A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that at four hours in length, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra asks a lot of its viewers. Only the most ardent cinephile teens, perhaps already acquainted with the history of the production, are likely to enjoy going along for a ride that feels so sedate, mostly because it's so long. Battles include sword fighting. There are dead bodies, including part of a severed head, and some with small amounts of blood. There's some semi-nudity, with parts of bare buttocks and breasts, including a dancer with pasties. Otherwise sexual content mostly includes a dozen or so kisses. Heavy on politics and strategy, one of literature's greatest love triangles is demonstrated from a perspective best appreciated by viewers who've endured long-term relationships themselves, and who are capable of patiently waiting for events and emotions to unfold.
What's the story?
Egypt is ruled by a brother and sister, neither of whom wants to share the throne. To help settle things down in its richest province, Rome sends its leader Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) to Egypt. There he meets the sister, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) and the two fall in love. Ambition drives Julius and Cleopatra to try and make Julius emperor of Rome, which was then a republic, but their efforts end in tragedy. Several years later, Rome's famous general Marc Anthony (Richard Burton) travels to Egypt to negotiate with Cleopatra for goods to supply the army, and they in turn fall head over heels in love. Their great love fuels an even greater ambition to rule the known world together, but it also seals their downfall as Egypt's glorious pharaonic era comes to an end.
Is it any good?
CLEOPATRA is a remarkable achievement, and though by no means flawless, it's a must-see for the Hollywood completist. Much ado was made about this legendary production, and it really is something. It was the most expensive film ever made to that date, and was notoriously plagued with problems frequently reported in the press: over budget, over time, and of course the notoriously volatile relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
The movie itself? Visually stunning. In the days before computer graphics, the magnificent sets were all built to scale, including a particularly glorious sea battle. Cleopatra's entrance into Rome is, almost inarguably, the greatest spectacle ever filmed. Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar brings a noble weariness to that devilish twinkle in his eye. Richard Burton as Marc Anthony was justifiably rocketed to a top box-office draw for the next decade. Elizabeth Taylor's costumes, as befit the legend of Cleopatra, are breathtaking. But Cleopatra herself is perhaps where the movie dates itself, as it focuses so much on beauty and ambition and less on other characteristics of a charismatic leader. Overambitious to many, Cleopatra covers so much territory that it's difficult to emotionally engage with it as it's slowly unfolding. Teens and kids who are not fascinated by the politics of ancient Rome have a long wait. And once action and romance come to the forefront, they're portrayed from a mature perspective that may not be relatable to those with little patience and experience with long-term relationships. With so much to think about, and so much to take in, it might be better saved for a time when everyone has the time and inclination to savor it slowly.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Cleopatra might be portrayed today. Her beauty is legendary, but does this movie show anything else interesting about her? What do you know about the real Cleopatra?
Marc Anthony says that if you never let love be your master, you'll never really know love. What does he mean by that? Is he right?
What's the craziest thing you've ever done for love, whether for a family member, a pet, or in a romantic relationship?
- In theaters: June 12, 1963
- On DVD or streaming: April 3, 2001
- Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison
- Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
- Studios: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, MCL Films, Walwa Films
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Run time: 248 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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