The History Press

Cleopatra… or the undoing of Hollywood

I am delighted to say that The History Press will be publishing my latest book in Spring 2023, in time for the film’s 60th anniversary. Finally released at an eye-watering cost of $44,000,000, which, allowing for inflation, sees it remain as one of the most expensive films ever made. What went on behind the scenes was far more entertaining than what ended up onscreen: to take advantage of UK tax incentives, the initial scenes were shot at Pinewood, but persistent rain and fog hardly created the balmy Mediterranean of ancient Alexandra, so filming was abandoned, at a cost of $8,000,000. The production switched to Rome, which is where the troubles really began: it soon became apparent that not much acting was required to convey the romance between Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton). ‘Le Scandale’ soon knocked the Cuban Missile Crisis off the front pages. Aided by the ubiquitous paparazzi, the romance heralded the birth of Celebrity Culture. The costs mounted, thanks to - among others - pregnant cats, unexploded WWII bombs and recalcitrant elephants. In the days before fax or email, the Hollywood studio was in a state of pandemonium waiting for the latest Roman crisis. Publicists were hired to keep the film out of the press. Taylor was denounced by the Vatican; Burton was almost refused entry to the USA on a morals charge. Cleopatra nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. It is a story of romance, hubris, pride, rampant egotism and all played out in glorious 70mm Todd-AO. Cleopatra did not finish the old Hollywood, but it hammered a lot of nails into its coffin.