Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Double Feature: Cleopatra (1963) & How the West Was Won (1963)

Cleopatra (1963) - **1/2

Starring Elizabeth Taylor as the iconic queen, this lengthy epic covers the highs and lows of Cleopatra's reign over Egypt and her relationships and alliances with two powerful Roman figures: Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton). It is a technical marvel, and the film's set pieces are a spectacular achievement for the period it was produced. Of course, the performances are also worth mentioning, as they carry the weight of the material. Taylor, unfortunately, is overshadowed by her male co-stars, with Harrison and Burton delivering more interesting takes on their characters. But the only performance I'd call more than acceptable would be Roddy McDowall's small role as Octavian, the fierce rival of Marc Antony. Even though the story is interesting, the film is just too long. Epics can be over 4 hours long, but they can also be much better than this. Still, it's easy to see why the film was lavished with so many Oscar nods at the time.

The film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Harrison), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Cinematography (C), Best Costume Design (C), Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Special Effects. It won awards for Best Art Direction (C), Best Cinematography (C), Best Costume Design (C), and Best Special Effects.

Trivia: A 6-hour cut of the film was reduced to 4 hours, but it required 49 pages of reshoots for the new version to make sense.

How the West Was Won (1963) - ***

Over the course of 50 years of Western expansion, the Prescott family encounter Native Americans, outlaws, the Gold Rush, the Civil War, and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. There's easily enough to engage for almost 3 hours, even if it feels like an excuse to cram as many cameos as possible into one film. And there are several. This film has Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark. And that's only 10 of the ensemble! This is a fine cast, but the film constantly shifts from one segment to the next, creating a rather sporadic pace. In addition, the Cinerama format means it does not include close-ups, which can be bothersome on a tiny strip of picture on a standard size TV screen. Since Academy voters didn't see it on the small screen, they were probably able to appreciate its scope and star quality more when it was released in theaters.

The film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction (Color), Best Cinematography (C), Best Costume Design (C), Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound. It won awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.

Trivia: It was shot by 4 Oscar-winning cinematographers (William H. Daniels, Milton R. Krasner, Charles Lang, and Joseph LaShelle).


  1. Great double reviews Josh! I really want to see Cleopatra, curious to see Liz and Richard together. I think it's on Netflix Instant. I should see How the West Was Won too, I mean both Gregory Peck & Jimmy Stewart are in it, I love both of those actors!

    1. Thanks Ruth! Hope you like them.

  2. Cleopatra's length is what makes me hesitant in checking it out. But I know I will get around to seeing it since it does feature La Liz.
    I'm not interested in How The West...because I generally don't like Westerns and your review makes it seem as if its editing makes it a bit disjointed.
    Great double reviews indeed.

    1. Yeah, the length kept me from watching it for a few years, but I finally gave in.

      How the West... never really finds its stride. It's entertaining, and the construction of the narrative is respectable. But it never slows down, cutting from segment to segment without mercy. Some of the cameos are wasted. Since you're not a big fan of Westerns, I wouldn't recommend it, unless you're a fan of some of the cast.