DeMille brings the best of 1930's high society cinema and pre-code lust to his tale of the queen of Egypt. Colbert is a dazzling Cleopatra and the spectacle of the ancient empires is brought to full awareness. Poetry is the language of the Gods here, and the poetic dialogue further serves to draw us into its web of subdued eroticism. The showpieces reserved for large-scale Hollywood musicals of the time are in full force here as royal courts and the regal unfurling of entertainment harkens to a time of antiquity. Legions of men and women at the behest of the royal leadership, a republic that shuns the very idea of royalty and a queen who bewitched even the mightiest rulers. Here we see strength of classic Hollywood in all of its glory, and there are few better representations. It is a personal drama, and farcical in the same breath, but with the elaborate sets, costumes and parades of extras it becomes a kingdom unto itself, with DeMille as benevolent ruler. Colbert becomes the cold female, using her sexuality to save her people again and again, finally entangling her duties with personal affection and epic drama is born. The film's immersive ability is ultimately its greatest strength as we are transported to the days of old by way of Hollywood trope, but the lyrical speech of our players brings us out of the present and deeply into the ancient world, not to mention the awe-inspiring choreography of background players and sets, fire and dancing.
When a republic begins to look for conquest outside its borders, ruin waits. This is briefly touched upon as Caesar states his goals early in the film as bringing corn to the unemployed of Rome. The more powerful the empire becomes the more it must put strain, not on its populace, for they may rise up, but on those it will conquer. Colbert, as Cleopatra, plays the perfect, desperate ruler who will use any scheme to save her own life against this unbeatable power as well as allow Egypt to endure. She, as temptress, makes a formidable heroine for our story, but the romance on display is far from stock melodrama. The cinema crafted by DeMille is not outside of the highest spectacle filmmaking, rather, it defines it. There is something to the creation and the mastery of a genre, especially one that, in essence, defined what Hollywood means for a century afterward. This should not look over the film's strengths, it is transportive. We see the ancient cities in all of their glory and dazzle at the special effects and sweeping performances that made it so. In the deep, dark moments of the film we are drawn away, into the past. Like many have attempted and few have achieved, DeMille's depiction truly feels ancient and his romance truly feels romantic. The levity with which he presents it are the film's greatest strengths as Colbert makes full use of her comedic prowess during scenes of wooing the leaders of Rome into her hand. To attest to Cleopatra as anything more or less than a feeling would be giving it too much credit, though it crafts its emotional state and then lingers there for the entirety of the runtime. It is a tale of manipulation, of survival and of eventual succumbing to human desires and a fall. The empires of man and the populace of such empires live and die at the whim of their rulers, all men and women devote their entire lives to the passions of these less-than-worthy royals. There is little judgement passed in the film, rather a resignation that this is the world of the past, and this is the ways in which our ancestors lived. It is a peaceful and benign viewpoint. Instead we are treated to Colbert's comedic enchantments as she pulls the men into her will and the kingdoms of the world follow suit. The inclusion of all of the legendary, Shakespearean tropes of Caesar are welcome, and the drama never lifts. This is classic Hollywood filmmaking at its finest.
The film never elevates itself beyond the spectacle to effect, the work done is airtight and yet never elating, in this way it is not an intoxicating cinematic experience, but an applaudable blockbuster. Like any film that lives by its ethereal elements alone, all the costume, fire and wine and parades and battles serve to give its flavor. It is a film of good taste and a delicious film to behold. Colbert is the only true standout performance and why should she not be, all other actors are but fodder for the queen. DeMille provides large and lengthy scenes for us to get lost in and that is the true strength of the picture, to become lost in its ancient world for a time. The film is kept at a high level of emotion and visual majesty throughout, and paced at a level that defines the Hollywood epic. The film's attentive theatrics provide the spine of the work as well as give us many moments to dig deeper, the more other-worldly elements are the true gems of this adventure. DeMille crafts something unique and impressive which the sands of time cannot diminish. Cleopatra is the reigning queen of the 1930's Hollywood spectacle.