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Film / Cleopatra

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"You know, it's possible, Octavian, that when you die... you will die without ever having been alive."
Mark Antony

Cleopatra is a 1963 American epic historical film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, with a screenplay adapted by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman from the 1957 book The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero, and from histories by Plutarch, Suetonius and Appian.

It chronicles the tale of the reign of Cleopatra VII (Elizabeth Taylor), the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. In the beginning, she romances Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison), and tries to gain her place in the Roman Republic's growing empire. Unfortunately, the Ides of March happen, and Cleopatra's dreams hit a roadblock. So, she turns her attention to Mark Antony (Richard Burton), who comes to battle Octavian (Roddy McDowall) for the control of Rome's empire.

The film had a notoriously Troubled Production, and despite being the highest grossing film of 1963, nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox due to its humongous production costs.


Cleopatra features examples of the following tropes:

  • The Alcoholic: In the second part of the movie, there is hardly a scene where Mark Antony is not drinking.
  • Adapted Out: Arsinoe IV (half-sister of Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII), Ptolemy XIV (youngest brother of Cleopatra, co-ruler with his sister from the death of XIII until his own death in 44 BC) and the three children Cleopatra had with Mark Anthony do not exist in this movie.
  • Always Second Best: Mark Antony gets jealous of Caesar after Caesar's death.
  • Anachronism Stew: Anytime the Roman Empire is referred to, as Rome's war against Egypt was the last war of the Roman Republic.
  • Antagonist Title: Sort of (see Villain Protagonist below). The movie is about the last pharoah of Ptolemaic Egypt.
  • Athens and Sparta: The movie contrasts Ptolemaic Alexandria with Late Republican Rome. The former is a bustling, advanced city of knowledge, sexuality, and antique glories, while Rome is a kind of boring dilapidated area filled with conservative senators. Julius Caesar's attraction and romance with Cleopatra VII and later hers and Mark Antony's is framed in the film as stuffy Romans enjoying and preferring Hellenistic sophistication (or decadence in the eyes of Roman senators), while the conservative Octavian scapegoats Cleopatra as a slutty vamp, and proceeds to (ahistorically) murder a wise Egyptian astronomer in Rome, to prove who's the better civilization.
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  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Different from the average one; nobody is allowed to watch Cleopatra during it.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Determined to die with dignity in Egypt instead of being taken back to Rome as a prisoner of war, Cleopatra committed suicide by letting an asp bite her wrist. Aiding her in this decision was when she learned that her son Caesarion was caught and killed by Octavian, who wore a ring she herself had given to Caesarion.
  • Betty and Veronica: Both Caesar and Antony leave their kind and dutiful, but plain and uninspiring, Roman wives for the sharp, sultry Cleopatra.
  • Big Entrance: Cleopatra's arrival in Rome. She's preceded by cavalry, archers, chariots, and four different dance troupes. Then a hundred slaves tow in a giant stone sphinx with Cleopatra and Caesarion seated atop it. Her later arrival at Tarsus is slightly less grand, but her elaborately decorated barge is still an impressive display.
  • Catchphrase: Caesar's is "For the time being."
  • Cool Old Guy: Caesar, Cicero and Sosigenes.
  • Culture Clash: Rome and Egypt. Cleopatra the absolutist Queen has a hard time understanding Roman politics and why even a dictator is not fully an Emperor, and why the Romans have a taboo against a King. In the end, Cleopatra gets her desire for Rome to have an Emperor but the new Emperor, Augustus, decides to conquer Egypt too.
  • Cultured Warrior: Caesar.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Cleopatra and Caesar to a degree. Their exchanges are therefore highly entertaining. Mark Antony, however, is no match for her.
  • Death by Irony: Caesar is stabbed to death at the base of a monument to Pompey, his former arch-rival.
  • Dirty Coward: Cleopatra flees from Actium, causing Antony to follow her. As a result, Antony's forces lose to Octavian, and Antony considers it his his greatest failure.
