Reeling from the critical and commercial failure of his previous film, Four Frightened People, iconic director Cecil B. DeMille was persuaded to put his considerable talent behind a genre popular during this period, the historical epic. Jettisoning much of the traditional tropes of the Anthony and Cleopatra story of old, he filled the gaps with more sex and violence to appease the mores of the viewing public of the time. Although the restrictions of the Hayes Code of self-censorship were gathering pace, thanks to the deft use of framing, DeMille was able to infer much in the way of sexuality and scenes of horrific death, leaving the viewer’s imagination to fill in the lurid detail pretty effectively. This works extremely well during the barge set seduction scene of Marc Antony and also during the disturbing assassination scene of Caesar himself.
The film begins with the kidnap of the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, a gleefully coquettish Claudette Colbert, a DeMille stalwart, as she is left in the desert to die with her friend by the conniving prime minister of Egypt, Pothinos. As the story progresses, we see Cleopatra’s seductive charms bewitch Caesar, a statuesque Warren William, as she attempts to consolidate a peace between Egypt and Rome. As Caesar’s infatuation threatens the republic of his home country with the prospect of a king and queen, his most trusted compatriots plot to curtail such an event on the Ides of March. With Caesar disposed of, Marc Antony, played with capricious aplomb by Henry Wilcoxon, and Octavian draw up plans to rule Rome together but first Antony must remove the irritant of Cleopatra himself. Unfortunately, he doesn’t count on the wiles of Cleo and her power over him. The rest of the film drags us into the doomed love affair between the two and the machinations of the Roman realpolitik.
As befits a Cecil B. DeMille production, there is a myriad of grandiose scenes including the aforementioned barge seduction which is proceeded by a scene that only marginally falls short of showing the kitchen sink. Kudos must go to Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier for some wonderfully art deco set design. Some scenes find the actors dwarfed by these beautiful edifices.
On a side note, see if you can spot David Niven playing one of the slaves. This was his third un-credited role before he was to find fame playing Bertie Wooster in Thank You, Jeeves two years later.
As far as extras go, we have a dense and informative commentary by writer and filmmaker F. X. Feeney. He has an obvious love for the film and his commentary is packed full of information regarding the history and making of Cleopatra. There are also short documentaries on Claudette Colbert, Cecil B. DeMille and an interesting, albeit brief, history of the Hayes Code and censorship up to the introduction of film ratings in 1968.
The main feature is formatted in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and includes English SDH subtitles for the hard of hearing. The quality of the transfer is excellent throughout. Some scenes suffer from mild levels of grain, which is understandable from an 80 year old print but the contrast remains constantly superb through the duration of the film. The mono audio soundtrack is good, with no discernible distortion or crackles.
Reviewed by: Richard James