This was a British production based on the stage play of the same name by George Bernard Shaw. It is a fictionalized account of Julius Caesar’s actual campaign in Egypt during the Roman Civil War. Caesar had defeated his former ally Pompey in a battle at Pharsalus and pursued him into Egypt. The Egyptians inform Caesar that they have assassinated Pompey and so he is left with the task of deciding whether Cleopatra or her younger brother Ptolemy will be the ruler of Egypt.
The play presents Cleopatra as a childlike woman who combines vivacity, intelligence and cruelty in equal measures. As opposed to the actual sexual relationship between the historical Caesar and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar is presented as an avuncular figure trying to teach Cleopatra how to grow into the responsibilities of a queen. And over the course of the stories she does grow. We see her go from a selfish child into a shrewd player who uses her relationship to Caesar to destroy her enemies and get what she wants.
Claude Rains as Caesar is remarkably amiable and if the real Caesar had been as pleasant you could imagine him having avoided all those daggers in the Senate that day in 44 B.C. G.B. Shaw’s script gives him any number of wonderful lines and speeches. They combine wit, philosophy and humanity.
Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra is charming both to look at and to listen to. She is given free rein to indulge herself and the audience with the spectacle of a child who thinks herself a goddess and a beast. And she portrays both. She can be delightful and winning or she can be a heartless murderess dripping venom from her fangs.
The supporting cast surround us with the spectacle of a “swords and sandals” epic with Roman legions and Macedonian phalanxes squaring off in the sands of Egypt. We see the burning of the Library of Alexandria and cavalry charges across the desert. The gruff but powerful Roman soldiers are contrasted to the cultured but ineffective Egyptian nobles.
Caesar and Cleopatra are still immortal names that stand for power, strength and passion. Their story can’t help but fire the imagination. But it’s also clear that G.B. Shaw is using the Romans as a stand in for the British Empire of his day. The dynamism of the Romans is shown to be the reason for their dominance of the older, more cultured but less powerful nations that surround them. And Caesar, the confident, competent and intelligent man is the prime example of this power. But we know that in just a few years Caesar will be dead and the Roman world will be plunged into civil war. The comedy of Caesar and Cleopatra will become the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. But that is no different than the First and Second World Wars that obliterated the British Empire in the modern world. And it doesn’t prevent us from marveling at the courage and daring that planted the British flag on every continent and archipelago on this planet.
Shaw has given us this sunny story of court intrigue, war and a pretty girl. It is amusing and diverting and allows us to enjoy his witty script and the considerable acting skills of Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh. Recommended for those who enjoy history, the stage or both.