    Mark Antony: [about what his surviving men would say to him if they saw him again] Why are you not dead? Why do you live? How do you live? Why do you not lie at the deepest hole of the sea, bloodless, and bloated, and at peace with honorable death?
  • Disabled Love Interest: Phoebus, Cleopatra's blind poet.
  • Due to the Dead: Brutus gets this from Antony after defeating him at the Battle of Philippi. Antony however faces no such luck from Augustus.
  • The Empire: Rome is this even without an emperor yet (though he's on the way), expanding all over the Mediterranean, even before it was labelled as such.
  • End of an Age: The movie ends with the death of Cleopatra, Egypt's last true monarch. This also symbolized the end of Ancient Egypt's millennia-old glory and power, now overtaken by the rising Roman Empire.
  • Epic Fail: Mark Antony's "brilliant" decision to branch into naval warfare at Actium.
  • Epic Movie: One of the biggest. It cost $44 million to make, which, adjusted for inflation, would be $310 million in today's dollars. It took 44 years to top this figure (and even then, just barely), with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. To put it into perspective: it remains the only movie to be the highest-grossing film of its year and still lose money. It would have had to become the third most successful film of all time just to break even.
  • Forgiveness Requires Death: Very literal. The girl who offered Cleopatra a poisoned drink begs her forgiveness. Cleopatra grants it, then makes her drink it. Also a Moment of Awesome.note 
  • Foregone Conclusion: Egypt obviously did not become a world superpower.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Caesar. It wouldn't be a stretch to say Rex Harrison plays him as a Roman Professor Higgins.
  • A God Am I: Discussed and lampshaded. Caesar, Cleopatra, Marc Antony and Octavian all claim divinity and discuss the ramifications of being deified.
  • Going Native: Mark Antony likes "almost all things Greek". It becomes a big problem when the Romans start taking offense.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Legendary queen, big-budget movie...
  • Go Through Me: When Octavian demands Antony's head, Cleopatra states he can either have two or none at all.
  • Historical Beauty Update: By Roman accounts, the real Cleopatra was plain-looking (her allure was in her personality).
  • Historical Domain Character: Cleopatra VII, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Agrippina, Octavian/Augustus, Agrippa, Achillas, Ptolemy, Sosigenes, Brutus, Cassius, Cicero, Calpurnia, Caesarion, Octavia. It's a who's-who's of the Twilight of Republic phase of Ancient Rome.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Brutus is shown in a very sympathetic light. Likewise, the fact that Caesar is painted to have openly sought Imperial titles vindicates and justifies The Conspiracy where earlier accounts at least kept things ambiguous (as it was in history).
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Octavian, perhaps the most successful ruler in Roman history, is portrayed as an effeminate wimp and a two-faced schemer with delusions of grandeur.
    • Agrippa. Portrayed as a former Lieutenant of Ceaser and then Octavian's Flunky.
  • In the Back: One of the most famous examples in history: Brutus killing Caesar.
  • Kick the Dog: Octavian throwing a spear at Cleopatra's old mentor Sosigenes and killing him.
  • Kneel Before Zod: Cleopatra makes Mark Antony kneel when he asks her for a treaty.
    "I asked it of Julius Caesar - I demand it of you!"
  • Lonely at the Top: Cleopatra insists Caesar does not have to be that anymore.
  • Love at First Sight: Cleopatra and Antony both declare that they loved the other the moment they saw them.
  • Love Ruins the Realm: The end of Egypt as an independent empire, and of Anthony’s dreams, arises from some personal attractions.
  • May–December Romance: Caesar is in his fifties when he marries Cleopatra. Antony is closer to her age, but she does note that he was an adult soldier when they first met, whereas she was twelve years old.
  • Memento MacGuffin: Cleopatra had a necklace made with only coins of Caesar, which she says she always wears. Mark Antony tears it off.
  • Monumental Damage: Cleopatra is furious when Caesar's troops accidentally burn down the famous Alexandrian Library. This includes the baffling part where Sosigenes refers to various books being burned, such as the manuscripts of Aristotle, and the... Testament of the Hebrew god, which he refers to as the Book of Books? When did a Greek philosopher in Egypt convert to Judaism?
