8 November 2012 | timdalton007
The Epic Behind The Epic
It started out as a low-budget film to bring much needed revenue into ailing Twentieth-Century Fox. Instead, it became a runaway production that would change lives, destroy careers and nearly bankrupt the studio behind it. The film in question is of course the 1963 film Cleopatra. The 2001 documentary Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood is the story of the making of a film with a back-story as epic as the film itself.
As the opening of the documentary states, Cleopatra is a film surrounded by rumors and gossip. What the documentary does is to follow the making of the film, from the situation that led to the decision to make it to the release of the film and its legacy. To do this, the filmmakers use a variety of sources and materials largely unseen for the decades.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the documentary is the footage from the not one but two different productions of the film. As the documentary explores, Cleopatra originally started filming in the UK with a largely different cast, crew and indeed director. The documentary presents footage from that original production that, combined with film historians and an interview with actor Keith Baxter (originally cast in the role eventually played by Roddy McDowall), presents a fascinating look at a film that was destined never to be finished. The documentary also presents outtakes and deleted scenes from the eventual production of the film (including footage of the first attempt to film Cleopatra's entrance into Rome and the scene originally intended to introduce Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra). There's also rarely seen costume and screen tests such as footage of actress Joan Collins auditioning for the title role.
The documentary also uses a wealth of other archival material. These range from newsreels to newspaper/magazine articles to rarely seen production photos and indeed television commercials inspired by the film. The result is a look at the film through not just its making but its effect on popular culture.
Last but not least is the interviews used in the documentary. The interviews covers the entire range of the film's production from studio executive David Brown to actors such as Hume Cronyn and Martin Landau (as well as a 1995 interview with Roddy McDowall). Also included are interview with film historians and archivists who give the various piece archived footage and material context and who also discuss the attempted restoration of the film to its full length. There are also interviews with family and friends of those involved in the production from the family of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Sadly Elizabeth Taylor, the only surviving member of the main cast alive at the time, was not interviewed, (presumably at her wish) though the documentary more than makes up for her lack of presence. Given that so many of those interviewed are no longer with us, the interviews alone are worthy of note in their own right.
The result of all these materials, combined with the narration of actor Robert Culp, is a fascinating two hours. While that may seem a bit long for what is on the surface a making of documentary, the story it presents is worthy of its running time. From the background of a studio in crisis to the various mistakes and miscalculations that sent the production off track on more than one occasion (such as the abandoning of the seven million dollar UK production, the decision to re-stage an already expensive sequence six months after it was first filmed due to lighting, the fight between Mankiewicz and studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck over the running time and of course the famous love affair of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) to the film's effects on the subsequent careers of those involved, the documentary proves the old adage that fact is stranger than fiction.
Indeed that old saying could sum the documentary as well. With its wealth of material from both productions of Cleopatra, rarely seen archival materials and interviews covering the whole production, the rumors and gossip behind the film are set aside to reveal a truth that is at times incredible to believe. The result is the story of the epic behind the epic and the story of the film that, indeed, changed Hollywood.