Did Hollywood Get Cleopatra’s Story Wrong?

Cleopatra is one of history’s most famous (and infamous) female rulers. She used her wit and charm to win over the hearts of both Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, learned Egyptian to relate to the people over whom she ruled, and climbed her way up the political ladder.

Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Eddie Fisher / Elizabeth Taylor / Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Taylor
Source: Getty Images

In 1963, Hollywood decided to bring the story to the masses and created their own take on the queen’s story. The production was an absolute mess, with the budget ballooning to preposterous sums and with the script writer inventing dialogue on the go.

Still, it became the year’s most successful movie. Let’s see how accurate it truly was.

How Accurate Was Cleopatra?

Producers of the 1963 film tried to remain as loyal as possible to the historical facts the movie was predicated on. However, they failed to do so in some respects. For one, it’s highly unlikely that the real Cleopatra was as fair-skinned and healthy-looking as Elizabeth Taylor.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a publicity still issued for the film, 'Cleopatra'.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The real Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian; she was Greek, as were all the Ptolemies. Not only were they Greek, but historians claim that they were incestuously produced Greeks, in order to maintain the pre-existing Pharaonic power systems.

Ancient Egypt Couldn’t Have Been Devoid of Africans

The 1963 film implies that Ancient Egypt had barely any Arabic, African, or Levantine people. However, that certainly wasn’t the case. But setting inaccuracies aside, the movie is still a stunning work of art, and script-wise, it’s fairly accurate.

Elizabeth Taylor, as Cleopatra, is presented before her subjects.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: Twentieth Century Fox

Its presentation of historical events is, for the most part, on point. However, when it came to the aesthetics of the film, it’s clear that the directors created a far more romanticized version of the truth.

Elizabeth Taylor Was Terribly Sick

Production of the movie began in London, but after the cold weather made Elizabeth Taylor severely ill, they transferred the whole production to Rome. Unfortunately, it was as freezing in Italy as it was in England, and poor Taylor ended up getting pneumonia.

Elizabeth Taylor as the Egyptian queen in 'Cleopatra'.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one point, Taylor refused to continue filming unless the film crew agreed to install proper heating on the set. It was a huge relief to the rest of the cast who had all been shivering through their scenes. Despite the arduous filming, Taylor remained nice to those around her.

Paparazzi was Everywhere

According to Chinese actor Jacqui Chan who starred in the film as Lotos, there was “an awful lot of hanging out” on set, to the point where it sometimes got boring. Another bore, she claims, was that paparazzi followed them everywhere.

Elizabeth Taylor has her costume adjusted as she sits on the set of the film, 'Cleopatra'.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

“Every moment of filming was considered news,” she told The Guardian, and with all the chaos that was on set, there was plenty of meat for paparazzi to chew on. “It was bad for small-part players like me… I dread to think what it must have been like for Burton and Taylor,” she added.

The Director Kept Rewriting the Script

When English actor George Cole was cast to play Flavius in Cleopatra, the “production was in chaos.” According to Cole, the movie’s director, Joseph Mankiewicz, was writing and rewriting the script every single night, shooting it several days later and struggling to keep his head above water.

Joseph L Mankiewicz and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: Twentieth Century Fox

Things were so out of sync. For example, the makeup artist plastered a new beard on George every day, even though production could have easily fixed a ready one for him. The makeup artist explained that it had to be done that way because she knew actors like to feel their faces move when they talk. However, George’s character was a deaf-mute man. Oh well.

Taylor and Burton’s Romance Was a Headache for All of Them

Like actress Jacquie Chan, George Cole also admitted that filming got very boring at one point because “there was a lot of hanging out,” and for a deaf-mute man, George had absolutely no lines to memorize.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the film set of 'Cleopatra'.
Photo by API/GAMMA/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Moreover, the love story that blossomed between Taylor and Burton became a dreadful headache for the rest of the cast because every day’s shoot largely depended on whether they got along the night before. Sheesh!

