This film became perhaps the most notorious fiasco of all time – all the off screen drama (Dick and Liz, spiralling costs, illness, the Zanuck return) having tended to obscure the fact that the resulting film wasn’t too bad. Mankiewicz was a major talent and this includes some excellent writing, in the first half at least, when it concentrates on Cleopatra and Caesar. Cleopatra is a great role – sexy, ambitious, smart, vicious, brave – and she has some terrific exchanges with Caesar, who desires, admires and distrusts her. There’s a really racy moment where she’s naked under a sheet and she takes his hand and makes him feel her body. The initial Cleopatra-Caesar scenes in Africa are reminiscent of Shaw (such as the inclusion of the Apollodorus character). As the later HBO series Mankiewicz deliberately avoids showing Anthony’s funeral oration (he admits this is big print), taking the action up immediately afterwards.
The second half – which deals with Anthony and Cleopatra after Caesar’s death – is less strong. This is partly because in many respects it’s a repeat of what happens in the first half – to wit, a visiting Roman conqueror falling under Cleopatra’s spell, who encourages his ambitions. Yeah, I know, there’s the additional stuff of them genuinely falling in love – but the first half was more interesting, with Cleopatra struggling for her throne, and seducing Caesar for political reasons rather than love. Anthony
is far less compelling than Caesar; we never get to see him do much impressive (sure, he fights a bit during the battle of Actium, but during that he’s also duped). He spends most of his time being pussy-whipped, drinking, moaning about how he’s not good enough for Caesar, doing everything that Cleopatra tells him to do. We hear from his men and Cleopatra how loved and talented he is but we sure as hell don’t see it. Cleopatra would have been much better off with Octavian (who is treated a little unfairly; shown to be intelligent but they constantly make digs at his “unmanly” lack of physical courage, seasickness, etc). Scenes are repetitive and go on for too long – it’s a real shame Mankiewicz didn’t have time to knock part two into shape a bit more. (Or was that even possible, considering Anthony? The HBO series did it wonderfully - could Mankiewicz?)
The supporting roles have some decent meat: Octavian is the stand out, but I also like Rufio, whose loyalty to Caesar and Anthony can’t stop him killing himself when Anthony’s final legions desert; career soldier Agrippa whose main devotion is to Rome; Octavian’s sister, who allows herself to be a pawn; Ptomley the idiot king. Apollodrous could have been fleshed out a little more –he seems to do everything because he loves Cleopatra. It's no masterpiece, but it's one of the more thoughtful efforts and Mankiewicz has nothing to be ashamed about.