Shakespeare on Film: Antony and Cleopatra


Antony and Cleopatra (1972)
d. Charlton Heston

After playing Marc Antony in the 1950 and 1970 Julius Caesars, Charlton Heston had become obsessed with adapting Antony and Cleopatra, which he considered Shakespeare’s finest work, but which had never previously been filmed at feature length. His love affair with character and play reached a rocky conclusion in this overlong epic.

After writing a screenplay that removes several of Antony’s and Octavius’s friends and officers at negligible cost, he assumed directing duties only after being turned down by Orson Welles, who would surely no have allowed Shakespeare’s inherently cinematic plot to crisscross between Alexandria, Rome, Syria and Athens as sluggishly as Heston; nor, one suspects, would Welles have introduced so much spurious background action, such as the gory bout between two gladiators, which distracts from what should be a riveting meeting between Antony and Octavius, from Act II, Scene ii.

For the battle of Actium, a naval clash Shakespeare could only allude to via “noise of a sea-fight,” Heston craved massive spectacle; he could only afford original footage of Antony’s flagship ramming one of Octavius’s galleys, embellished with outtakes from Ben-Hur (1959). The resulting close-ups of two vast, sturdy replicas, intercut with long shots of tiny, flimsy models are laughable, ruining the pivotal moment when Cleopatra betrays Antony. The later battle, at which Octavius’s cavalry overwhelms Antony’s infantry, is more effective, though Heston cannot resist over-indulging his own heroic image as Antony hacks his way through Roman horsemen with super-human strength.

Lousy reviews scuppered the movie’s chances of wide distribution in America, and, in his autobiography, Heston lamented that “the film I cared more about than any I’ve ever made was a failure.”

100 Shakespeare Films

Extracted from 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal, BFI Publishing, 2007. Reprinted by kind permission of BFI Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy of100 Shakespeare Films and other books from the BFI Screen Guides series, visit their website at www.palgrave-usa.com.

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