind that popular narrative specialises in, a failed epic was looking for them. The film wasn’t a disaster but it (accidentally) brought news about fears of disaster.

We might ask similar questions about what seemed then and seems now to be film’s real subject: the affair between Taylor and Burton. Darryl F. Zanuck at one point was going to sue them for upstaging the film and creating its economic difficulties, but he wisely dropped the idea. They and the gossip about them probably increased revenues hugely. There is quite a lot of tension and energy whenever they are on screen together, although it’s all rather cloudy, not tied to anything that’s actually going on. Presumably whatever is happening is happening in the other plot, the one not in the movie. On film Burton is sulky, Taylor is shrill. Neither is very charming or likeable, yet the sense of unfocused turbulence keeps you watching. The actual story of the movie suggests a man gripped more or less against his will by a passion for this woman, and a woman who loves this man, in the end, more than she loves her schemes and ambitions. Burton is very good at getting across the rage rather than the romance of what he feels, while Taylor is a little too placid throughout to suggest she has any great range of emotions. But what’s really interesting to the time-traveller is why and how these two should have seemed so glamorous.

With Taylor her beauty is perhaps enough of an answer, along with many changes of costume, a deep cleavage, and lots of Egyptian-style eye make-up. With Burton I think we have to wonder whether our tastes have changed. In the movie he is repeatedly accused of pitying himself, and the charge seems unanswerable. His performance, if it were offered to us now as contemporary, would seem mainly childish, a sequence of tantrums. But everything in the movie and outside the movie at the time suggests a quite different reaction. We (or they) loved spoilt handsome, out-of-control males, especially if they messed up their lives, and the movies of the 1950s and early 1960s were full of them. The men loved these losers because they thought they were winners. It isn’t clear why the women loved them – maybe because they were losers. No one did very well out of this mythology, but at least the women were not deluded.

It’s consistent with this line of thought about the old days that Taylor’s really good moments in the film should come right at the end when Antony is dead. Flirting with Caesar, taunting Antony, even loving Antony, she is mainly bossy and a bit stiff. But getting ready to commit suicide, calling for her box of figs with the asp curled inside it, she arrives at real dignity, a kind of clarity of sorrow, as if she now knows the movie is all hers. She is rid of men of all kinds, and dies with her two handmaidens.

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