Serpent of the Nile (1953)
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First, this is an extremely low budget effort. That actually is a plus to me, because the high budget versions tend to lose focus, replacing wit with artifice. The characters wear the standard Roman army Halloween costumes, and everybody who isn't going to be around for a while is played by someone you almost certainly won't recognize. The painted backdrops are a hoot. Raymond Burr, who really hadn't made his name yet, manages to impress as a drunken, weak-willed Antony, while Rhonda Fleming as Cleopatra is stunning and manages to toss in a goblet-throwing temper tantrum here and there.
Second, the camp value of this version is way out there. Fleming plays Cleopatra as a scheming tart with totally unrealistic expectations for her lovers who entertains them with whip-wielding women dressed as Roman soldiers. William Lundigan plays her surprise love interest, Antony's associate who apparently had an affair with her years before as one of Caesar's guards. He grimaces through the film, looking for all the world as if he's looking for a horse to ride off into a Gene Autry film. Nobody looks particularly Egyptian, and Burr sounds more like Perry Mason than a Roman General. It's never really made clear why he went to Egypt in the first place, except that he "likes to have Cleopatra around" while Octavian takes over where the real action is, back in, um, Rome. Michael Ansara is around as Cleopatra's somewhat bumbling heavy to add to the low-rent feel.
Third, if the story interests you, it's refreshing to see a different take on it without all the overblown pageantry and histrionics that mar pretty much all the other versions. They were just people like everyone else, and this flick's perverse achievement is that it indeed makes everyone look pretty ordinary.
As I said, don't go out of your way to see this one. It's bad history done, well, badly. But Fleming is attractive and wears her tight, provocative low-cut '50's numbers well, and the romantic triangle allows her to emote all over the bare-bones scenery. See it only if that would amuse you.
This is a different take on this story. The movie begins with Caesar dead on the floor and the story then focuses on Celopatra's political reason for pretending to love men and Anthony's friend trying to stop him from throwing it all away. Anthony is called a man who knows only war and pleasure and he's just tired enough of war to let pleasure overcome him. And all this is handled well by the writing and the performances. Admitting that Lundigen is miscast and doesn't look Roman, you get over this as he and Burr's chemistry as friends and rivals works well.
Besides, there is a scene with guys wrestling a real Bear, not a guy in a suit!! And there is one mostly good action scene involving some daringly placed cameras under the hooves of charging horses and chariots. You get used to the cheap sets and bad matte paintings and get over the usually poor action scenes as the story and characters hold together and gain interest. And there are a lot of costumes for a cheap film.
The stock music score is well put together and it all ends with a rather nice slow dissolve. Castle proves that if he can't be embraced totally he cannot be shunned or dismissed either. Credit to a good script and lead performances and to Wild Bill Castle for keeping it moving and colorful--something he always did.
** (out of 4)
Sam Katzman used his low budget skills to bring forth this decent telling of the Cleopatra/Mark Anthony tale, which certainly can't hang with bigger productions but you somewhat have to admire what they were able to do here. The film focuses on Cleopatra (Rhonda Fleming) who is loved by Anthony (Raymond Burr) but her eyes are on Lucilius (William Lundigan), a man who soon begins to think she's not the best thing for Egypt. I really wasn't expecting too much out of this film but I actually found myself enjoying it to a certain level. This certainly isn't the greatest version of the film but then again that's not saying too much as all of them have been all over the place in terms of quality and entertainment. My hat certainly goes off to both Katzman and Castle as they took their low budget and delivered a campy little film that won't please history buffs but it might appeal to those who want a little cheese with their films. The best thing this film has going for it is its beautiful color that really jumps off the screen. I loved the colorful look of all the cheap costumes and sets. The non-stop changing of clothes by Cleopatra really makes great use of the color and just check out that lime colored dress she wears towards the end. Fleming makes for an interesting Cleopatra as in some ways she appears more like a bratty teenager expecting the impossible out of her lovers. I thought Fleming brought some sexuality to the role, which was nice but I wouldn't go as far as to say she's great in the role. Burr certainly doesn't sound the part but he's not too bad. Lundigan ends up stealing the film with his charm. The low budget nature somewhat helps the film focus on the love triangle but this low budget also hurts especially during some of the painting scenes, which look incredibly bad.
The narrative obviously deals with familiar events and historical figures: indeed, it begins with the aftermath of Julius Caesar's assassination. With this in mind, the script works its way around the fact that Cleopatra alternated between romances with Caesar and Mark Antony by having Brutus' fictional lieutenant (who, following the latter's suicide, manages to win Antony's confidence!) replacing Caesar! Curiously enough, the story thus far would be presented again during that same year in the adaptation of Shakespeare's play about the Roman leader/dictator! Anyway, while Rhonda Fleming is tolerable as the Egyptian Queen (though trading her usual redhead look for a long dark wig!), the film nearly collapses under the weight of central miscasting with respect to her two co-stars: would you believe Raymond Burr (appropriately brooding though he may be) as Mark Antony?!; William Lundigan, then, makes for an utterly wooden Roman officer – who, being the more handsome, is predictably (but unhistorically) favored by Cleopatra (even from the time he served under Caesar himself!), yet is almost instantly given the cold shoulder by him for what she has done to Antony i.e. causing his falling-out with Augustus Caesar!
I have watched a number of films revolving around these characters (yet another followed this viewing) but, of course, Castle's entry would not pass muster (crucially, perhaps, it did not prove quite as enjoyably bad as I had been led to believe!) alongside the two most renowned renditions: Cecil B. De Mille's impressive 1934 version – from which this actually 'recreates' the early barge sequence – and the notorious, but undeniably worthwhile, 1963 mega-budgeted fiasco.