The Director Set Up an Alternative Filming Schedule

Due to Taylor and Burton’s tumultuous relationship, Cleopatra’s director had to plan an alternative shooting schedule every day in case his two lead stars were at odds. This left the rest of the crew on edge and constantly wondering whether they were going to work or not.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor relax behind the scenes on the set of Cleopatra.
Photo by Paul Schutzer/John Springer Collection/Getty Images

Actor George Cole stated that even though Taylor was a bit of a diva (she refused to turn up on set before 11 a.m.), she was still “very pleasant with a good sense of humor.” She smiled at everyone and made sure to keep things light between cast members.

Burton… Not So Much

Richard Burton wasn’t as engaging as his female counterpart. In one of the scenes where actors Rex Harrison and Richard Burton meet on horseback, an instruction was ordered that those not working on other scenes had to take riding lessons.

Rex Harrison is looking down at Richard Burton on the set of the film 'Cleopatra'.
Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Actor George Cole was given a donkey to ride. But when he showed up on set, he was told that his donkey had died; therefore, he had to ride a last-minute substitute. “Since neither the donkey nor I were used to each other, it misbehaved,” he explained, “and Burton was horrible to it because it held things up.”

The People on Set Were Challenging

In an interview with The Guardian, actor George Cole confessed that he has very few good memories of Cleopatra’s production “because of the difficult personalities.” He singled out Rex Harrison, in particular, whom he claims was absolutely “horrible.”

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

According to Cole, Rex was a total bully who would choose someone to pick on for no good reason every day. It became the cast’s twisted joke: guessing who that day’s victim would be. When it turned out to be Cole, the actor said he felt terribly disrespected.

It Was Supposed to Be Two Movies

Originally, the movie was supposed to be split into two separate films – Caesar and Cleopatra, followed by a sequel of Antony and Cleopatra. But at the time, Taylor and Burton’s affair was in full swing, and the studio thought it would be a good idea to capitalize on the publicity of their love story.

Elizabeth Taylor, in the title role, and Richard Burton as Marc Antony in 'Cleopatra'.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So, they ended up cutting the two films into one. But it turned out to be a weirdly mashed-up movie, with two different stories lumped into one with an intermission in the middle. The first cut of the movie was six hours long, and then the studio cut it down to four, and then finally to three for the theatrical release.

Taylor Suffered Two Overdoses

Burton and Taylor’s intense on and off affair was, at one point, absurd. It was as clear as daylight that the actors were better off without each other. When filming began, Burton was already a heavy drinker, but Taylor was the one who really spiraled as time went on.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton pose on the beach.
Photo by API/GAMMA/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Taylor became a heavy drinker herself, while also popping pills during the shooting. Tragically, the actress suffered two overdoses while making the movie. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Burton reportedly beat her up so badly that she had to be sent to the hospital.

The Backstage Stories Were More Interesting

The on-set drama between Burton and Taylor made headlines and became known to the public through numerous tabloids and juicy articles. People became so invested in their story that it seems like the reason Cleopatra made so much money was because viewers were curious about the couple’s disastrous affair.

Elizabeth Taylor and Joseph L. Mankiewicz on the set of his movie Cleopatra.
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

The movie did well, according to one film critic, because of Elizbeth Taylor, who, during production “Nearly died, won an Oscar, dumped her husband, incited a worldwide scandal, and made Richard Burton a household name. That sells tickets no matter how turgid the movie.”

The Budget Ballooned

So, how much did Cleopatra make? Let’s put it this way – it was the biggest box office success of 1963. The movie earned around $58 million; in today’s terms, that’s around $484 million. But the movie cost around $44 million (a little more than $350 million today).

Elizabeth Taylor in a scene depicting Cleopatra's arrival in Rome.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Cleopatra was the most expensive movie that had ever been made until that point, and by a long shot. For example, 1959’s Ben-Hur, which was considered the costliest movie in history, cost about a third of Cleopatra.

