Having arrived in 1963, our Hollywood Century project now completes its first half. And it pleases me greatly that such a milestone should be commemorated with one of the quintessential Hollywood films of all time - maybe the single best example of the grand, epic, stupid indulgence that only Hollywood filmmakers could ever fully enjoy. A legendary sinkhole of money (there's never been a completely reliable figure offered up, but it's still among the most expense films of all time, adjusted for inflation), visiting exotic locales that were filmed in the flashiest technology available, with a whole costume shop worth of fussy, glamorous dresses being paraded through massive sets, literal armies of human beings milling around as extras, with the script a hacked-together afterthought that became the victim of the filmmakers' need to work around the unexpected and unwanted by-products of the movie star culture that was primarily responsible for hauling the project off the ground to begin with. It is a perfect storm of Hollywood driven by its uncontrolled id, with all the suffocating grandiosity and astonishingly inept storytelling that could possibly imply. I give you - and please, feel free to keep it - Cleopatra, the infamous Elizabeth Taylor vehicle that very nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox.

The story of Cleopatra, the most famous queen in the history of the world, has been irresistible to filmmakers throughout history, for all the obvious reasons; indeed, it was Fox's second film of that title, following a long-lost 1917 film starring Theda Bara in the title role (an intervening film also titled just Cleopatra was made at Paramount in 1934, with Claudette Colbert; many other films primarily or incidentally about the Ptolemaic queen came out in several different countries along the way). But there was no epic like a '60s epic, and it would honestly seem inevitable that a major Cleopatra would come out some time between 1955 and 1965. That the Cleopatra we ended up with took the form it does is do to a great many matters: over the course of its tormented five-year production, the film had more problems and internal conflicts than even the costliest epic could endure including multiple stars, multiple directors, multiple screenplays, and a public that watched its journey to theaters more closely than just about any film had ever been scrutinised in those days long before the faintest inkling of the internet. That was, of course, thanks to the legendary torrid love affair between Taylor and co-star Richard Burton that started up during the shoot, and would last until Burton's death.

There are simply too many things that happened during the making of Cleopatra for any one of them to be "the big problem", but in terms of the finished product as a contained narrative drama, I think it's clear enough that everything boils down to a primary cause. That being that Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a greatly respected writer and director of highly literate character pieces about realistic adults, who after inheriting the massive (and already massively over-budget) production from Rouben Mamoulian concluded that the best way to structure the thing to give it some semblance of reason was to divide it in half. His intention was to release two three-hours films, Caesar and Cleopatra, with Rex Harrison playing Julius Caesar opposite Taylor, and Antony and Cleopatra with Burton as Marc Antony (that these titles had already been claimed by George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare, respectively, did not apparently bother Mankiewicz), but studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck reasoned, undoubtedly correctly, that by the time the film was released, nobody would care about anything but watching Liz and Dick canoodle. So Mankiewicz's six-hour two-parter was sliced down to one single bloated beast of four hours and eight minutes, separated by a deeply necessary intermission slightly earlier than the halfway point (in '63, the film was further cut to three hours and twelve minutes for some exhibitors; this version, which was apparently mostly impossible to follow, is effectively invisible today, with the original roadshow cut the only one released to DVD).

Two observations immediately present themselves in relation to this little fact: one of them is that as a standalone film, Caesar and Cleopatra would have been way the hell better than Antony and Cleopatra, but we'll get into that soon enough. The other is that the attempt to carve the movie down resulted in an impressively choppy piece of storytelling which lurches forward erratically in between lugubrious sequences of historical pageantry. It seems positively indecent to say of any movie that crosses the four-hour mark that it's not long enough, but the chronology is so battered (at one point, the narrator voiced by Ben Wright idly mentions that two years happened in between scenes, and it feels like an especially desperate stopgap measure to keep the film stitched together), and it's occasionally unclear exactly why things are happening and how, that I frankly can't see how a longer Cleopatra couldn't help but be a little bit more satisfying. Though I am sure that it would be no less boring, and being even a touch more boring is a fate Cleopatra most certainly cannot afford.

The film has a spectacular variety of liabilities (and, to be fair, strengths as well), but the most visible and crushing is that's an utter dud as a star vehicle, and that's pretty much always the way it has been sold, from 1963 on down to the present day. It's Taylor herself who comes off the worst, naturally enough, if only by virtue of how besotted the film obliges itself to be with her and her character. Judith Crist's magnificent, career-making pan of the film, in the New York Herald Tribune, famously compared Taylor's strident line deliveries to a fishwife, but given some of the ludicrous Historical-Esque sentences the polyglot screenplay requires her to recite, it's hardly fair to blame her or anybody else in the cast for tripping over them (though I still feel crabby towards Hume Cronyn, playing Cleopatra's political adviser, for how openly and dismissively he doesn't even try). But there's more to acting than speaking words, and that's where Taylor really fell apart: playing a woman who has been famous for over two millennia for her commanding presence and ability to make the most powerful men in the world bend over backwards to do her will requires an imperious presence on the part of anybody tackling the role. Clearly, Taylor has more of that native charisma than Colbert (a charmingly counter-intuitive choice for the role if ever there was one), to pick the most obvious example. But she's too glaringly contemporary, ill at ease in her many elaborate costumes (some of which are more dubious than others - some truly moronic hats, like shower caps with flowers sewn on, find their way onto her head) and goofy, cartoon-Egyptian make-up, and stranded by Mankiewicz and DP Leon Shamroy in their lopsided, spacious compositions in the Todd-AO 70mm process. She only ever feels like a very pretty but largely unexceptional woman dumped in over her head, in a grand theatrical spectacle that she never sufficiently modifies herself to accommodate.

