No serious critic can claim that this gargantuan, pompous monster of an epic – by some dubbed the epic to end all epics – was successful or even came close to achieving what it set out at doing. But judging the film on its own terms, as it stands today, all budget-overruns, pseudo-scandals and cutting-room chaos aside, at the 248 minute running time of the latest home media release, it is still a film with as many strengths and merits as flaws.
One such merit is that compared to several contemporary epics Cleopatra is remarkably historically accurate, and writer/director Joe Mankiewicz did his very best to combine the disarray of ideas, script bits, and performers at his disposal into what largely comes off as a faithful (albeit somewhat uneventful and talky) rendition of the young title character's political and personal life. The dialogue, much of which was written by Mankiewicz, has an intellectual rather than action-driven focus, which is a little ironic, seeing as Cleopatra was made and presented as one of the most lavish epics ever. Because there actually isn't much epic action here. The extravaganza is largely limited to sets, processions and costumes – which inevitably will get a little tiring to watch for four hours. The drive of the film therefore rests on the strength of the historical drama and the realization of Cleopatra's two romances; first with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and then with Mark Antony (Richard Burton). And here's another irony, because despite the budding and much publicized offscreen romance between Taylor and Burton, there's more nerve and credibility in the Cleopatra/Julius Caesar relation during the film's first half than there is between Burton and Taylor onscreen. This isn't just Liz and Dick's fault, however, but also the fact that Caesar's character is better written – his lines are better. The Mark Antony character is weak and often badly motivated; it seems to have been written in a hurry. Either that or much of his motivation ended up on the cutting-room floor, after what was a well-known struggle between Mankiewicz, who originally wanted to create two 3-hour films, and 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck, who wanted the film cut down to three hours in total.
Despite all its obvious flaws and often lack of flow and drive, Cleopatra still is a rewarding and highly interesting watch. Not only does it represent the epic genre at both its most magnificent and its most macabre, but for patient viewers there are also a handful of iconic and extremely powerful scenes in here. The very best of these often include the character of Octavian (future emperor Augustus), extraordinarily played by Roddy McDowall. His performance (which seems to draw inspiration from Jay Robinson's Caligula from 1953's The Robe) is a delightful medley of effeminate and masculine qualities, culminating in one of the film's best scenes when Octavian scolds one of his subjects for announcing Mark Anthony's death far too casually. In retrospect, the biggest scandal of Cleopatra wasn't Burton and Taylor's extramarital affair or the enormous sums of money spent on the film, but the fact that a clerical error at 20th Century Fox robbed McDowall of what would have been a certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.