Taylor Made History

Elizabeth Taylor made history by being the first female actor to ever to be paid a whopping $1 million for a movie, which was an unheard-of sum at the time, especially if you were a woman. In response to her paycheck, Taylor commented:

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: Twentieth Century Fox

“If someone is dumb enough to offer me a million dollars to make a picture, I’m certainly not dumb enough to turn it down.” In addition to her salary, Taylor also requested that studios buy her expensive gifts whenever she headlined films.

She Had Chili Air-Freighted to Rome

Elizabeth Taylor was one high-maintenance star. She refused to show up on set before 11 a.m., refused to star alongside Burton whenever they fought, and the weirdest one of all –she requested one specific meal for lunch.

Elizabeth sits on her throne in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: Twentieth Century Fox

To keep the Egyptian queen happy, 20th Century Fox regularly ordered chili, but not just any old chili. It had to be a special one made in a Beverly Hills restaurant named Chasen. They flew it on a plane all the way to Rome for her!

20th Century Fox Was on the Verge of Bankruptcy

Even though Cleopatra was 1963’s highest-grossing film, the huge budget that kept ballooning made it a box-office failure. The costly movie tore the studio down, bringing them near full-on bankruptcy. They were forced to shut their doors for six months.

London filmgoers wait to enter the theater for the 1963 premiere of Cleopatra.
Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

The studio’s temporary pause caused more than 2,000 workers to lose their jobs. Luckily, a little over a year and a half later, the studio released the 1965 classic The Sound of Music. The movie did so well that it saved the studio from shutting down for good.

Elizabeth Couldn’t Enter Egypt Because She Was Jewish

According to a paper from the summer of 1962: “Elizabeth Taylor has been barred from entering Egypt and, as a result, the film, “Cleopatra,” was practically completed in Rome except for Egyptian location shots that may have to be finished in some other country.”

Elizabeth Taylor on the film set of 'Cleopatra'.
Photo by API/GAMMA/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

General Essam Elmasri, who was at the time head of the Cairo regional bureau of the Israel Boycott Office, reported that “Miss Taylor will not be allowed to come to Egypt because she has adopted the Jewish faith and supports Israeli causes.”

Taylor Was Still Married When She Met Burton

The reason why Taylor and Burton’s relationship was so scandalous was because it was a forbidden affair, which played out behind the back of Eddie Fisher, Taylor’s husband at the time. Eddie eventually learned of the passionate affair when he ended up on the phone with Burton, who confessed the deed.

Elizabeth Taylor sits in Eddie Fisher's lap on the set of Cleopatra while Richard Burton looks on.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

According to Vanity Fair, Fisher called Taylor, but Burton is the one who picked up. When Fisher asked, “What are you doing in my house?” Burton’s response was cold and heartless: “What do you think I’m doing? I’m f*cking your wife.” At least he was honest about it…

So, Who Was the Real Cleopatra?

There are many myths surrounding Cleopatra, the real Cleopatra, like the fact that she was undeniably beautiful. However, there’s little evidence supporting that claim. But there’s one thing everyone tends to agree on – she was one charming lady.

Engraving by J Chapman shows a romanticized 19th-century conception of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.
Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

Cleopatra was described as having an irresistible charm and a “mellifluous speaking voice.” She had a bewitching aura and climbed her way to the top by playing her cards right and exerting just the right amount of power to rise to the top.

When Things Went South…

After Cleopatra’s Roman lover, Marc Antony, killed himself after losing his military power, the Egyptian queen faced humiliation and decided to kill herself as well. Legend has it that she ordered one of her servants to bring her a poisonous reptile, perhaps an asp.

A painting depicting the death of Cleopatra.
Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

She then drew the deadly beast near, for him to bite and kill her. Interestingly, there’s not much historical evidence to back that tale. Cleopatra may have committed suicide by using a few drops of poison.

