By Edmund Connolly, on 30 January 2013
Upcoming event: Caesar and Cleopatra, February 6th 2013
Britain’s first million-pound film, starring Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains, was Caesar and Cleopatra. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1901 play of the same name, with a screenplay written by Shaw, it opened on 12th December 1945 in the Odeon at Marble Arch in London, and was released in the U.S. in September 1946. It is showing at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (Malet Place, London WC1E 6BT), hosted by John J. Johnston, on February 6th 2013.
Made during World War II, it was hoped that the investment of over £1,250,000 into the film would help to establish Britain in the American cinematic market. Filmed in Technicolor, it took two years to complete, most of it set within a custom-built studio in Denham, England. Over 500 pieces of jewellery and 2000 costumes were created for the film and 400 tons of sand were imported into the Denham studio. The largest scene included more than 1500 actors. Conceived on an epic scale, it produced an Academy Award Nomination for Best Art Direction for John Bryan. The main stars of the film, Claude Raines, Vivien Leigh and Stuart Granger, were all household names. Vivien Leigh was particularly famous for her role as Scarlett O’Hara, six years earlier, in Gone With The Wind, which was one of the highest-grossing films of all-time.
The theatrically appealing story of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony has inspired many writers and film makers. Cleopatra VII Philopater was born in 50BC and, at around the age of 14, was made co-regent with her father Ptolemy XII Auletes. On the death of her father, approximately four years later, Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopater were made co-regents. The Ptolemaic state was by now a weak one, and leaned heavily on Rome for support, which in part accounts for why, on the death of Cleopatra’s father, Pompey was nominated to be her guardian. When Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalus in 48BC, Pompey fled to Egypt where he was assassinated on the orders of Ptolemy XIII, enraging Caesar whose policy had been to pardon his opponents. Caesar arrived in Egypt in the same year, to find a power struggle between Cleopatra and her brother, the outcome of which was that in 48BC Ptolemy had managed to oust Cleopatra from the throne. Caesar restored Cleopatra to the throne, this time with another brother, Ptolemy XIV, whom she married. The marriage did not prevent Cleopatra having a relationship with Caesar, which produced a son, Caesarion, in 47BC.
Shaw’s original play focuses on the meeting of the famous pair, and the way in which Caesar’s political sagacity informed the childlike Queen’s fledgling rule. It is an imaginary tale, based only loosely on known facts. It is very much of a comment on political power, a theme that was close to Shaw’s heart and well encapsulated in the oft-quoted line from his 1905 play Major Barbara: “Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power.” Shaw was not against power in general, and indeed believed that good government and men of action were often synonymous with each other, and were to be encouraged and admired. He was a firm believer in age and gender equality and thought that in most respects very little social progress had been made since ancient times. His play focuses quite tightly on the education of the inexperienced new Queen by the wise, righteous and merciful Caesar, emphasising the value of good leadership. Cleopatra’s love for Caesar, Shaw suggests, develops from her appreciation of Caesar’s wisdom and benevolent guidance.
The task of translating these ideas into film, whilst delivering to the public the great entertainment that his starry cast promised, clearly presented something of a challenge to director Gabriel Pascal. The film divided the contemporary critics. The Daily Mirror’s film critic, Reg Whitely, described it as an “outstanding piece of film-craft of which Britain may be proud” whilst Jympson Harmon in The Star considered it to be “too talkative for great film art” but was much taken with Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra as the “half-pale witch in exotic raiment, half child” and the “wise, witty, stern and kindly” Caesar of Claude Rains. The Observer’s C.A. Lejeune considered that the director Gabriel Pascal was “too stern a disciplinarian to dally with scenic effect when he has a message from Shaw to deliver.” It was not a box office success, but it has found considerable enthusiasm with modern audiences, and has been released on DVD for a new generation of viewers to enjoy.
I have not yet seen the film, and am very much looking forward to seeing it at the Petrie Museum on the 6th of February. For details of how to book for the free-of-charge event, phone 0207 679 4138 or book online at http://caesarandcleopatra.eventbrite.co.uk.