After being kidnapped and forced out of Egypt, left to die in the desert, Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) turns to the only person she knows can help her — Julius Caesar (Warren William). She makes her way to see Caesar and just as he is about to officially support her brother Ptolemy over Cleopatra, she makes her grand entrance, unfurled from a rug. She knows how badly Caesar wants to conquer India, and to make it worth his while to help her, she promises him that he could use Egypt to make his way to India. Caesar still doesn’t quite trust Cleopatra, but she manages to prove her loyalty to him and seduces him, starting a very passionate affair. Caesar’s affair with Cleopatra becomes the talk of Rome and has some people very worried for what it could mean for Rome’s future. When Caesar brings Cleopatra to Rome, those close to him beg him to end things with her, and he ignores them and carries on with his plans to address the senate. But some people, desperate to save Rome from Caesar and Cleopatra, kill him before he can get to the senate.
With Caesar gone, Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) and Octavian (Ian Keith) are named Rome’s new rulers and it is Marc’s responsibility to avenge Caesar’s death by killing Cleopatra. He arranges a meeting with Cleopatra in a public place so that his soldiers could ambush her, but she knows better. Instead, she has Marc join her on her barge, where she plans to win him over with food, liquor, jewels, and dancing girls. She seduces him and the two of them also begin a passionate love affair. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Octavian has officially declared Marc a traitor and sends King Herod to Egypt to tell this to Cleopatra. He also has Herod tell her that if she kills Marc herself, Rome will be friendlier to Egypt.
Cleopatra doesn’t want to kill Marc, but some of her advisors recommend that she do it for the good of Egypt. King Herod also warns Marc of his traitor status and Marc naturally starts getting nervous when he hears that Cleopatra is testing out poisons on prisoners to be executed. And although she does plan to poison his wine at a dinner she throws for him, they find out that Rome has declared war on Egypt before he has a chance to drink it. He goes off to fight with the Egyptians and is defeated. Cleopatra rushes off to offer Octavian all of Egypt in exchange for Marc’s life, but Marc assumes that she is turning her back on him and stabs himself. Cleopatra returns in time to find him still alive and explains what she has done, but he soon dies in her arms. With Marc gone and the Romans breaking down the gate to the palace, Cleopatra decides to end it all with a snake bite.
I believe it was Cecil B. DeMille who once said that if a movie set in a biblical or historical setting, you can get away with anything. His rendition of Cleopatra is proof of that. This would be an excellent movie to show to someone who thinks classic movies were all so innocent. With all of Claudette Colbert’s skimpy costumes, her handmaidens in equally skimpy costumes, adultery, murder, and all sorts of other debauchery, their jaws would be hitting the floor so fast. Cleopatra was released near the end of the pre-code era, and what a way to end an era! I don’t even particularly like historical dramas, but I thought this version of Cleopatra was fantastic. With all the crazy debauchery and the big battle scenes, Cecil B. DeMille was so completely in his element here. This movie needs to be seen to be believed.