Cleopatra in Almeria

By the start of 1963, the ill-fated 20th Century Fox production of Cleopatra was three years in the making and tens of millions of dollars over budget. The film had lost its first director, suffered months of delays due to the star’s illness, and moved its operations from London to Rome to Egypt, rebuilding enormous sets and reshooting scenes along the way. The final cost was over $40 million dollars. Adjusting for inflation, it remains one of the most expensive films ever made. 

In February, a boat arrived in the port of Almeria transporting roman carriages and other set decorations from Egypt. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz had decided to film the remaining battle scenes in Spain to save costs. The previous year, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia had similarly moved to Almeria when production costs in Jordan became prohibitively high.

The opening scene of Cleopatra, at the Battle of Pharsalus, used 987 horses and over 1000 extras. The camera looks down on the action from above, providing a dramatic view of the surrounding landscape of Tabernas. Towards the end of the film, Marc Antony’s solo confrontation with Octavian’s army occurs among the sand dunes of Cabo de Gata, just out of sight of the Mediterranean ocean (Lawrence of Arabia employed a similar trick to make the modest sand dunes appear like a vast desert which suddenly opens to the Suez Canal). And the the Alcazaba, the Moorish palace that stands over the city of Almeria, serves as Antony’s headquarters in a few brief location-setting shots. In all, the crew spent less than three weeks filming in Almeria. 

The film’s star, Elizabeth Taylor, did not appear in the battle scenes and never came to Almeria. Of course, the film, and the character of Cleopatra, will always be identified with her more than anyone else. Cleopatra was the movie that launched Taylor to an unprecedented, and arguably unmatched, level of stardom. Her initial fee of $1 million (which later grew to $7 million due to delays and contractual arrangements) was the most any actor had received for a single film at the time. She set a record for the most costume changes in a single film (65) that stood for over 20 years. And it was during the filming that she began her storied relationship with Richard Burton.

The original trailer with excerpts from the battle scenes can be viewed here

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