It isn't many movies that have pushed their studio to the brink of bankruptcy, broken up its stars' marriages and been condemned by the Vatican, and all before the movie even opens! Such was the case with 1963's Cleopatra, which is still on record as the most expensive movie ever made at $300 million, when adjusted for inflation. Twentieth Century Fox's much-criticized yet Oscar-winning historical epic is making its Blu-raydebut today.
Digitally remastered and undeniably stunning in a way that today's CGI effects could never accurately approximate, Cleopatra notoriously paired Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for the first time on screen. Theirs would quickly become an off-screen union as well (even though they were married to others at the time), and would result in not one but two marriages to each other. Taylor's and Burton's flagrant exhibition of their adulterous love for one another during shooting in Rome led Pope John XXIII to accuse Taylor of "erotic vagrancy." In short, the pope was essentially calling the million-dollar actress a slut.
Former Fox exec Tom Rothman relates, in remarkably candid fashion, the history behind Cleopatra's tortured production during a "Fox Legacy" analysis that serves as one of several extras on the two-disc Blu-ray. By the time the film opened, it had burned through two directors (the esteemed Joseph L. Mankiewicz saw shooting to completion, only to be fired and then re-hired to supervise editing of 96 hours of footage), two studio heads, four different leading men (Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd were cast as Caesar and Mark Antony prior to Burton and Rex Harrison) and two primary shooting locations (England and Italy). What's more, Taylor had life-threatening health issues that postponed production for nearly a year. The unfortunate scar she obtained from an emergency tracheotomy is all the more apparent in hi-def.
So how does the final, 4-hour film play today? Its first two hours are spectacular and highly enjoyable, largely due to the well-written repartee between Taylor's Egyptian queen and Harrison's Roman emperor (Harrison, quite understated here, received a deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actor). The crowning technical achievement of the movie is Cleopatra's triumphant entry into Rome -- complete with dancers, load-bearing slaves and a massive sphinx -- mid-way through its first half.
Alas, things take a turn following Caesar's assassination and the audience's intermission. Historical and editorial incongruencies abound, the worst and weirdest being an argumentative sequence between Antony and Cleo that is spread over three different locations, with as many hair (for Taylor) and costume changes. Curiously, Taylor and Burton don't exhibit as much passionate charisma as she has earlier with Harrison.
I had tried to get through Cleopatra in years past but it was daunting given the film's length. While an ideal viewing would be on the big screen, I recommend watching the Blu-ray as my partner and I did: have a friend or two over and serve a nice dinner during intermission. Although Cleopatra falls short of greatness, it is both fortunate and unfortunate that they don't make movies like it any more.
Cleopatra wasn't a disaster upon its release, but it took nearly twenty years for Fox to make a profit on it following TV and home video sales. Anticipation over its impending Blu-ray release got me thinking about the big screen's anointed "Master of Disaster," the late producer-director Irwin Allen. Following a successful TV career during which he produced the 1960's hits Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, he moved into movies with 1972's The Poseidon Adventure. Long one of my all-time favorite films, I re-watched it recently and found that the essentially ocean-set religious allegory holds up extremely well (and much better than its over-produced, dramatically inert 2006 remake, simply titled Poseidon). Allen followed its massive success with another, 1974's The Towering Inferno.
By the end of the 70's, though, Allen's formula of star-studded disaster spectacle was wearing thin. I was also inspired recently to re-watch The Swarm (1978) and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979). Both feature Michael Caine in lead roles and such big names as Sally Field, Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, Fred MacMurray, Karl Malden, Richard Chamberlain and the still-lovely Shirley Jones among their supporting cast members. Allen also served as director on both films, the only films he did direct. It becomes all too apparent that he was a better producer.
The Swarm is a paranoid killer bee epic based on a bestselling novel of the time, à la Jaws. It actually holds up better today than its reputation would lead one to believe, especially in the original 156-minute cut available on some DVDs (beware the 119-minute version). While history has proven many of the movie's assertions about the devastation that could be caused by Africanized bees inaccurate (especially the laughable hallucinations of giant bees suffered by those stung), the current decline in the American honeybee population due to yet-unexplained causes and potentially apocalyptic fallout from this gives The Swarm an unexpected resonance today. Unfortunately, at the time of its theatrical release it proved a box office disaster for Allen and distributor Warner Brothers. Fellow film critic Michael Medved, in his classic book The Golden Turkey Awards, memorably dubs The Swarm "the most badly bumbled bee movie of all time."
Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, meanwhile, is a middling and unnecessary sequel that was ironically made possible by a budgetary shortcoming of its predecessor's. As explained in a "making of" extra on The Poseidon Adventure DVD, the film was supposed to end with a shot of the ship sinking following the climactic rescue of its six survivors but the money ran out. In the sequel, Caine, Field and Malden play a salvage crew who come upon the still-floating hulk of the capsized liner. They board it in hopes of finding the purser's safe before it sinks and find a handful of other survivors. They also cross paths with the villainous Dr. Svavo (well played by Kojak himself, Telly Savalas), who is seeking a secret shipment of plutonium onboard. Not even Slim Pickens is safe from Allen's waterlogged machinations. Despite its still impressive upside-down sets, few moviegoers were willing to take the cruise Beyond and the expensive sequel bombed big time.
Hollywood has been dogged by occasional disasters pretty much since its inception. Although some studios and producers haven't survived them, the industry on the whole manages to stay afloat. Next, we'll see whether June's trouble-plagued World War Z is dead on arrival or has (fast-moving zombie) legs.
The Poseidon Adventure: A-
The Swarm: C+
Beyond the Poseidon Adventure: C-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.