Celebrating 50 Years of ‘Cleopatra’: True Stories of the Biggest, Craziest Movie Gamble of the 1960s

Mark Deming
Movie Talk
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 'Cleopatra'
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 'Cleopatra'

Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, it was one of Hollywood's biggest big-budget disasters — and easily the most talked about film of the 1960s.

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the world premiere of "Cleopatra," a lavish historical epic that has its own sordid backstory. It launched one of Hollywood's greatest romances: Taylor and Burton's on-set romance turned into a stormy but passionate marriage that was the longest of Taylor's life. "Cleopatra"'s chaotic production also nearly bankrupted its studio, and the picture generated more publicity – both good and bad – than any movie of its time.

Now that "Cleopatra" has aged a half century (and is also now available on Blu-Ray), let's look back at a few of the strange-but-true stories behind the making of one of the costliest and most gossiped-about movies of all time.

Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor

"Cleopatra" Wasn't Always Meant to Be an Elizabeth Taylor Vehicle.

When 20th Century Fox and producer Walter Wanger first blocked out plans in 1958 to make a movie about the life of Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, it was intended as a mid-budget picture shot on the studio's back lot, and they had a British contract player in mind for the lead: Joan Collins. Test footage of Collins with Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony exists, but before long the studio had bigger plans.

Elizabeth Taylor Breaks Hollywood's Glass Ceiling.

Producer Wanger wanted to turn "Cleopatra" into a big-budget blockbuster, and decided he needed a bigger name than Joan Collins. Wanger set his sights on Elizabeth Taylor, Hollywood's biggest female star. In 1959, Taylor signed on to make the film, but she didn't come cheap: She earned $1 million for her work on "Cleopatra," making her the first woman to earn seven figures for a single movie role. She also got ten percent of the film's box office gross.

Turning England Into Egypt... and Saving Cleopatra's Life.

At Taylor's request, Wanger and director Rouben Mamoulian planned to shoot the film in England, setting up shop at Pinewood Studio just outside London. This proved to be a costly mistake — the sets designed by art director John DeCuir were too large for Pinewood's stages, and the chilly weather led to Taylor falling ill with a severe cold aggravated by an abscessed tooth. Later she contracted pneumonia, and at one point Taylor needed a tracheotomy in order to breathe. It left a scar on her throat that's visible in some scenes.

Viva Italia!

Needing bigger facilities and a warmer climate, Wanger moved the "Cleopatra" production to Cinecitta Studio in Rome. This meant building all new sets and scrapping the footage that had been shot so far; by this point, it was the fall of 1961 and over $7 million had been spent. Director Mamoulian dropped out of the project, and Taylor, who had director approval in her contract, requested Joseph Mankiewicz, who had directed her in "Suddenly Last Summer." Fox paid $3 million to secure Mankiewicz's services.


Elizabeth, Meet Richard.

After Taylor's health forced the production to go on hiatus in the summer of 1961, Stephen Boyd had to drop out of the role of Mark Antony, and Richard Burton was cast in his place. While it's said Burton didn't think much of Taylor as an actress at first, it wasn't long before the two leads became powerfully infatuated and were frequently canoodling off set. Unfortunately, Taylor and Burton were both married to other people (and he had two daughters). When the tabloid press found out about their affair, it was front page news all over the world; even the Vatican was moved to comment on Burton and Taylor's infidelity.

A Hands-On Production.

"Cleopatra"'s long schedule and frequent overages led to problems with labor unions, though one of Wanger's disputes was decidedly out of the ordinary. The female extras in Italy banded together to demand something be done about their costumes; the actresses felt they were at once uncomfortable and too revealing, which led to unwanted groping from the men on the set. Wanger responder by hiring security to keep the extras safe from unwanted advances.

Elizabeth Taylor in 'Cleopatra'
Elizabeth Taylor in 'Cleopatra'

Dress For Success.

The massive scale of "Cleopatra" was reflected by the lavish costumes created for the film. Taylor alone wore 65 different outfits in the film, one of which was fashioned from 24-karat gold cloth. By the time filming was completed, over 20,000 costumes had been built for "Cleopatra," and the extras went through 8,000 pairs of shoes.

The Ups and Downs of Screenwriting.

When Mankiewicz took over as director, he was very unhappy with the script for "Cleopatra" and wanted to do a complete rewrite. However, with the production already massively over schedule, Wanger and 20th Century Fox balked, and Mankiewicz was forced to shoot all day and write all night, a process that proved wildly inefficient. The director spent much of the shoot in a state of exhaustion, and was said to rely on pep pills and sleeping pills to get through the production.

Two Cleopatras for the Price of … A Lot?

By the time shooting was completed on "Cleopatra," the film cost over $30 million, an expense that left 20th Century Fox teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Mankiewicz's rough cut was nearly six hours long, and at one point, the studio considered releasing "Cleopatra" in two parts in order to more readily recoup its costs, but that plan was scrapped. The cut shown at the 1963 premiere was 243 minutes; it was soon trimmed to 222 minutes, and the version that went into general release ran 192 minutes.

Two's Publicity, Three's a Crowd.

The publicity campaign for "Cleopatra" cost nearly $15 million, as Fox sought to lure in big crowds. Hoping to play up the headlines about Burton and Taylor's romance, publicists created artwork for ads, posters, and billboards that depicted Cleopatra and Mark Antony looking into each other's eyes. However, Rex Harrison, who played Julius Caesar, had insisted on a contract that gave him equal billing with Taylor and Burton, and the artists were forced to add the image of a disapproving Caesar looking over their shoulders.

It's Funny Because It's True …

Mankiewicz had grown disenchanted with the stress of "Cleopatra" long before it was completed, and confided to friends that it would never be a great movie, though it might be a good one. The world premiere of "Cleopatra" was broadcast on NBC's "Tonight Show," and when Bert Parks said to the director, "Congratulations on a wonderful, wonderful achievement," Mankiewicz replied with a grin, "You must know something I don't!"

ABC to the Rescue.

By the time "Cleopatra" finally debuted in 1963, it cost over $44 million – adjusting for inflation, that's well over $300 million in 2013 dollars (exorbitant for any movie budget — even for high profile projects). While the film was a major box office success, paying off the bills for "Cleopatra" took years, and it wasn't until 1966 that 20th Century Fox declared the film finally turned a profit, after ABC-TV paid $5 million for the rights to air the blockbuster twice.