“Caesar and Cleopatra” was made in 1945, based on the work of George Bernard Shaw and starring Claude Rains as Caesar and Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra. Shaw was reportedly quite dissatisfied with how Leigh played the part of the Egyptian queen, but I thought it a rather refreshing departure from the usual way it is done in this historic story that has captivated audiences for literally thousands of years. It is not, to be sure, historically accurate and will probably seem dated to most if not all modern audiences but it is still one of my favorites. Though I am a big Claude Rains fan it was Vivien Leigh who stole the show for me and her being positively stunning does not hurt either.
The film is a combination of political drama and odd comedy, often quite funny, and Leigh’s Cleopatra commands most attention simply for being the character that grows and changes in the most dramatic fashion. When Caesar first meets Cleopatra she does not know his identity and he finds her a very superstitious, innocent, naïve, childlike girl, conscious that she is a Queen but quite unfamiliar with power; a “palace kitten”. He takes it upon himself to make a monarch out of her, telling the fearful young Queen that if Caesar detects any hint of weakness he will eat her alive -as it is well known in Egypt that the Romans are barbaric cannibals.
The scenes in the desert palace are undoubtedly my favorite. Caesar sees to it that Cleopatra gets a taste of power and she thrives on it. We see her grasp the position and authority that are hers and we see her grow more scheming, ruthless and mature in wielding it. We also see Caesar realize that rather than simply create a worthy conquest he has created a rival. What is perhaps most odd about this piece is that there really is no romance between the two title characters. Caesar is, perhaps a bit smitten, but never possessive and Cleopatra only has eyes for the absent Marc Antony whom she remembers from childhood.
I was a little skeptical about Rains playing Caesar (no one attempting it ever seems “big” enough for the part to me) but he manages to pull it off. Vivien Leigh is sometimes criticized for this performance but I thought she was superb, convincing in each stage of the evolution of her character but all the while still retaining some of her childlike core all throughout. She is simple and childish, she is frightened, she is shocked to maturity and finally driven and ambitious while all the while looking good enough to make the audience believe she could have brought two Roman conquerors to their knees.