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CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (director: Gabriel Pascal; screenwriter: George Bernard Shaw/from the play by George Bernard Shaw; cinematographers: Jack Cardiff/Jack Hildyard/Robert Krasker/Freddie Young; editor: Frederick Wilson; music: Georges Auric; cast: Claude Rains (Julius Caesar), Vivien Leigh (Cleopatra), Stewart Granger (Apollodorus), Flora Robson (Ftatateeta), Francis L. Sullivan (Pothinus), Basil Sydney (Rufio), Cecil Parker (Britannus), Anthony Harvey (King Ptolemy), Raymond Lovell (Lucius Septemus), Ernest Thesiger (Theodotus), Anthony Eustral (Achillas); Runtime: 134; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Gabriel Pascal; MGM Home Entertainment; 1945-UK)
Inexcusably dull in parts, while in other parts capturing some of Shaw’s sharp wit.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director and producer Gabriel Pascal (“Major Barbara”), an Hungarian exile in Great Britain, associated with Alexander Korda, felt it was his mission in life to bring George Bernard Shaw to film and thereby to the masses (the box office failure of this film put a damper on his ambitions and he only got one more shot at Shaw in 1952 producing Androcles and the Lion). Pascal directs with conviction this lavish, slow-moving, talky, 1898Shaw theatrical production, scripted by Shaw. It’s concerned with the nice old man Caesar (Claude Rains) and his visit to Egypt to stave off civil unrest among his subjects and collect taxes, who takes time off his political/military mission to guide in a paternal way the immature child queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Vivien Leigh), on how to act like a queen. Inexcusably dull in parts, while in other parts capturing some of Shaw’s sharp wit, his Shavian dialogue, his cynical view of the military and empire and, at times, it was able to make Shaw’s acerbic comedy come to life in a somewhat slapstick manner.

This was England’s most expensive film to date, and the money shows in the stunning visuals, colorful sets and terrific production values. Though the play was minor and the film bombed at the box office despite mostly favorable reviews, there were still wonderful performances by both Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh to rave about that made this a special film despite it being too theatrical for cinema.

Senior citizen Caesar meets the callow but beautiful teenager Cleopatra at the Sphinx at night and toys with her, as she does not realize she’s talking to Caesar. At her palace, Caesar shows her how to command her intimidating head maiden Ftatateeta (Flora Robson). Cleopatra learns quickly and veers between acting like an innocent child and someone on a mean-spirited power trip. The clever Caesar befriends his Egyptian enemies and conceals his thoughts from everyone, so they are never sure what he’s thinking. Cleopatra allows Caesar to live in Alexandria, thinking of him as her protector of the throne. Pothinus (Francis L. Sullivan), Egypt’s prime minister, wantsCleopatra’s inept, fearful kid half-brother, Ptolemy (Anthony Harvey), the one he’s guardian to, to be the sole king and opposes Caesar. The stealth Pothinus schemes to put the kid he can easily control on the throne, but is outwitted by the cunning Caesar and held as prisoner for months in Cleopatra’s palace while Egyptian mobs surround the Romans.

Caesar’s outnumbered army fights off the Egyptians and in the process puts a torch to the famous library of Alexandria. When Egyptian scholar Theodotus (Ernest Thesiger) complains and says that act will make Caesar look like a barbarian, Caesar then allows the Egyptian army to try to put out the fire in safety. But Caesar cynically tells his field commander general Rufio (Basil Sydne), this is good strategy because it will take those soldiers away from the battle.

After romancing the queen (with no romantic scenes or mention that the queen bore Caesar a son) and justifying his tactics by having the Roman reinforcements beat the outnumbered Egyptians in the desert, the victorious Caesar returns to Rome by ship to meet his fate and promises to send Cleopatra the young Mark Anthony to protect her crown and be her lover. Shaw did not allow the facts to ever get in the way of his storytelling, as he just couldn’t resist mocking the occupation and continual warfare between nations as akin to the powerful taking advantage of the weak. Shaw’s Caesar utters in despair what he has learned about his sojourn to Egypt in order to keep the Roman Empire intact: “And so to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right, and justice, and peace, until the gods create a race of men that can understand.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”