Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenwriters: Waldemar Young, Vincent Lawrence
Adapted from: Adaptation of historical material by Bartlett Cormack
Cast: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Irving Pichel, Ian Keith, Gertrude Michael, Leonard Mudie
Nominations: Picture, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Assistant Director
There used to be a more haphazard approach to bringing historical stories to the screen. Facts would get brushed aside in favor of popularized and idealized versions of the truth. A few examples that come to mind include The Story of Louis Pasteur (William Dieterle, 1936), In Old Chicago (Henry King, 1938), and Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939), all of which essentially created their own stories and lives for the real-life persons they depict (Louis Pasteur, the O’Leary family, and Abraham Lincoln, respectively). Incidentally, all three of those films were nominated for Best Original Story, with The Story of Louis Pasteur winning that category along with Best Screenplay. Of course, it should go without saying that dramatized films about history should not be taken at face value—e.g., JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991), A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009), and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)—but rather as more of jumping off points for learning what really happened. Films, above all, shouldn’t be accepted as history but an interpretation of history.
Then again, when it comes to telling a story that’s more than 2,000 years old, who’s to know what exactly is based on fact and what is based on legend—as noted in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In any telling of Cleopatra’s life, there’s going to be problems in discerning what probably happened and what was invented to build posterity. However, it’s because of her mythic status Cleopatra continues to be so well-known in the 21st century. She stands as powerful symbol of empowerment, self-assurance, leadership, and intelligence. Whether those traits are historically warranted, who know; the fact that remains is the strong association the traits have with her.
Claudette Colbert had a stellar year in 1934: she starred in three Best Picture nominees (Cleopatra, Imitation of Life [John M. Stahl], and It Happened One Night [Frank Capra]) and won Best Actress for It Happened One Night, though one could argue that any of the three performances could’ve garnered her the Oscar. For me, Colbert will forever be associated with Ellie Andrews, but her Cleopatra is right up there as a career-defining role.
As portrayed by Colbert, Cleopatra is a force all her own. She outwits her kidnappers, seducers two Roman leaders, ensures that she and her court stay safe while under siege, and ends it all on her own terms. Compared to other female characters of the 1930s, Cleopatra is incredibly modern—an interesting dichotomy consider she’s in a 1930s film that takes place in the 1st century BCE. True, she does let her emotions influence some of her decisions, but it’s not a driving foundation to her actions. She had pride and honor, and refuses to be cast aside or ignored because she’s a woman: unlike Marc Antony’s assessment of women, she can think and fight and is not a plaything for men. As the film highlights, it’s men who don’t think or fight (see Caesar’s assassination-by-mob) and are playthings.
This is a Cleopatra that stands the test of time and shows us that women can be sensual and caring as well as intimidating and tactical. Again, whether what we see in the film is as close to accurate as possible or spun from whole cloth, the legend of Cleopatra is more memorable and more interesting than whatever actual history might have been.