Though he probably thought of himself as an actor in the classical sense, Charlton Heston was inextricably linked with a florid performance style. Whether he was fighting postapocalpytic vampires, parting the Red Sea, or telling a damn dirty ape what to do with its stinking paws, Heston’s best lines were often screamed at ear-splitting volume. Like Spinal Tap’s customized amps, Heston went to 11. This preamble should calibrate expectations for Heston’s directorial debut, Antony and Cleopatra, adapted from Shakespeare’s immortal play. The movie doesn’t work, for myriad reasons, but it speaks to an interesting mixture of misguided artistic ambition and pure thespian ego. Watching the movie, one can actually feel how badly Heston wants everything to coalesce.
Set in ancient Rome and Egypt, the story takes place after the death of Julius Caesar, and it depicts the tragic romance between Caesar’s second-in-command, Mark Antony (Heston), and Caesar’s former lover, Queen Cleopatra (Hildegard Neil). When the tale begins, Antony is part of the triumvirate ruling the Roman empire, but he becomes so obsessed with Cleopatra that he merges his armies with her forces in Egypt. War among former allies ensues, and the whole situation is complicated by Cleopatra’s caprice—although she betrays Antony’s trust more than once, he keeps returning to her. Quite literally, this is the stuff of legend, so Heston’s grandiose style isn’t inherently incompatible. Had an experienced filmmaker taken the reins and kept the star focused on acting, Heston’s interest in the material could have delivered stronger results.
Alas, Heston the director is the worst enemy of Heston the leading man. In addition to silly indulgences, such as gigantic close-ups during macho speeches and a semi-nude scene showcasing the actor’s burly physique, Heston displays a stunning lack of visual imagination. Antony and Cleopatra is shot roughly in the style of the leaden ’50s Biblical epics that first made Heston a star, even though the flat lighting style and ultra-wide compositions of the ’50s had become boring clichés by the early ’70s. Additionally, Heston took erratic liberties with the text. (He’s credited as the principal screenwriter.) Heston excised a huge swath of the play’s opening passages, making it impossible to track how Antony and Cleopatra became involved—and yet he retained massive speeches that could easily have been trimmed, notably Cleopatra’s final monologue.
And while Heston delivers basically competent results with intimate scenes, since the mostly British supporting cast is adept at handling Shakespeare’s language, the battle scenes are laughably disjointed and old-fashioned. Damning the whole enterprise to mediocrity is the casting of Neil as Cleopatra. While she’s attractive and skillful, she’s nowhere near magical enough to persuade viewers of her character’s power to change the course of history, and her pale English features seem ridiculous whenever she occupies the same frame as dark-skinned extras.
Antony and Cleopatra: FUNKY
I've never really thought of Heston as loud. Overwrought? Anguished? Most definitely, but I think of those more as qualities than quantities. He directed little else, only an adventure called "Mother Lode" and a two-part TV version of "A Man For All Seasons." One review of that accuses Heston of "bombast." A bombastic Thomas More? We have been warned.
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