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The Gizmo Guy's Blu-ray review: Cleopatra (50th Anniversary)

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By Gordon Meyer
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A few weeks ago marked the 50th Anniversary of a movie that helped change the way Hollywood does business – for better or worse.  That movie is “Cleopatra,” a four hour road show, historical epic that ran into so many cost overruns it almost put 20th Century Fox out of business.   In today’s dollars, the troubled production would probably cost well north of $350 million, much of it blatantly wasteful.  But as notorious as the film was when it was being made, 50 years later, it stands as a remarkable demonstration of the filmmakers art in the mid-20th century.

There’s an old saying, that “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” which had to be coined in reference to movies like “Cleopatra.” We’re talking the kind of “cast of thousands” epic that Hollywood at one time gloried in.    Its $44 million price tag shows on the screen.  This picture has the kind of spectacle that today’s filmmakers can only dream of – and with no digital effects.  Everything on the screen has an analog reality with some jaw dropping set pieces, like Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome.

But as we already know, you can have all the jaw dropping spectacle you want.  If you don’t have great performances and a strong story, it doesn’t matter.   With the objectivity of 50 years, Taylor’s performance in this movie reminds us of why she epitomized the term “movie star.” The movie itself turns a major chapter in world history into a big screen soap opera with plenty of intrigue, personal and national politics, and passionate romance (much easier to buy Cleopatra’s romance with Burton as Marc Antony than Harrison’s Caesar).  And yes, co-writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz did take a few creative liberties with historical facts, including set designs taken from periods of Egyptian history hundreds of years apart.  But it all works.

For the movie’s 50th Anniversary, Fox released both two and three disc versions on Blu-ray and provided me with a review copy of the two disc version.  Let’s start with the transfer.  Mankiewicz had so much material, he originally wanted the movie to be broken down into two separate three-hour epics with part 1 focusing on Caesar and Cleopatra and part 2 on Marc Antony and Cleopatra.  Between Fox’s desperate need to get the movie out in theatres ASAP and the public’s fascination with the soap opera romance between co-stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, that six hour version never happened. 

The original road show presentation ran just over four hours plus intermission before another hour was lopped off for general release.  While there remains considerable question as to whether the original footage even exists to recreate the intended six hour version, for this 50th Anniversary edition, Fox has lovingly restored the original 70mm Todd-AO four hour roadshow presentation and it looks stunning.  Even though the movie was originally shot using Eastmancolor stock, the colors are as vibrant and clear as the best dye transfer Technicolor prints of anything from that era. 

All the bonus content on the two disc version was re-purposed from earlier DVD releases and other standard def sources, including a two hour “Making of” documentary originally produced for the AMC cable network, a look at the search for missing footage, a running commentary by Chris and Tom Mankiewicz (director Joseph Mankiewicz’s sons), actor Martin Landau and publicist Jack Brody and newsreel coverage of the New York and west coast premieres.   Even though none of the bonus content on the two disc release is in HD, it’s still quite fascinating, especially the AMC special. 

No question about it.  “Cleopatra” is a lavish, eye popping classic that belongs in any film buff’s library.

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 Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time.

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