Cleopatra (1963) Movie Review: A Scandalous Sword-and-Sandal Epic

By: Alex Phuong (Three Beers) –

There have been many epic films produced throughout the history of cinema.  Some of them are major successes, like James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).  Other epics, like the recent Ben-Hur remake, end up faltering, and lose any sense of credibility.  The 1963 version of Cleopatra is a bit paradoxical because it can be interpreted as both a success and a failure.  It is full of eye candy, but it is also a bit of a chore to sit through.  It has received criticism as well as numerous awards and acclaim.  Therefore, I would give this film only three beers because it is worth watching even though it might be hard to take the time to see it in its entirety.

A Toast

The film is, without a doubt, visually stunning.  In fact, the film swept the craft categories during the Academy Awards ceremony by winning Oscars for art direction, cinematography, and costume design.  The dresses that Elizabeth Taylor wears throughout the film are a feast for the eyes.  Interestingly, this film contains the most number of costume changes for a single character in a motion picture since Cleopatra wears a record-making number of dresses while playing the famous Egyptian queen.  The film might not be historically accurate as to what the real Cleopatra might have looked like, but the film romanticizes and glamourizes Cleopatra, giving Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of her mythical and mystical qualities.

Beer Two

The screen time for the film is ridiculously long, and its screenplay does not really compensate for the four-hour and ten minute running time.  Ironically, the dialogue is a bit ludicrous even though the filmmakers could have done more with four hours of material.  Several characters, and Cleopatra herself, frequently refer to her as “Isis” even though she is merely a beautiful mortal woman.  Elizabeth Taylor had to speak the lines, “I am Isis!  I am worshipped by millions!” However, a lot of the characters forget that they are still human, and have only achieved historical fame long after their deaths.  The film might be called Cleopatra, but there are definitely other players involved in this famous love story, including Marc Antony, Julius Caesar, and Octavian.

Beer Three

The film has way too many supporting characters.  Historically, many people were involved in the love affairs that shook the world, but that makes the plot a bit difficult to comprehend.  In fact, some knowledge about the history of Cleopatra is necessary in order to understand the basic story, such as the importance of the Battle of Actium.  There is a wide cast of characters in this film, including Rufio, Agrippa, and Flavius.  The film is also comparable to William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which also has a long list of supporting characters.  The basic plot is a bit understandable because the first half is basically “Caesar and Cleopatra” and the second half is “Antony and Cleopatra,” but the film might also play out like a history lecture that students might not want to listen to in school.


Cleopatra went down in history as one of the most expensive and controversial films ever made.  It was one of the highest-grossing films of that year, but the box office numbers still could not cover the monumental costs to make this picture.  In spite of its extreme price tag, the film went on to receive numerous awards and nominations, including an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  The best way that I could describe this film is that it is a beautiful love story, but its lack of depth makes that story superficial.

Cleopatra (1963) Drinking Game

Take a Drink: every time Elizabeth Taylor makes a costume change

Take a Drink: whenever the characters mention the words “Isis,” “Egypt,” or “Rome”

Drink a Shot: anytime that the characters drink out of cups (which may or may not contain alcohol)

About Alex Phuong

Alex Andy Phuong earned his Bachelor of Arts in English from California State University-Los Angeles in 2015. His love affair with cinema began after discovering Turner Classic Movies in the summer of 2004. His favorite film director is Woody Allen, and his favorite movie star is Kate Winslet.

One comment

  1. Possibly the very start of the Liz-Richard love affair.

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