Caesar And Cleopatra (1945): The Vanity Of Youth

Cleopatra’s throne is barely warm when the conqueror Julius Caesar (Claude Rains) decides to pay her (Vivien Leigh) a visit. He plays games with this “child” and finds the prospect of romance more enticing than he originally thought. Cleopatra of Egypt is unique; she is intelligent as well as beautiful, playing those around her like fools. And for her, being romantically involved with the most powerful man in the world may prove fruitful in the future. Written by Bernard Shaw (My Fair Lady) and directed by Gabriel Pascal (Androcles and the Lion), Caesar and Cleopatra tells the story of her and the famed military general, and the many things they accomplished, the good and the bad.

I must confess that Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) is a Technicolor British film but I have elected to use black and white photos since those ones seemed to be of better quality than the coloured ones (of which there are few). In its heyday, this was the most expensive British film ever made. Not to forget to mention that director Gabriel Pascal built his own Sphinx and Vivien Leigh having a miscarriage when she ran up some stairs whilst filming, delaying production by a number of weeks. However, this might have been the British trying to show the Americans across the Atlantic that we can make films just as well as them. And to be fair, Britain can hold her own against Hollywood.

Oscar-winning actress Vivien Leigh plays Queen Cleopatra of Egypt in Gabriel Pascal’s film
(Caesar and Cleopatra, United Artists)

I really enjoyed this film. From the perspective of a modern eye, some bits may have been a little over-directed, overwritten and overacted (Leigh) but it’s a great film nonetheless. This film is simply one many films are a little on the nose but we have to remember that they’re products of their time. Nonetheless, the “on the nose” segments were few in relation to other films (most westerns). In this coming-of-age drama, Cleopatra (Leigh) and Caesar (Rains) play versions of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, simply trading out the Tara Plantation for the state of Egypt. Rains is well-cast as Julius Caesar and Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind) slays as The Queen of Sass AKA Cleopatra.

More than a biopic; more than a romance drama; underneath it all, it’s a coming-of-age film and a character study of Cleopatra. At the start, she is nothing but a child who has a great responsibility before she is ready. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. As the film continues, she learns (mainly from Caesar) and becomes a good player of politics. Not so different from Game of Thrones’ Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen). And what happened to Baelish? He was killed by those he trusted most, much alike how Julius Caesar was killed by his own men. “Veni, vidi, vici” is attached to Caesar, or quite simply, “I came, I saw, I conquered”. And then he died.

Cleopatra knows how to survive and she survives through this “take no prisoners” mentality
(Caesar and Cleopatra, United Artists)

This film can be occasionally on the nose, but it’s an entertaining two or so hours all the same. From the performances to the sets to the parts of pure comedy, it’s a good time and one more example of why Vivien Leigh is still celebrated fifty years after her death.

Yes, Vivien Leigh is great as Cleopatra but she’s not got a scratch on Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963)