Cleopatra
Thursday, 18 July 2013

BACKSTAGE AT THE BIGGEST FILM EVER MADE

It was Hollywood’s most extravagant picture and starred the world’s most famous lovers. Fifty years on, Melonie Clarke looks at the amazing images – and incredible story – behind Cleopatra

Written by Melonie Clarke
It was the most expensive film ever made and starred Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. Costing $44m in 1963, in today’s money it would have a budget of $300m.

Cleopatra was originally envisioned as a modest remake of a previous 20th Century Fox hit, a silent film starring Theda Bara. But when the studio decided to cast Elizabeth Taylor in the lead role, instead of the originally considered Joan Collins, the film became an epic.

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Taylor became the first woman to be paid $1m for a role. On top of that, the budget for her 65 costumes (including one made from 24-carat gold cloth) was $194,800, the highest ever for a single screen actor.

It was planned that filming would take place in London, England, but Taylor was taken ill and could not work in the English weather for some months, so the production moved to Rome and many of the sets had to be rebuilt.

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As the film fell behind schedule, many sets were being built while the filming took place. Several scenes were unusable or had to be reshot because of the sound of hammering in the background. By the end of the production, 79 sets had been constructed.

The amount of raw material for the new sets (the set for Alexandria was rebuilt three times) was so vast that it actually led to a shortage of building materials throughout the rest of Italy. The largely unused sets subsequently came into play in the British film Carry On Cleo in 1964. Sid James’s costume in the film was also recycled from the 20th Century Fox picture, having once been worn by Richard Burton. They also had to build Cleopatra’s fleet. In fact, so many ships were used that, at the time, it was said that 20th Century Fox became the world’s third biggest navy.

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The final version of the film runs at just over four hours. Originally, director Joseph L Mankiewicz wanted to run the picture as two threehour films: Caesar And Cleopatra followed by Antony And Cleopatra. But it was feared that fans obsessed with the Burton-Taylor relationship, which began on the set of Cleopatra, would skip the first part, in which Rex Harrison, as Caesar, plays a central part. Harrison’s contract stated that every time Burton appeared in an advertisement, he would too. Despite this, 20th Century Fox’s original advertisement on Broadway featured just Burton. Only after several complaints from Harrison and his lawyers was his image added.

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Once the film had been cut, Mankiewicz said that many of the best scenes were left on the cuttingroom floor, with 90 to 120 minutes of character development and story missing from the final copy. Mankiewicz had actually been fired from the production during the editing process. However, he was hastily reinstated when the remaining team working on the project realised they didn’t know how the story fitted together. Because there was no working script during filming – he wrote as he shot – Mankiewicz was the only one who knew the full story.

The huge costs and overrunning schedule saw many brand the film a huge flop. Despite this, Cleopatra did finally break even in 1973, largely thanks to a deal for showing the picture on television.

Cleopatra is showing at selected cinemas now. The Cleopatra 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray is available to buy.


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