Hardly beautiful, she had a hooked nose
There have been around 45 movies about the life of Cleopatra, not to mention at least 15 made for television mini-series. The very first offering, in fact, was a silent horror film of 1899 about an attempt to find the Egyptian queen’s mummy in a tomb which oddly anticipates the Tutankhamen “curse” theme of later decades. The 1899 silent, long thought not to have survived, turned up in Paris in 2005 but lasts only a few minutes. Sorry, it’s not on Youtube yet.
Absolutely none of the movies have really told the truth about Cleopatra. She was from a Greek dynasty, not Egyptian, and was not especially beautiful. Indeed, the coins minted in her reign show her with a hooked nose and with her hair in a bun tied at the back. Although the universal movie tradition is that she poisoned herself with an asp, this tradition really comes from Shakespeare. Several of the ancient sources would disagree she died from an asp’s bite. Indeed, she might even have been murdered.
The most famous movie is undoubtedly the 1963 version, directed by Joseph Mankiewitz and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor, which was disastrous in more senses than one. The movie was the biggest grosser at the box office in 1963 yet lost millions of dollars. As Lew Grade said of Raise the Titanic, another flop in a different genre, “it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic”. The Elizabeth Taylor movie just goes on and on, for over four hours, and frankly bores the pants off nearly everybody.
Arguably, the best Hollywood portrayal is the 1953 Cleopatra starring Rhonda Fleming and titled Serpent of the Nile. Rhonda, who was born in 1923, is still going strong today after appearing in over 40 major movies and was nicknamed long ago The Queen of Technicolor after her bombshell appearances at the time. She once put down living a long time to being a Presbyterian, so there you have one theory of longevity.
Rhonda’s Cleopatra is perhaps “the best” for a number of reasons. The movie is mercifully short at around an hour and a quarter so the action has to be swift moving. No chance to get really bored. Although the queen is shown as beautiful, which is untrue historically, she also has a nasty side which the real Egyptian pharaoh undoubtedly shared. For example, in the film she has her ambitious sister Arsinoe murdered in the desert, the only Hollywood movie even to mention the incident, and she is interested in adultery even while claiming to be the darling of Marc Antony. All this is power politics typical of the age, even though missing from the mainstream Hollywood tradition.
That said, there are several silly features as in all the Cleopatra films. The sets are tacky and largely left over from Salome starring Rita Hayworth. Several of the backcloths are zany including a scene of galleys paddling their oars in waters which are totally still. The siege of Cleopatra’s palace at the end of the movie is just plain daft with a single battering ram ending centuries of rule by several dynasties. Many of the costumes, both Roman and Egyptian, are more reminiscent of Halloween than of ancient history.
The main characters make you smile even though they are not supposed to. Rhonda Fleming herself favours dresses which are remarkably similar to the bullet proof gowns for women, popular in America in the 1950s. The main lover, Raymond Burr as Marc Anthony, is never quite convincing as the adoring suitor, perhaps as he was silently wrestling with being gay in his private life at the time. He also mispronounces names as when he refers to Cassius as “Cashius” and Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe as “Our Snowy”.
William Lundigan, as Lucilius, an aide to Marc Anthony, described this as the worst film he had ever made. Probably this is an exaggeration as he never made a decent one. Lundigan ended up quitting the movies and becoming a first class auto salesman which was a wise career move. Incidentally, Michael Ansara, who plays Cleopatra’s captain of the guard, is still around in Hollywood having been born in 1922. He was to become best known for his portrayal of Cochise in the TV series Broken Arrow.
Serpent of the Nile, compared with the other Hollywood offerings, is the best of the bunch precisely because it’s short, keeps to the point and contains a great deal of humour, howbeit unintended to a substantial degree. Regrettably, it has not been released on DVD but there are still a few copies of the VHS tape around. Both sellers at Amazon and at e-bay have copies available between US$ 10 and 20.