Cleopatra Learned How to Speak Egyptian

Besides Greek, which was the Ptolemaic dynasty’s native language, the Egyptian queen learned the languages of most neighboring people, including the Jews, Arabs, Syrians, and Ethiopians. She was also the only one who bothered to learn Egyptian.

An Egyptian carving of Cleopatra.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Until she became queen, none of the Ptolemies showed any interest in adopting Egyptian culture or religion. The Greek language automatically became Egypt’s official language (at least for commerce and government).

She Was Proclaimed a Patriot

According to several historians, Cleopatra knew how to speak the native Coptic language and even more impressive, she learned how to read hieroglyphics. Moreover, she fully embraced their traditions, adorning herself with their traditional dresses and celebrating their traditional holidays.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: Twentieth Century Fox

Cleopatra was proclaimed a patriot and was widely appreciated by the Egyptian people, despite not being of true Egyptian heritage. Unlike her predecessors, this Egyptian queen was smart enough to recognize the importance of appealing to the people she ruled over.

She Was Ordered to Marry Her Brother

In Egypt, pharaohs ruled in pairs, which meant that for every ruler, there had to be a co-ruler of the opposite gender. And according to historians, Cleopatra ruled with her father Ptolemy XII for a brief period until he died in 51 B.C.

Ptolemy XIII Auletes, brother of Cleopatra and the last of the Kings of Egypt
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In her dad’s will, it was ordered that Cleopatra marry her younger brother, and apparently, the two were less than fond of each other. Their relationship ended with her brother trying to steal all the power and with Cleopatra calling Julius Caesar for help.

Three of Her Siblings Died

To her little brother’s dismay, Caesar and Cleopatra fell in love with each other, and a while later, he drowned at the Battle of the Nile. After little Ptolemy XIII’s death, Cleopatra was ordered to marry her other brother, who later passed away due to “mysterious reasons.”

Egyptian papyrus depicting Cleopatra and her siblings.
Source: Getty Images

Some historians believe she poisoned him. Finally, Cleopatra had her sister Arsinoe executed after she tried stealing the throne from her. The moral of the story? Don’t mess with this cold and savage Egyptian queen.

The Real Purpose of Her Famous Eye Makeup

There’s hardly a picture or painting of Cleopatra that doesn’t show off her trademark eye makeup — a black line surrounding the eyes, sometimes traced down the side of her face in decorative spirals. According to historians, her makeup wasn’t meant to be a beauty enhancer of any sort.

Elizabeth Taylor's son, watches her put makeup on her eyes for Cleopatra.
Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images

The bewitching eyeliner had to do with eye infections, which were very common in Egypt at the time due to all sorts of junk that flooded the Nile River and got into people’s eyes. Cleopatra’s makeup, which was made of lead-based materials, combated the dangerous bacteria found in the water.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s Private Drinking Club

Apparently, Cleopatra and Antony (who became Cleopatra’s lover after Caesar and her two “brother-husbands” died) weren’t so worried by ordinary matters and they found plenty of time for fun. They even formed their own drinking club!

Taylor and Burton stand in costume as Cleopatra and Marc Antony in a still from 'Cleopatra'.
Photo by 20th Century Fox/Getty Images

They named their club “Inimitable Livers.” The translation of the name in English could mean a few things, with “livers” referring to one’s actual life or their internal organ. It’s likely that they meant the first one but thinking of liver is also quite amusing.

The God of Wine

According to a few sources, the pair’s drinking club, Inimitable Livers, was officially dedicated to the god of wine – Dionysus. However, unofficially, it was probably their excuse to host massive keg parties and pass out on the floor.

A painting of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra sharing a meal in the Castle of Santa Maria.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

They threw numerous “feasts and wine-binges,” after which Antony and Cleopatra would walk around town in a state of drunken giddiness and fool around, playing pranks on common Alexandrians.