    • He could be referring to two separate works. This Book of Books could be some unnamed source that is now lost forever by the fire. Mankiewicz's script gives more emphasis on Egyptian religion (a deleted scene suggests the deities are genuine!).
  • Nice Hat: It is Ancient Egypt after all.
  • Not His Sled: The original Cecil B Demille film starring Claudette Colbert has a scene where Cleo's introduction to Caesar involves her glamorously rolling out of an unfurling rug. In this film, the rug's brought to Caesar, and the audience who saw the original braces itself...but Caesar turns out to be a bit smart, thinking a spy may be in it—and draws his sword. Cleo rolls out all right...but on her face without the situational control she intended.
  • On One Condition: Octavian is willing to leave the Egyptians alone, but requires as a small token of faith that Cleopatra delivers him Antony's head.
  • Oscar Bait: No, duh? (It won four in technical categories, but none for the director or actors.)
  • Poor Communication Kills: Cleopatra and Antony suffer massive losses against Octavian due to a series of pretty stupid mistakes and miscommunications.
  • Purple Is Powerful: Caesar on his return to Rome wears the Purple toga, the picta toga during Cleopatra's arrival to Rome. He also wears this in private. Indeed it was Caesar's decision to irregularly wear such outfits that made conspirators believe he wanted to be king.
  • The Queen's Latin: Every Roman and Egyptian in the film has an English accent.
  • Reclining Reigner: Cleopatra and Caesar be argued as the Trope Codifiers.
  • Re-Cut: Originally meant as two films, the original running time was supposedly six hours.
  • Requisite Royal Regalia: Especially during the Roman triumph.
  • Royal Brat: Ptolemy.
  • Say My Name: Cleopatra screams Antony's name when she finds out he married Octavia.
  • Shining City: Rome and Alexandria.
  • Shown Their Work: The film, although no stranger to Hollywood History, is remarkably respectful of Classic sources. Many colourful and dramatic episodes (Cleopatra rolled in a carpet, Caesar killed near Pompey's monument, Mark Antony covering Brutus' body with a cloak) are directly lifted from Suetonius, Plutarch, and other ancient writers. Many historical events, place-names and figures are mentioned in the movie, raising its educational value.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Antony and Cleopatra.
  • The Speechless: Flavius, Caesar's loyal manservant.
  • Stealth Insult: A lot. For example, Cicero quips "Finally I've seen the real extent of Egyptian wealth" (implying that Cleopatra has bribed Roman senators to let her into Rome).
  • Straight for the Commander: Mark Antony attempts this in the final sea battle against Octavian. He sails his ship right at Octavian's flagship because even if he loses the battle, killing Octavian will still win him the war. It fails because Octavian is not actually on his flagship and is instead on another ship away from the fighting.
  • Succession Crisis: Who should take up Caesar's name and power, Mark Antony or Octavian?
  • Tag Team Suicide: Antony and Cleopatra, followed by her maids Iras and Charmian.
  • Tempting Fate: Sosigenes, Cleopatra's beloved and longtime advisor, decides to travel to Rome alone in a plea for peace; Cleopatra anxiously watches him go and begs him to be careful. Predictably, he dies.
  • That Man Is Dead: "There is no one here by the name of Mark Antony... alive".
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: Taylor wore 65 different costumes in the film.
  • Villain Protagonist: All three main characters (Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony) and Octavian/Augustus are portrayed as scheming, power-hungry politicians and brutal warlords, caring nothing for the masses under their rule and seeking only personal gain.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Cleopatra.
  • Woman Scorned:
    • Averted when, despite all the public acknowledgments Caesar makes of his relationship to Cleopatra, Calpurnia stays dignified.
    • Played straight with Cleopatra after Mark Antony marries Octavia. She humiliates him thoroughly during an audience when he needs a treaty from her.
  • The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask: Cleopatra knows her role.
  • World of Ham: The sheer scale of the movie sends a lot of very competent actors over the top.
  • World of Snark: Entire scenes consist of sarcastic exchanges. Caesar probably takes the cake as the ultimate Deadpan Snarker, but Cleopatra is not far behind.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Octavian murders Caesarion, who's depicted as a young boy here. (In real life, he was seventeen at his death)