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Cleopatra, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, with a fantastic performance by Elizabeth Taylor as the last ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra. The movie spans the last years of Egypt before it became a Roman province, with the political intrigue around it and the emotional intrigue that Cleopatra stirred with her wit, beauty, and ambition. The sprawling historical drama truly is a sight to behold, and the immense budget is well worth it.
The main character, Cleopatra, belonged to the Ptolemaic dynasty, created after Alexander the Great’s conquest and death. She initially ruled jointly with her brother. However, after his attempts to accumulate power and kill her, Cleopatra used Caesar’s strength for her advantage, which resulted in her brother’s death and her becoming the sole ruler of Egypt. That is the way she is portrayed in the movie: passionate yet coldly ambitious, dismissive of the lesser people, commanding men with her powerful presence and quick wit.
To her allies, she was a lover, a pillar of emotional support, and a sponsor. To her enemies, she was a force to be reckoned with, flaunting magnificent shows of wealth, beauty, and unbending will. The only man who was her equal is Julius Caesar, and their banter at the beginning of the movie shows the strength of both of their minds and the sharpness of both of their tongues.
Every conflict in the movie seems to revolve around Egypt. The civil war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII attracted Rome’s attention because Egypt was a valuable source of grain. Egypt was also affluent, which is why Mark Antony was forced to plead with Cleopatra to fund his legions. Later, Egypt became a political target for Rome, as Octavian moved to conquer and plunder it for his Empire. In the last scenes of the movie, his soldiers are seen pillaging the Egyptian gold. Riches, influence, and fertile land were what made Egypt so important to Rome.
The critical thing to understand is that before Caesar, Rome did not have emperors. His allies assassinated him for trying to consolidate power and declare himself the sole ruler. The Roman title of dictator meant that he was respected by the citizens and could exert his rule through his dictates. However, the Senate, an aristocratic decision-making body, could approve or veto these dictates by voting, limiting the dictator’s power. Monarchical power, on the other hand, is often unrestricted, which is what Romans did not want.
Alexander the Great was a ruler of Macedonia that conquered and governed many lands until his untimely death. His body was buried in a sarcophagus in Alexandria in recognition of his merit by the kingdom he conquered, along with his prized possessions. In contrast, after Caesar was stabbed, his body was dragged onto the street and burned, with Roman citizens adding fuel to the pyre. This corresponds with the first scene of the movie, in which the victors burned the bodies of the fallen on the battlefield in a show of military pragmaticism.
There is not much to say about women’s political roles in any of the depicted nations. Cleopatra was an exceptional woman, who commanded armies and wealth, but that is what she was: an exception. Most other important people in the world at the time were men, with even noblewomen being subservient.
The backdrop of the movie serves as a storytelling device, as well. The streets of Alexandria were littered with Greek architecture, signifying the Greek conquest of Egypt. The interiors are lavishly decorated and large, as the movie mostly takes place in palaces and royal vessels. Rome’s megalithic architecture, with wide streets and tall stone walls, creates the image of strength that backs its decisive military victories. Every backdrop serves both as a historical and a thematic setting.
What Cleopatra sacrifices in historical accuracy, it makes up for in emotional impact. Movies such as these are a great way to learn about historical figures while also being moved to tears. It is truly an exceptional piece of art about exceptional people.
Cleopatra. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, performances by Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, Martin Landau, Hume Cronyn, and George Cole. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1963.