DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Cleopatra (50th Anniversary Digibook), Blu-ray (1963/2013)

An amazing film and restoration, but too long and overwrought.

Published on June 2, 2013

Cleopatra (50th Anniversary Digibook), Blu-ray (1963/2013)

Director: Joseph Mankiewicz
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, Richard Burton, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowell
Studio: 20th Century Fox [5/28/13] (2 discs)
Video: 2.35:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9 1080p HD color
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; English Dolby Digital 4.0; Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1; French DTS 5.1
Extras, Disk 1: Commentary with Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, Martin Landau and Jack Brodsky, Cleopatra Through the Ages: A Cultural History (1080p; 7:51), Cleopatra’s Missing Footage (1080p; 8:12), Fox Movie Channel Presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman (480i; 29:29), The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence
Extras, Disk 2: Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood (480i; 1:59:07), The Fourth Star of Cleopatra (480i; 9:06), Fox Movietone News (480i; 6:19), Theatrical Trailers (480i; 10:03)
Length: 251 minutes
Rating: ***      Video: *****     Sound: ****

For those who were waiting for a superb Bu-ray presentation of one of the most infamous movies ever made, your time has arrived. 1963’s Cleopatra still ranks as one of the (inflation adjusted) most expensive movies ever made. It almost thrust 20th Century Fox into bankruptcy, but certainly much of the money is up there on the screen.

This Blu-ray disk was created from a pristinely restored 4 + hour version with a 1080p encode with a 2.22:1 aspect ration. The film looks brand new, and includes a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and a Dolby Digital 4.0 presentation. Dialog, as was the custom then, is directional, rather than all on the center channel. (An actor on the left side of the screen is heard via the left front speaker.) Surrounds are used sparingly, serving mainly to contain a few sound effects and ambiance. The score by Alex North is thrilling, but heard away from the film on CD it is not a compelling listen.

As a film, Cleopatra is  overlong and slow, slower than I remember from its original run, which was the three-hour version. The first half, with Rex Harrison as Caesar is excellent, but part two with Burton and Taylor seems to drag on. Still, it is a character-driven film alongside all the spectacle, and the acting is excellent from the main stars and the supporting cast.

The highlight of the disk set is a two-hour 2001 special on the making of the film called Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood. It is a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes footage and commentary about how the film ran so wildly out of control. It is certainly not a PR effort to save face for the studio, but well-balanced and informative. It is best to watch the documentary before diving into the film itself.

As an artifact of a kind of film that could never be made today, Cleopatra is a must see. The acting, music, production design and script are all excellent, yet taken together at once some will find the film a crashing bore.

Others will have great enjoyment watching the film and the many hours of extras and commentaries. For many, the extras surpass the film itself. They are among the best seen and heard on any home video disc presentation.

Cleopatra can be purchased in a Limited Special edition that includes an informative bound booklet. Most will opt for the 2-disc film and extras alone, at a savings of about $5.00.

—Mel Martin




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