Did people just sit in the theater and watch this film with their mouths open, for three solid hours? Apparently they did, and here’s what they saw: stupendous sets; scenes composed like the epic history paintings of an earlier century. Exotic oriental dancing girls with veils and pasties, fierce-looking African tribesmen, along with some bare-chested Egyptian galley slaves and spear-bearers (so as not to slight the ladies in the audience). Battle scenes involving burning ships, or hundreds of men on horseback in the Egyptian desert. No wonder “Cleopatra” won Academy awards for cinematography, costumes, art direction, and special effects.

But mostly they saw Elizabeth Taylor. Ah, Liz. Already a beauty in “National Velvet,” she came into her own playing against Rock Hudson and James Dean in “Giant.” What a vixen she was in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof!” Forget Paul Newman. Liz’s Maggie was the best thing about that butchered version of Tennessee Williams’s play. I’ll leave the ripe Liz of “BUtterfield 8” for another day. Ditto “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” This is not the moment to remember Liz drunk and embittered.

“Cleopatra” is Liz at her most stunning, from start to finish. The scenes she’s not in aren’t worth watching, unless you’re titillated by the sight of Richard Burton’s legs beneath his shorty Roman tunic, or can’t get enough of Rex Harrison being, well, Rex Harrison. His Caesar is hardly the legendary general and statesman of Roman history. He’s merely smug, Henry Higgins in a toga.

Cleo, though. Who but Liz could have played the great Egyptian queen? Here she is, making her entrance into Rome. The massive sphinx, the golden gown and headdress.

She didn’t skimp on luxuries; even her bath toys are 14 karat. And when it came time to make an exit, she did that right, too. I will remember Liz as she was in the final scene of “Cleopatra,” arrayed in that golden gown in her Pharaoh’s tomb.

(25 March 2011)