An epic film, steeped in controversy and scorned by some, Cleopatra nonetheless represents Hollywood's classic view of the world. The film is the story of Cleopatra VII's reign as Pharaoh between 51 and 30 BC, and of her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She was the last pharaoh, and her life and loves can be considered valiant attempts to maintain Egypt in the face of growing Roman power.
While the film begins with Caesar's attempts to control the empire in Europe, it soon leads him to Egypt and the arms of Cleopatra. Love follows as Cleopatra hopes that her bearing of Caesar's child will contribute to the maintaining of Egyptian power. With Caesar's death at the hands of Brutus and others, this collapses. Beguiled by her in Rome, Antony eventually sails to her side in Egypt, a move that leads to their deaths.
The geography shown in the film is stunning. Spectacle is an undercurrent in films of Cleopatra's genre. There are several aspects to the geography in the film.
Rome and Alexandria. The film divides between two main sites. Starting in Rome, and some surrounding countryside in Europe, it comes later to focus on Alexandria, Egypt. The film shows a duality to both places in that the focus on the environs of the powerful is countered with some limited sojourns into the areas of average folk. The film draws little distinction between the environments of Rome and Egypt. Cultural differences seem significant, but physical differences are minimal.
Desert. The warmth and dryness of the desert is present from near the start to the end. While not the most clearly shown environment in the film, the desert is present in the important battle scenes. The sparseness is clear.
Color. So many of the often seen images of Egypt and Rome lack color. The historic record indicates that they lived in worlds of color, but age has robbed that color from view in favor of bare rock. The King Tut exhibit that toured the United States 25 years ago brought that color, particularly the gold, home to the Americans who had an opportunity to see it; but the usual views of the pyramids and the Roman ruins show bareness. If color exists it is in the form of chipped paint that is often compromised by darkness. Time has taken the color away, but film restores it to view. Cleopatra brushes that color back on the rock. The clothes sparkle. The curtains are resplendent.
Water. The Nile flows through numerous scenes. The classic shapes of the ships, the docks, and just the bright blue of the waters capture the camera's attention.
Interaction/Integration. The geographic activities of interaction bringing integration are illustrated in the film. The interaction of Rome and Egypt brought their integration as trade and political units. As the film takes place this is not new. Egyptian grain has long held a position in the Roman world.
I saw Cleopatra when it was new in 1963-64. I liked it. I am surprised by the fact that many thought it less than a great epic film. I was beginning my high school years. I was awe struck by the splendor, by the magnificence of it all. The press had built it up some so maybe I was ready for it, but it was special in any case. I think has a role to play in showing me the power of the media. After 50 years I still find the power of blue eye shadow on a woman irresistible, the same for single shoulder tops. Cleopatra had to be the source of these long held facets of my mind. Ah, the power of media.
Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2002. Geography in Media: Cleopatra. Dakota Alliance XII(1): February 2002: 7.