Revisiting Cleopatra: Screen Portrayals of the Iconic Pharaoh | History Hit

Revisiting Cleopatra: Screen Portrayals of the Iconic Pharaoh

Amy Irvine

19 May 2023
Elizabeth Taylor in a scene from the ©Twentieth Century Fox film: Cleopatra (1963)
Image Credit: Alamy / LANDMARK MEDIA / ©Twentieth Century Fox

Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC) – the last true pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt – has been immortalised through centuries of art, music and literature.

Known for her great physical beauty, intellect, political acumen, and love affairs with prominent Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, she continues to captivate and intrigue people worldwide. Her reign came to a tragic end after the Battle of Actium – after the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s forces by Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus), she and Antony took their lives.

Cleopatra’s enigmatic persona has inspired countless artistic interpretations, emphasising the complexities of power, ambition, and love, and her enduring legacy as a symbol of strength and resilience make her an endlessly captivating subject. Here are some of her more notable depictions:

Cleopatra (1934)

The 1934 film Cleopatra offers a classic portrayal of the legendary queen. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, the film stars Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, showcasing her as a seductive and ambitious ruler. Colbert’s performance captures Cleopatra’s allure and cunning, portraying her as a woman who uses her charm to manipulate men and secure her power.

The film emphasises Cleopatra’s relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, delving into her political strategies and romantic entanglements. While the portrayal may be influenced by the era’s sensibilities, Colbert’s Cleopatra remains an intriguing and captivating character in this classic Hollywood interpretation.

Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)

This unique portrayal of Cleopatra emphasises her transformation from a naive young queen to a formidable leader. Directed by Gabriel Pascal, the film stars Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, showcasing her as a charming and witty ruler.

Leigh’s portrayal captures Cleopatra’s growth and development under the guidance of Julius Caesar, and highlights Cleopatra’s intelligence and cunning as she learns to navigate the political intrigues of her time. Leigh’s performance adds depth to Cleopatra’s character, depicting her as a resilient and influential figure.

Left: poster for ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ (1945); Right: Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ (film still)

Image Credit: Left: Gabriel Pascal Productions / Eagle-Lion Films (UK) United Artists (US) / Fair use. Right: as above / Public Domain

Cleopatra (1963)

The 1963 film Cleopatra stands out for its lavish production and iconic portrayal of Cleopatra by Elizabeth Taylor. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film presents Cleopatra as a powerful and seductive queen, skilled in political manoeuvring. Taylor’s performance captures the regal charm and captivating presence associated with Cleopatra.

Spanning over 4 hours, the film emphasises Cleopatra’s relationships with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Mark Antony (Richard Burton) and the complex dynamics involved, showcasing her intelligence, ambition, and allure. (Romance was not confined to historical characters – during filming, it was reported that Taylor and Richard Burton had an adulterous affair, making headlines worldwide.)

Taylor’s portrayal adds a layer of complexity to Cleopatra, revealing her vulnerability and determination, making her an unforgettable figure in cinematic history. Cleopatra received huge critical acclaim, winning 4 Academy Awards.

Richard Burton as Mark Antony with Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, in the 1963 film, ‘Cleopatra’.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Courier-Gazette, McKinney, TX Photo from 20th Century Fox, producer of the film / Public Domain

Antony and Cleopatra (1972)

Hildegarde Neil’s captivating portrayal of Cleopatra, showcases her as a powerful and passionate queen. Directed by Charlton Heston, who also stars as Mark Antony, this adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play explores the tumultuous and passionate relationship between Mark Antony and Cleopatra during the late Roman Republic.

Neil’s portrayal captures the complexity of Cleopatra’s character, exhibiting her intelligence, charm, and seductive nature. The film explores Cleopatra’s passionate relationship with Mark Antony and her political influence over him. Neil’s performance brings depth and vulnerability to Cleopatra’s character, highlighting her strength as a ruler and also her personal struggles. Her portrayal adds layers to Cleopatra, creating a captivating and sympathetic figure on-screen.

Cleopatra (1999)

This made-for-television miniseries provides a fresh perspective on the iconic Egyptian queen. Directed by Franc Roddam, the series stars Leonor Varela as Cleopatra in this adaptation of Margaret George’s 1997 historical fiction novel, The Memoirs of Cleopatra.

This portrayal offers a more youthful and vibrant interpretation of Cleopatra’s character, emphasising her intelligence, resilience, and political acumen. Varela brings strength and determination to the role, showcasing Cleopatra’s ability to navigate Ancient Egypt’s treacherous political landscape. While this portrayal may deviate from the traditional image of Cleopatra, it presents a compelling and dynamic version, highlighting Cleopatra’s historical impact.

The notable cast includes Timothy Dalton as Julius Caesar, Billy Zane as Mark Antony and Rupert Graves as Octavius.

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Rome (2005)

This TV series features a captivating portrayal of Cleopatra, played by Lyndsey Marshal. Cleopatra is depicted as a charismatic and intelligent leader who wields her power with finesse. The series explores Cleopatra’s intricate relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, showcasing her strategic alliances.

Marshal brings a sense of depth and complexity to Cleopatra’s character, capturing her ambitious nature and captivating presence as a significant figure in the political landscape of ancient Rome.

African Queens: Queen Cleopatra (2023)

In this Netflix docudrama of Cleopatra’s struggle to protect her throne, family, and legacy as Egypt’s last pharaoh, Cleopatra is portrayed as an intelligent, shrewd and fearless leader who confronts the Roman Empire, utilising political and romantic alliances to her advantage. She is also depicted as a strong and empowered feminist, and the series highlights how unusual this was to Romans at the time, offering a further glimpse of why Cleopatra was so captivating.

Controversy arose over the casting of Adele James – a British actress of mixed race – as Cleopatra. Whilst producers claimed Cleopatra’s ethnicity was not their focus, they did intentionally depict her of mixed ethnicity, reflecting theories about her possible ancestry and ancient Egypt’s multicultural nature. (Cleopatra’s mother’s identity is unknown, leading to the possibility that she, or another ancestor, was an indigenous Egyptian or from elsewhere in Africa). 

This sparked controversy in Egypt. Lawyer Mahmoud al-Semary filed a complaint accusing the series of violating media laws and aiming to “erase the Egyptian identity”. Prominent Egyptologist and former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass was quoted as saying “Cleopatra was Greek, meaning that she was light-skinned, not black”, with Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities also stating the series was a “falsification of Egyptian history”.

Ethnicity issues aside, while Adele James delivers a compelling performance, critics argue the series lacks objectivity in its portrayal of this iconic African queen.

Amy Irvine