This is an excellent documentary,made in 2001. The story behind the making of Cleopatra (1963) is almost impossible to believe. We have the impression that during the era of the studio system,film makers in Hollywood were always at the mercy of the money men in New York – they were the people with the real power,hard headed and only interested in the profit line. And yet, when it comes to Cleopatra,financial control of a runaway production just seemed to evaporate.

When Walter Wanger was engaged by Twentieth Century Fox head,Spyros Skouras to produce Cleopatra in 1959,, producer Wanger had $2 million, 64 days and the Fox backlot at his disposal. Skouras needed a big hit for the studio, at a cost which would be acceptable to all concerned. Wanger was to use the studio acting roster and Joan Collins was tested for the lead ,but Wanger wanted Elizabeth Taylor. He didn’t want to make a ‘sword and sandal quickie’.Before too long, the budget had swelled to $5 million.

That Elizabeth Taylor had health problems that could hold up productions was well known,but she was a big star. Fox became the first studio ever to pay a star $1million for a single role. Amazingly they agreed to her request that it be filmed abroad.

Director Rouben Mamoulian came on board and Pinewood Studios in England was chosen – though no one seemed to consider the fact that a great many scenes would be outdoors and English weather would be far from ideal.

British Government financial assistance meant Fox had to use a UK cast and crew. Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd were cast as Caesar and Anthony. 20 acres of the Pinewood back lot were transformed into the port city of Alexandria – at a cost of $600,000.


In September,1960, cameras rolled and right away the weather held things up. Then Elizabeth became unwell and unable to work. By November, no more scenes could be shot without her and the production was shut down for a month. The script was being re-written and Nunnally Johnson was brought in and paid $140,000.

In January,1961,Elizabeth returned. She and Peter Finch didn’t like the script and Mamoulian threatened to leave. The studio let him go. They had 10 minutes of film from 16 weeks work at a cost of $5 million.

Maybe Fox should have cut their losses, but they didn’t. Elizabeth also had director approval.Joseph Mankiewicz (who had directed Elizabeth in Suddenly Last Summer) was hired,having been offered several million dollars. He came to London in February. He didn’t like the Pinewood sets.

Peter Finch

Peter Finch

In March 1961,Elizabeth had life-threatening pneumonia and returned to the States with her husband Eddie Fisher to recover.Mankiewicz took the time to completely re-write the script.He wanted two movies, Anthony and Cleopatra and Caesar and Cleopatra, at three hours each!
Insurance companies refused to cover Elizabeth. Over $12 million  had already been committed. Fox had no choice but to carry on.
Mankiewicz decided that Pinewood couldn’t double for Rome or Egypt. The Pinewood set was closed and sets were demolished. The whole production moved to Cinecitta studio,6 miles outside of Rome.

By this time, Finch and Boyd had other commitments. Rex Harrison was cast as Caesar and Fox paid $250,000 to get Richard Burton out of his Broadway show, Camelot, to play Anthony.

imageBy June,1961 $70,000 a day was being spent. The director had only written half of the new screenplay,but they had to start shooting again as Elizabeth would go into overtime at $50,000 per week from November!

The toll on Mankiewicz was terrible but he was proud of what he was doing. In October, Cleopatra’s entry into Rome was filmed,with thousands of extras. But cinematographer Leon Shamroy wasn’t happy with the light at that time of the year and wanted it done again at another part of the year.

Back in New York the Fox board of directors liked what they saw of the footage filmed, but board member Darryl Zanuck (previous head of production) warned them the film could sink the studio.

Cast member Hume Cronyn pointed out,”I was signed for 10 weeks – it turned out that I was there 10 months.”

image  By the end of 1961,they were half way through. Taylor and Burton had their first scene together in January 1962. They began an affair which became public knowledge.Eddie Fisher went back to the States. In May,1962,the entrance into Rome by Cleopatra was finally filmed.

In Hollywood, Fox was nearly bankrupt – no film except Cleopatra was in production. When Elizabeth finished ,her final fee was $7 million, an unheard of amount for a star.

In June, 1962, Darryl Zanuck made an impassioned plea to the Board of Directors, and Spyros Skouras was replaced by Zanuck and his son Richard as Production Head .Further battle scenes  were filmed in Egypt and in July 1962 principal photography finished.Mankiewicz began the massive task of editing and in October he showed Zanuck his first cut – 5 hours long!

Roddy McDowall

Roddy McDowall

Zanuck wasn’t happy with what he saw and fired Mankiewicz only to find he needed him to make sense of the film. Finally in 1963, Cleopatra was released, but at just over 4 hours, it couldn’t generate enough revenue and was cut to 3 hours 14 minutes. Elizabeth Taylor didn’t attend the New York premiere and told folk she hated what they had done to it. Still, in 1964, the film won 4 Oscars, for Art Direction, Costumes,Cinematography and Special Visual Effects.The Academy made a mistake and put Roddy McDowell in the Best Actor category instead of Supporting and he lost out.

The film earned $25 million on its first release,but the final cost of production was a staggering $44 million which kept the film from breaking even for several years.

Fox,under the Zanuck leadership,quickly rebounded with films like Planet of the Apes and The Sound of Music.

Who knows what happened to all the unused footage (probably more than two hours). In May,2013,Fox Chairman, Jim Gianopulos said that Cleopatra turned a profit after three years and that they never found any extra footage. How sad.

The newly  restored version is back to 4 hours.

It is an incredible story and could only happen in Hollywood!


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