Charlton Heston loved Shakespeare’s play so much that he chose to tackle not only the lead role, but direct and adapt the play to create a robust cinematic version, with surprisingly grand battle scenes shot in Spain on land and sea.
The intimacy of the play is never lost, however, and while Heston is a wee bit old to play Marc Antony, at least he’s seen here as a maturing, graying soldier whose lost his battle-ready mojo by spending far too much down-time with Egypt’s sultry Queen Cleopatra.
His men are having trouble tolerating his state of laziness-in-love, and back in Rome, Octavius (played by a strangely sterile, yet effective, John Castle) is getting ready to centralize his power, since he has the bigger and better ideas for Rome and its territories.
Each cast member is uniformly solid, but among the big surprises is Julian Glover as loyal Roman soldier Proculeius, who maintains decorum and dignity as the triumvirate established by Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus fractures. He also playas pivotal role when Antony and Cleopatra’s pungent romance finally reaches its toxic peak in the final act.
Jean Lapotaire is also strong as Cleopatra’s loyal maiden Charmian, who stays with her Queen until the bitter end. (The actress would later tackle Cleopatra in a 1981 BBC version of Shakespeare’s play.)
Hildegard Neil is fine as Cleopatra, but there are odd moments where the couple’s passionate groping and poetic declarations becomes a bit sniveling, and Neil’s complexion is so pale that one has to assume the Queen of Egypt spends most of her time indoors, sheathed from the sun by thick camel hair blankets and impenetrable stone doors.
For his directorial debut, Heston focused on casting, performances, rehearsing, and getting every nuance right, while producer Peter Snell handled the budget issues, which managed to include desert and sea battles. Covered largely ion montages, the sequences act as buffers to lengthy dialogue scenes, but even without them, Heston’s version would still hold its own. Lacking a mounting conspiracy, Shakespeare’s play isn’t as gripping as Julius Caesar, but the second half of the Bard’s Caesarian diptych beautifully balances multiple characters whose identities never blur, and whose tragic outcomes or conflicted circumstances remain deeply moving to the bitter end.
The last scene in which Antony dies with Cleopatra is still potent tragedy, and it’s no surprise director Joseph L. Mankiewicz quoted lines from the play in his own mega-Caesar opus, Cleopatra (1963).
There are more than major plot and dialogue similarities between the Heston and Mankiewicz epics: at times the battle scenes seem to share the same wardrobe, and the barges used in the sea battle are also quite similar, even though Joe Canutt handled the second unit choreography and fights for Heston.
One standout scene involves two gladiators trying to slash each other to pieces while the fate of the Roman Empire is being discussed quite sullenly by the triumvirate. Heston’s staging also shows the inherent cruelty of the ruling Romans, who glance a few times at the gladiators, and give a token thumbs up when one’s hand is impaled in the ground before an imminent death blow; only when death is near or there’s a cry of agony does anyone bother to glance at a bloodsport that’s been reduced to background wallpaper.
John Scott’s score is lovely, but its’ near monothematic nature with little variation becomes tiresome, particularly during the wall-to-wall moments of looped theme statements. (The film’s Main Titles also credits Augusto Algero for “additional music,” which is either for the source cues, or perhaps bridge material.)
At 148 mins., Heston’s compact epic is really well-paced, and it’s a pity he only directed three films in his career; both A Man for All Seasons [M] (1988) and Mother Lode [M] (1982) proved he could handle emotional epics, as well as little B-movies about prospectors hungry for gold.
Son Fraser Heston made his own debut as a second unit director, learning the ropes of directing from both his father and action maestro Joe Canutt. The younger Heston appears in the DVD’s making-of documentary (interviewed by Laurent Bouzereau in 2009) and recalls the film’s tight production, his father’s dual handling of acting and directing, and getting a lot of visual scope in what was a modestly budgeted film. The featurette has one major flaw, though: too much footage from the film, which pads the running time, and delays the next interview segment.
Charlton Heston had previously appeared as Marc Antony in Peter Snell’s 1970 production of Julius Caesar [M], and he reportedly made his Broadway debuting in a supporting part in Antony and Cleopatra.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan