36. Charlton Heston’s Antony and Cleopatra (1972)
Antony and Cleopatra is Shakespeare’s continuation of sorts of Caesar. The triumvirate of Roman leaders, Octavius Caesar, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Marc Antony is on the verge of breaking with Marc Antony since he has lapsed in his Roman duties and gone native with lust in Egypt with Cleopatra. Pompey, son of the Roman leader who was deposed by Julius Caesar, is threatening Rome with a triumvirate of his own.
After the debacle of the film of Julius Caesar, Charlton Heston must have been charged up and mightily disappointed.
Caesar didn’t bomb because of him, after all, but because of Jason Robards. As he was nearing 50 years of age, Heston was reaching the far limit of middle age, and wanted another Shakespearean romp, another period piece, another go.
He proved he could be Mark Antony, so why not film Antony and Cleopatra like a sequel to Julius Caesar?
Why not direct the film himself?
Why not adapt the script with someone named Federico De Urrutia?
These are not the worst ideas, but Heston overlooked two major things with this film: In A&C, Antony does not have anything like the funeral oration from Caesar, and just as Robards, a capable actor, somehow managed to capsize Caesar, casting the wrong Cleopatra would ruin this new film.
One needs a Cleopatra who can persuade you that Marc Antony is not entirely wrong to cause civil war in Rome, and bring shame to two fine Roman noblewomen, over a single woman who was not his wife. One needs a Cleopatra who is imaginative, erotic, powerful, and mercurial.
For reasons passing understanding, Hildegard Neil played Cleoptra as a hysterical, yet somehow blandly blonde harpy: a bad impression of Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps.
I say this with no joy, as Neil is married to Brian Blessed, who could kill me easily, and frankly if that is how my life ended, I would have no regrets except for the reason for his provocation. Also, Neil spent one season performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company, so perhaps this almost unwatchable performance is connected to whatever mysterious curse befell Jason Robards in Caesar.
Sweet Jebus, there is just so much Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra.
Where was I?
The script has some excellent moments, I must say.
When Marc Antony returns to Rome to meet with Octavius Caesar in Act II, the dialogue takes place in a small arena while two gladiators, providing a bold subtext, battle one another.
When Enobarbus suggests a bacchanal for the peace brokered between Octavius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Pompey, a pantomime of Antony’s relationship to Cleopatra is enacted in dance. Antony himself, drunk, seems to enjoy the spectacle, especially when she falls into Octavius’s lap.
The dancer playing Cleopatra in this play-within-a-play would likely have made a better Cleopatra.
If Robert Vaughn seems to run away with his scenes as Casca in Caesar, Freddie Jones runs away with his scenes as Pompey. (I know him from David Lynch movies, such as The Elephant Man). Character actors seem to frolic well with Shakespeare.
John Castle is both likeable and creepy as the ever even-keeled Octiavius.
Roger Delgado, who looks like Dennis Hopper, is wonderful as the soothsayer.
Oh, right, Charlton Heston is in this thing.
As Antony, whose identity is being torn apart by love, Heston is underwhelming, if not actually bad. There’s not much chemistry between him and Neil, obviously.
This looks like a low budget film with some amazing locations, so there is a dreamy quality here. One gets the sense that Egypt and Rome and everyplace else is very far apart, and everyone must be tired in beautiful scenery.
The sea battle scenes late in the film feature a lot of super-impositions, and apparently uses leftover footage from Ben Hur. It’s kind of fun to watch.
Then Marc Antony and Cleopatra argue.
Then the armies fight on land.
And then Antony will wound himself before being captured, and take about five hours of screentime to die. And then Cleopatra kills herself, but not without a metric fuck-ton of squeaky dialogue first.
My friend Don Royster insisted that this movie was so bad that I simply had to watch it.
For all its flaws (like Hildegard Neil, and Hildegard Neil), Charlton Heston’s Antony and Cleopatra is still much better than Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, or Michael Almereyda’s Shakespearean botchery.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.
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