#39. Cleopatra (1934)
Starring Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, and Ian Keith.
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
The Short, Short Version:
This historical romance has Queen Cleopatra (Colbert) kidnapped and left in the middle of the desert along with her assistant. While Caesar (William) sits plots out his capture of Egypt Cleopatra manages to outwit her captor and cozy up to Caesar. This relationship proves fatal as 1) Caesar is already married to Culpernia and 2) No one in Rome likes Cleopatra. Failing to heed the Ides of March Caesar is assassinated and Cleopatra takes the only vehicle she has back to Egypt. Marc Antony (Wilcoxon), pissed off at Cleopatra as well, takes his legions into Egypt dead set on killing Cleopatra. Cleopatra placates to Antony and he, in turn, falls in love with her. Octavius (Keith) uses this relationship to turn Rome against Antony.
Why This Made the 40:
The second of the categories this came from the “Haven’t Watched” one. Believe it or not I have a few movies I found interesting by the packaging or historical context and as such, collected them; this was one.
This movie is about as compact as a black and white epic can get. 100 minutes may sound short however DeMille wastes no time in movie. Each scene “ramps up” to the next scene and gets bigger and better as it goes along. Claudia Colbert seethes sex and allure as Cleopatra and she knows how to play her cards and really, this movie is a showcase for her. William and Wilcoxon do fine jobs with their characters as much as they were written but again, this movie wasn’t about Caesar or Marc Antony so much as Cleopatra. As a female protagonist movie it navigates the sensibilities of the time fairly well.
Secondly, it’s a DeMille movie. From 1914 to 1956 he directed 80 films, most notably, “The Ten Commandments.” His sense for epic grandeur is in no short supply here – from the rooms of Egypt to Cleopatra’s trireme it’s about space and glory and opulence. The musical number on Cleopatra’s ship is the greatest example of it with the camera slowly pulling-back to show Marc Antony at the head of the ship as if on a stage while on the floor below are dancers and hoops on fire and even further back synchronous rowing and at the back one guy pounding on a giant drum. All in one shot. THAT is directing.
Like “Key Largo,” the coup-de-grace scene is expertly edited; tight and never short of action. Once Egypt and Antony take on Rome there’s a sequence that shows triremes ramming into each other, soldiers falling into the water (complete with underwater shots), Roman legions versus Egyptian legions, sword-fighting – everything one could ask for in a spectacular fight scene. You can also notice small bits of actors in front of a backlit projected image but those are interspersed with the other action shots so as not to interfere with the “suspension of disbelief,” which in my opinion was an incredibly smart move.
Did I enjoy it? Yeah. Equal mix history, romance, and action movie on an epic scale in 100 minutes is a feat for its time and altogether a decent movie. Sure, there are a few hokey instances such as Caesar playing with a device that’s supposed to thrust spears into the enemy (made from a cash register) and a giant door with a metal locking mechanism, but really these are just “of the time” issues; they happen every generation. Give it a spin if you get a chance.