The other big problem - and I imagine it must have been magnified in '63 - is that Taylor and Burton make for an absolutely lousy pair of screen lovers. Sometimes, backstage shenanigans translate to the performance well, and we end up with tangible lust that feels almost dirty to watch it; think the unbridled desire passing between Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not. Sometimes... that doesn't happen. The very different acting styles that two actors brought to the table meshed poorly, more so when both were individually as bad as they are here; I don't know if it says anything about their home life, or just their screen presence, that their most credible, highly-praised onscreen teaming was playing the toxic marriage in freefall at the center of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? three years after Cleopatra. But between Taylor's insignificant exoticism and Burton's obvious fatigue and hungover eyes, there's nothing credible about their world-altering romance, and the longer second part of the movie, all 128 minutes of it, oozes by all the more slowly since it doesn't even succeed at the level of melodramatic love story in ancient world drag.

Which returns me to my contention that the first half of Cleopatra is better: one of the most important reasons is simply that Rex Harrison acts circles around the other two leads, and he's dead at the midway point (in a profoundly gaudy bit of staging, seen in an augury, with flames surrounding the action and Taylor's aghast face superimposed). He has considerably more exciting chemistry with Taylor; her love scenes with Burton are all grim paint-by-numbers passion, but there's a sparkling naughtiness she shows with Harrison, a sense that these two character really can't wait for the camera to cut away so they can start pawing at each other (favorite moment: their dirty little teenagers' smiles when she asks him to keep his laurel crown on while they have sex). Besides, Harrison has the imposing authority of the man who was, for a brief period, the most powerful individual in the Western world; he sells a grand, theatrically imposing Caesar while Burton's Antony is just a puffy old man who barely seems able to impose his will on a group of his closest friends and allies. Which could be an interesting reading of the character, but it's not the one Mankiewicz is interested in.

Harrison is no better than anybody at swallowing the dialogue (only Roddy McDowall, as a haughty, cruel Octavian manages to make every word that comes out of his mouth seem plausible; he's easily the best performance in the movie, though he only appears in the second half, mostly in the very last hour), but he brings ripe, Shakespearean life to the proceedings, and manages to help sell the complicated politics that dominate the story. Take away his crafty ambition, and there's nothing to drive the second half till McDowell shows up in earnest, and that leaves a lot of stilted In Olden Tymes nonsense while the plot takes a nap.

Acting issues are hardly the only thing going wrong: though the film has a huge variety of costumes and complicated sets, it never looks like a richly-appointed historical epic. Everything is too clean and crisp, too obviously new; the Rome of Caesar was an old city, the Alexandria of Cleopatra hardly any younger, but both of them look like immaculately buffed movie sets, and never anything else. Without any other obvious culprit, one is inclined to blame Mankiewicz; he was by no means an intuitive choice for material of this scale, and there's not really any part of Cleopatra where he makes the material come alive like Cecil B. DeMille - hell, like Anthony Mann - could do falling asleep. Mankiewicz was a great director of close-ups and domestic interiors: Bette Davis having her "infants behave the way I do" epiphany in All About Eve, the titular characters trapped with their memories in A Letter to Three Wives. Bombast doesn't suit him, and bombast is the one and only card Cleopatra has to play: erotic bombast in the handful of scenes where Taylor wears hardly anything; emotional bombast in the wall-to-wall lovemaking scenes; production bombast in the high pageantry of the parades (the film stops dead for fifteen minutes of Orientalist dancing around the 90-minute mark) and what little we see of the battles; auditory bombast in Alex North's raging score tinged with bullshit "Egyptian" tones, the one part of the whole movie that I'm completely in love with, purely for its ripe shamelessness and unapologetic emotional manipulation.

It's a movie crying for the gaudy, excessive touch of somebody who will run as far away from anything resembling realism as possible, and Mankiewicz does not, and probably cannot do that. His Cleopatra is sedate and small, and a four-hour epic of heaving emotions, heaving history, heaving bosoms, and heaving audiences trying to keep up the purple nonsense of the dialogue can be many things before it can be sedate and small. It might be the Hollywood film at its most unbridled and opulent, but it is also the Hollywood film at its most slack and ill-managed, and it is far too much drudgery to be camp, to be escapist, to be any fun in any way at all.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1963
-Message movie guru Stanley Kramer switches gears to put every living comic actor into the epic farce It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
-John Ford and John Wayne collaborate for the last time, on the South Pacific action-comedy Donovan's Reef
-Samuel Fuller makes the muckraking journalism psycho-thriller Shock Corridor

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1963
-Federico Fellini turns navel gazing into post-modern art with
-In Israel, future mega-producer Menahem Golan directs his first movie, El Dorado
-It's not "cinema" as such, but no global history could be complete without noting the premier of Tezuka Osamu's Japanese cartoon series Astro Boy, which effectively invented the form of anime