She Created Her Own Perfume Factory

Cleopatra was reportedly very interested in alchemy and chemistry. The Egyptian queen believed in the power of scents, not simply as something cosmetic, but also as a way of persuading other people and luring them in.

Elizabeth Taylor, as Cleopatra, is sitting in a large tub.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: Twentieth Century Fox

According to the website Perfume Power, Cleopatra doused her ship’s sails with perfume before sailing off on her first rendez-vous with her lover, Mark Antony. Cleopatra was also the owner of a perfume factory (an odd side job for a queen, no?).

The Ruins of Her Factory are in Israel

According to historians, the ruins of the queen’s perfume factory are scattered by the Dead Sea near Ein Gedi. There’s also evidence that the perfume factory used to operate as some sort of day spa. Some of the seating arrangements remains and resemble the kind of chairs one would sit on to have their nails done.

Photo by Sepia Times / Getty Images

Another fun fact is that Cleopatra recorded her perfume recipes in a book called Gynaeciarum Libri. However, since then it has unfortunately been lost, likely perishing in the tragic fire at the Library of Alexandria.

She Spent $20 Million on a Cocktail

A few sources claim that Cleopatra was a big spender. She also didn’t mind blowing away millions of dollars to prove a point. Maybe that was her way of saying she didn’t value money that much. One legend has it that Cleopatra once bet Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterceson a single meal.

Elizabeth Taylor, as Cleopatra, takes a sip of her drink.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: Twentieth Century Fox

That amount of sesterceson is somewhere around $20 million in today’s money. She asked one of her servants to bring her a modest meal and a cup of vinegar. Then, she took off one of her pearl earrings and dropped it in the vinegar to watch it dissolve.

The Largest Pearl in History

Legend has it that Cleopatra drank the cup of vinegar, proving that she would do nearly anything to prove a point. It’s reported that the pearl she drank was “the largest in the whole history,” and a “remarkable and truly special work of nature.”

A painting depicting the feast Cleopatra hosted.
Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

But some modern historians are a bit more skeptical of those claims. One of them even tested the theory with their own cocktail of pearl and vinegar. The test confirmed that vinegar really does dissolve the calcium carbonate in a pearl, but it would have probably taken more than a day for it to disappear.

Cleopatra Convinced Everyone that She was the Reincarnation of Isis

Many rulers of the time viewed themselves as divine, godlike creatures (some modern politicians still do). In Cleopatra’s case, she used to call herself “the new Isis.” According to scholar Elizabeth A. McCabe, the Egyptian queen would tell the people that she was the reincarnation of the goddess.

Cleopatra is being unrolled from a carpet in front of Julius Caesar.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Prior to being Isis, Cleopatra was known to play other goddesses as well, whichever one happened to suit her. Mark Antony apparently also claimed to be a god himself, choosing to be the embodiment of Osiris on Earth.

She was the Last Egyptian Pharaoh

For the most part, Cleopatra had good intentions. She believed that Egypt should remain an independent state, and most of the choices she made (except maybe the drinking club and dissolving her pearl in vinegar) were humane.

Cleopatra presents her son Caesarion to the gods of Egypt.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sadly, the queen’s hopes for a free Egypt vanished when she died. After her tragic suicide in the warm months of 30 B.S., Octavian took control of Egypt and turned it into a province of Rome, thus putting an ending to the era of Egyptian pharaohs.

She Reigned for More than Two Decades

For a while after her death, the Romans painted a horrifying picture of the former queen. They tagged her as nothing but a harlot who seduced her way to the top, practicing witchcraft to gain power over the rest. Poets and writers referred to her as “the shame of Egypt.”

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: Twentieth Century Fox

But over the years, it became clear that Cleopatra was one of the sharpest, strongest, and most humane figures in history. The successful queen reigned for over 20 years, enjoyed a life of luxury, and left this world on her own terms.