2013/03/16

The 1934 movie "Cleopatra"


Listened to an audiobook on Cleopatra and re-watched Claudette Colbert in the 1934 Cecil B. DeMille “Cleopatra” movie. Most of the historical inaccuracies in it can be chalked up to dramatic license. Cleopatra ruled for 18 dramatic and event-filled years and the movie is only 100 minutes long, so there's a lot of compression involved. The only really startling, anachronistic, “Whuuh?” moment came for me when Colbert tries to convince Julius Caesar that Egypt was the stepping stone to India.
For Cleopatra to get to Rome, the audiobook tells us, her sea convoy traveled up the coasts of Israel, Turkey, Greece and Italy, stopping every night so the crew could sleep in buildings or tents on shore. It took a couple of weeks to make the journey of perhaps 500 miles. Now, getting from Egypt to India is well over 2000 miles. As the Suez Canal wasn't built until 1869, that added over 100 miles of land that ships had to be carried over. The point the book makes is that Egypt was a prize all on its own and Cleopatra was a royal personage well worth knowing as she was a highly attractive person (everybody who comes into contact with her strives to give her the benefit of the doubt and to make excuses for her and to stay with her as long as possible) who had a great deal in common with both of the Romans that she took up with.
The book doubts that Cleopatra had herself bitten by a snake, but agrees that she was researching various poisons to see how quickly and painlessly they worked. The only point where the book and the movie disagree is that the book concluded that she felt the end was near and she didn't want to be paraded around Rome as a captive. The movie concludes that she had agreed to dispose of Mark Antony with one of the poisons she had been researching. The book shows us that Cleopatra was a real sexual outlaw who did quite a bit of sleeping around, but whose goal was always a stronger and better Egypt. There's only one scene in the movie where she clearly has sex, but I guess that in 1934, that was enough to classify her as pretty wanton.
I was interested to see the parallels between this story and the story presented in “The Other BoleynGirl” with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johanssen. In both stories, families try to make alliances through sex, through males being attracted to females. In both cases it works okay, for short periods anyway, but long-term alliances are best made for pragmatic reasons that don't need to be supplemented by sexual attractions.
Cleopatra played an important role in a tumultuous time and impressed pretty much all of the people she came into contact with. My regret concerning the movie is that she's presented as very passive and not nearly as assertive and nowhere near the goddess that she actually presented herself as in real life.

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