Caesar and Cleopatra Review
Rome has just invaded Egypt. One day, walking by the Sphinx, Julius Caesar (Claude Rains) hears a young girl's voice. It turns out to belong to the teenaged Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Vivien Leigh). Taken by her beauty, spirit and intelligence, Caesar vows to marry her.
Adapted by George Bernard Shaw from his own play, Caesar and Cleopatra was an attempt by the British cinema industry to take on Hollywood, by producing its own lavish Technicolor epic. And lavish it was, too: producer/director Gabriel Pascal took sand to Egypt to make sure it was the right colour. At the time it was the most expensive film ever made in Britain. Shaw himself was delighted, being quoted as saying, "It is so wonderful as to make my other films look naïve." But he was certainly in the minority, as the film flopped. Looking at it now, you can certainly see why. It's the product of a certain mindset that values literary prestige over simple entertainment. As a spectacle, it's not actually that spectacular, large sets notwithstanding, as much of it takes place indoors. It's also very talky, with very little physical action, all of it flatly directed and one-paced.
There are certainly compensations. The colour photography, (the work of four fine DPs: Freddie Young, Robert Krasker, Jack Hildyard and Jack Cardiff) looks gorgeous, especially in this restored version. Directors as otherwise different as Eric Rohmer and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who would of course direct his own Cleopatra film, the Burton/Taylor behemoth of 1964) have shown that a film can get by on just talk as long as it's good talk. Gabriel Pascal certainly isn't in that league: best known as a producer, this was his second and last directorial credit after another Shaw adaptation, 1941's Major Barbara. But as you might expect from Shaw, the talk is certainly very good. Rains makes a sly Caesar. Leigh begins as a very coquettish Cleopatra, but by the end of the film she's convincing as a woman able to take on the weight of authority...and to fall in love with Mark Antony, but that's another story. Stewart Granger makes a dashing Apollodorus, though Flora Robson is more than a little hammy in a fright wig as Cleopatra's chief attendant Ftatateeta. The cast list is heaving with stalwart British character actors, not to mention the very young Jean Simmons as a harpist and Roger Moore as a Roman soldier.
You can see where Shaw was coming from in his comments, but ultimately he was a man of the theatre. This film's virtues are many, but they are all theatrical ones. I've not seen Caesar and Cleopatra in a cinema, but it's possible that this is one film that improves on the small screen. The photography and the set design won't have the same impact, though as the film is in Academy Ratio (had it been made a decade later, there's no doubt it would have been in CinemaScope) it does sit easier on a TV set than most epics. With the visual spectacle reduced, we can concentrate more on the dialogue and performances, which are this film's main strength.
Like just about every commercial sound feature made before 1953, Caesar and Cleopatra was shot in a ratio of 1.37:1. Carlton's DVD transfer is full-frame (4:3) and no anamorphic enhancement is necessary or desirable. The transfer has been digitally restored. The restoration demonstration included on this disc allows us to compare the rather muddy original with the restored version. The picture is sharp and bright, and the colours are rich - back in the 40s, if you'd gone to the extra effort and expense to shoot in Technicolor, you'd certainly want your audience to notice it! Only some minor aliasing (on the fine lines of some costumes) prevents it getting full marks.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and has also been restored. It's a very professional job of sound recording, given the inevitable limitations in dynamic range of a track of this vintage, with music and effects well balanced and the all-important dialogue absolutely clear.
There are fifteen chapter stops. Normally this wouldn't really be enough for a two-hour film, but this is a more stagey two hours than most. Scenes therefore run longer than usual, so fifteen stops is quite adequate. The only subtitle option is English, but the titles are clear and accurate, and are visible even over white picture areas.
Caesar and Cleopatra was originally released with a running time of 138:23 (according to the BBFC website). Carlton's DVD runs 122:34, which is (give or take some seconds) the same version as twice previously certified on video. With PAL speed-up, this would translate to a cinema running time of around 128 minutes. I don't know what was in those extra ten minutes, which may of course just be overture and exit music at showcase cinemas on the film's first release. Or maybe the film was trimmed after its premiere. Whatever is missing, it would seem that the current version is the only one available.
The theatrical trailer, which is in 4:3 and mono like the feature, runs 2:49. It starts off with adjectival overload, then goes on to emphasise the film's spectacle. It contains shots that aren't in the feature (or at least not this slightly shortened version: see above).
The stills gallery comprises ten black and white pictures, some of which are zoomed into slowly, or equally slowly panned from side to side. This feature is self-navigating.
The restoration demonstration I've already discussed above: it runs 6:16. The screen is split vertically down the middle, with the original version on the left and the restoration on the right. This is done for the opening credits and one early scene. Another scene is played twice, with the original soundtrack and the restored version. The difference in both cases is quite apparent, so well done to Carlton.
That's all for the extras. Unless contemporary interview material exists – I don't know if it does – it's understandable that interview or commentary opportunities might be sparse. The only person who contributed in any significant capacity (that is, not as a bit player) who is still alive is Jack Cardiff. That said, some historical context-setting for the film might have been welcome
At the time a forlorn attempt at a homegrown epic, Caesar and Cleopatra has weathered the years better than you might expect. Carlton's DVD release scores highly for its restored picture and sound, though is light on extras. If you like the film this DVD is worth picking up, especially if you can find it at a reduced price.