At 4+ hours in length, I’d been putting this one off for years, but I’m glad I finally got around to it, as this sometimes maligned, big budget film — skillfully directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz — is excellent. As far as swords-and-sandals epics go, this one ranks among the best. The lavish production (a record-setter for the time) is something to behold, tastefully and not egregiously deployed.
The film follows the true-to-life-events of the historical timeline. Per Wikipedia (and the film’s opening credits), the film’s screenplay was “adapted by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman from the 1957 book The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero, and from histories by Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian.”
There are fine turns from all of the primary actors: Liz Taylor, Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), Richard Burton (Marc Antony), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes), Andrew Keir (Agrippa), Martin Landau (Rufio), and Roddy McDowall (Octavian aka Caesar Augustus). It is Burton’s performance, as the tortured soul of Marc Antony, that really shines here, a bravura performance with some terrific dialogue and line-readings. (Shakespearean dialogue stylization is used in the film, but not in a distracting way). Some of the screenplay’s dialogue – especially the third act’s ruminations on mortality – is poetic and downright beautiful.
My only beef was that, in Hollywood’s narrative need for a villain, such a role is largely filled by Roddy McDowall’s snotty and petulant Octavian (Augustus), something not historically accurate. Augustus wasn’t unusually cruel for the time but was, in fact, a paragon of the benevolent dictator and arguably Rome’s finest Emperor.