It's an interesting story and that's the only reason to watch the film. From the beginning, when both the narrator and Lundigan refer to "Cassius" as "Cashius", you realize that it's going to be a moronic production. The acting is staged, the dialogue is phony and the sets don't quite work. It's all a bit tacky....and the music cheapens it somewhat more. I'm sure that Cleopatra's make-up is also wrong but like I say, it's the story that keeps you watching. No need to see it again.
If terrorism does not pay (the murder attempt) ,at least we learn that Cleopatra's people are starving ,and that gives Lucilius a good reason to rebel against this tyranny (and to ease his conscience)for very little:he knows (and so do we) that in Rome,everyone lives in the lap of luxury!
In fact,Mark Antony nursed a viper in his bosom ,and it was not the queen of Egypt.
Other than being set-dressing and wearing pounds of eye-shadow at a time, this 'wicked' version of Cleo spends the whole movie driveling and simpering over Lucilius like a 12-year-old with a crush. Lucilius ranks as one of the worst Gary Stu's I've ever seen. He's constantly outwitting and overpowering multiple assassins while unarmed and his only injury is for a plot-point. He goes on about loyalty, yet he displays none. He asserts his morals and love of Rome, but it only shows in his contempt for Cleopatra, whom he continues to kiss throughout. So seldom have I ached to punch a film character as much as him.
Antony is the hugest disappointment. I like Raymond Burr, but he was terrible in this. He's glassy-eyed and cardboard (and surprisingly un-sexy for a young Burr). The historical Antony was a man of passion. Though given to cynicism, he had immense empathy for his soldiers and suffered severe mood swings. He was a devoted family man, a moving orator, and a respected leader. His downfall was but a lack of cunning.
Of the other absurdities in this film, the two that most made me roll my eyes were the depictions of Julius Caesar and the Temple of Ephesus. Caesar was not some elderly man of no interest to Cleopatra. He was only 55 at his death and still had a real way with women (and possibly with men as well). Towards the end, he was developing a turkey neck, but otherwise looked pretty much the same as he had during his 40's. As for the Artemesion, it was a Greek-style temple in the lush countryside, not a quasi-Egyptian looking temple in the middle of an otherwise empty desert.
This film is corny and ridiculous, but not in the fun way I usually like. It was just tedious, stupid, and irksome. I'm not sure I could stand it even if it were being riffed on MST3k. It's that bad. Anyone who panned the 1963 film of Cleopatra (which is about 97% brilliant and 3% silly) obviously has not seen this disaster!
Back in the 40s and 50s we had an explosion of redheads in Hollywood all of whom were cast in ludicrous parts. For the good films they did Rita Hayworth, Susan Hayward, Arlene Dahl, and Maureen O'Hara must look back in dread from here and in heaven for some of their films. That would also include Rhonda Fleming.
In this version Julius Caesar has just been murdered and Centurion William Lundigan has made the right move to side with Mark Antony against the conspirator/assassins. For that Raymond Burr makes him his trusty aide and it is through Lundigan's eyes we see the story unfold.
Which is rather well known in literature and film. Raymond Burr who looks like he's having an enema because he knows full well what a stinker this is carries on valiantly as a man who just can't get away from Cleo. In his defense it is hard to abandon Rhonda Fleming as Cleopatra, but as we know both of them will be sunk in the end.
Fortunately Harry Cohn had those Salome sets and like every other studio boss you get maximum use out of what you have.
Fleming and Burr just have no chemistry and I don't think it was just because Burr was gay. Both knew this one was a Thanksgiving Day gobbler.
As for "Serpent of the Nile", maybe only lovers of bad movies could sit through it today, and for them there is much to enjoy. However it's fascinating to see a star like Raymond Burr before he became famous on television.
"Serpent of the Nile" starts with the death of Caesar, which allows Mark Antony (Raymond Burr) to follow his destiny to Egypt and Cleopatra. Fair-skinned Rhonda Fleming is a glamorous Cleopatra, although the makeup department didn't even bother to remove the cap off the bronzing cream in the pursuit of ethnic authenticity.
Along the way, Antony spares the life of Lucilius (William Lundigan), a Roman officer who becomes a friend. However, Lucilius has had history with Cleopatra and has the inside running although she does take up with Mark Antony. Eventually Antony loses his grip, giving himself over to pleasure.
After a falling out of buddies, Lucilius joins Antony's rival, Octavian, who arrives to stop the nonsense in Egypt. Finally, Antony falls on his sword while Cleopatra heads for the basket with the asp.
"Serpent" is flat looking and stagy. That's probably because much of the film looks as though it was shot in director William Castle's office where they just pushed the furniture aside and hung a curtain on the wall - the film uses a lot of curtains.
The film opens out in a few scenes, and does come to life in the big dance number. The movie doesn't seem to have taxed the research department too much except where they apparently discovered that the Ancient Egyptians were partial to scantly-clad dancing girls. In fact researchers on all Cleopatra pictures come to the same conclusion, although I can't remember ever seeing hieroglyphics that depicted things quite that way.
The dance sequence in "Serpent" seems to owe more to Las Vegas than Luxor and is a bit of an eye-opener, especially for a 1953 movie. Julie Newmar cut loose clad in gold paint and not much else - the rest of the movie has a hard time matching a performance like that.
The audacity of the whole thing is reason enough to give the film a viewing. Although it's not a send-up, in some ways it could give "Carry on Cleo" a run for its money.