Lost in Translation 458: Carry On Cleo (1964)

The Ides of March have passed by, the day Julius Caesar ignored the omens and his wife’s warnings and instead went to the Roman Senate, where he was stabbed repeatedly in the back until Marcus Brutus finished the assassination and delivered the fatal blow while facing the Emperor. The events were immortalized and fictionalized by William Shakespeare in his tragic play, Julius Caesar, first performed in 1599. Shakespeare wrote a related play, Antony and Cleopatra, first performed in 1607, detailing the torrid affair between Mark-Antony, Caesar’s relative, supporter, and general, and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Like Julius Caesar, “Antony and Cleopatra* was a tragedy.

Being tragedies, that leaves both plays ripe for being parodied. Enter the Carry On Gang. By 1964, they were nine Carry On movies, starting with Carry On Sergeant with the eighth and ninth movies, Carry On Jack and Carry On Spying both released in 1964. The Carry On series parodied film and British society and tended to be low budget but on schedule. In 1963, Twentieth Century Fox released Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Cleopatra would be the highest grossing film of the year but also suffered from high production and marketing cost. The studio also filmed partially at Pinewood Studios, leaving sets behind when the production moved. This gave the Carry On Gang a film to parody and the sets to use. Cleopatra cost approximately $44 million at the time; Carry On Cleo cost £165 802, or about $460 000, one percent of Cleopatra‘s cost.

The cast had the usual Carry On cast, with Sid James as Mark Antony, Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar, Kenneth Connor as Hengist Pod, Joan Sims as Calpurnia, Jim Dale as Horsa, Amanda Barrie as Cleopatra, David Davenport as Billius, Charles Hawfrey as Seneca, Julie Stevens as Gloria, Brian Oulton as Brutus, and EVH Emmett as the narrator. The narrator is used for scene transistions with bonus double and even single entendres. The movie spans the ancient world, from Rome to ancient Briton to Egypt.

Carry On Cleo covers three stories. The first is the tragedy of Julius Caesar, as he deals with a conspiracy, his wife, and his wife’s father, who has been having visions about the Ides of March. The second is the torrid romance between Antony and Cleopatra. The third is about a pair of Britons, Hengist Pod and his cave neighbour, Horsa, as they are taken as slaves by the Romans during Mark-Antony’s conquest of the Britons. The movie begins with Cleopatra in a milk bath in Egypt, Caesar and Mark-Antony in Briton complaining about the constant rain, and Hengist working on his invention, the wheel, and working with his new neighbour, Horsa, on a different invention, the window frame.

Horsa and Hengist hear about the inbound Roman army. Horsa, having escaped from the Romans once already, convinces his new home to stand and fight against the invaders while Hengist takes his two wheeler to alert Boudicca. The fight goes poorly for the Britons, facing a well-trained fighting force. Hengist doesn’t get far on his two-wheeler; his idea of using square wheels to prevent going backwards on a hill not working well for him. He gets caught by the same slavers that have taken the rest of his village, including Horsa.

The return to Rome is not all parades for Caesar. A mob has formed in front of his residence, held back by Mark-Antony’s troops. An attempt at calming the mob backfires as Caesar’s oratory skills fail to win over the crowd and a heckler. Inside, he greets his wife, though Calpurnia’s father, Seneca, is there and spouting warnings and visions. Even with Caesar’s return, Seneca has a vision – Caesar lying on the floor in a room filled with women in sheer gowns. When Caesar asks for more details, Seneca can’t give any as he was too focused on the women. Upset with his father-in-law in general, Caesar decides to go the the Temple of Vestal Virgins to get clarification, taking his trusted friend and personal gladiator, Billius.

At the slave auction Horsa is sold for a good price, though Hengist is destined to the lions. Horsa refuses to be a slave and escapes, dragging Hengist with him. They run through the streets of Rome with Mark-Antony’s centurions in pursuit. Horsa and Hengist hear another squad and duck into the nearest door, that of the Temple of Vestal Virgins. Not aware of the penalty of death for entering the temple, the two Britons dash in. The Virgins are elated to see the two men and begin pampering. Outside, Mark-Antony stops at the curtained window of the temple to ask if the Virgins have seen the escaped slaves. Not willing to give up their new toys, the Virgin who answers sends the Romans off.

Horsa and Hengist are still at the temple when Caesar and his entourage arrives. The Virgins scatter, leaving Hengist to answer the summons at the curtain. He quickly explains that he’s a eunich and the Virgins have taken the night off. Caesar believes the ruse, then turns to leave only to see Billius drawing his sword. It doesn’t take long for Caesar to realize what’s happening and runs into the temple.

Kenneth Williams with the movie’s famous line.

Horsa and Hengist fight off Billius and the rest of Caesar’s guard, Horsa being more effective. Horsa escapes, leaving Hengist behind. Mark-Antony arrives on the scene to see Caesar’s guards dead outside the temple. Inside, Caesar recovers and sees Billius and his companions dead. The only person standing in Hengist, who is promoted from slave to Caesar’s personal bodyguard. Mark-Antony takes a look at Hengist and can’t believe what he’s hearing. Seneca arrives and points out that the temple matches his vision.

The needs of the state continues, even if a conspiracy is afoot. News of the war in Egypt reaches Rome. Caesar decides to back Ptolemy over Cleopatra and sends Mark-Antony to take care of her. Mark-Antony makes the trip over to Egypt to meet Cleopatra, where she greets him while in her milk bath. Taken by her charms, Mark-Antony makes the decision to back Cleo instead of Ptolemy.

When he returns to Rome, Mark-Antony convinces Caesar to work with Cleo, including inviting him to meet her. Caesar takes his galley with his entourage, including his personal bodyguard Hengist, whose reputation far exceeds his untested capabilities. The entourage also includes Seneca, tagging along because of another vision, one where Caesar lays dead in Cleo’s bed.

During this time, Horsa has been captured and made a galley slave, one of the oarsmen on Caesar’s own galley. He plots his escape again, succeeds, and runs into the galley captain, Agrippa, and several armed men, all waiting outside Caesar’s cabin. Horsa and his fellow escaped slaves strike. Inside the cabin, Caesar is aware of the fate awaiting him if he opens the cabin door, so he sends his brave bodyguard out. By the time Hengist is pushed out, the conspirators are dead. The Briton takes advantage and fakes a battle where he is the victor.

The galley eventually reaches Egypt with replacement oarmen. Mark-Antony introsduces Caesar to Cleo. Caesar is as taken by Cleo’s charms as Mark-Antony was. Mark-Antony realizes that Caesar’s desires may be more than just Cleo, so he and Cleo conspire to kill the emperor. The idea of a poisoned asp is considered, but is passed over.its unfeasability.

Mark-Antony and Cleopatra conspiring.

Seneca, however, gets a vision of the murder, so Caesar switches roles with Hengist. Again, the unexpected slave escape throws a monkey wrench into everyone’s plans. Horsa prevents Hengist’s murder once again. Hengist drags Caesar with him, and the Britons return to Europe. The movie ends with Caesar in the Senate on the Ides of March, Mark-Antony and Cleopatra in Europe, and Hengist and Horsa returning to their village. Hengist is a changed man, with more confidence, and the one with the happy ending in the midst of the tragedies happening around him.

The movie combines the two plays, connecting the events depicted in both. Carry On Cleo makes Seneca Calpurnia’s father where the two weren’t related in reality or in the play. However, the goal of Carry On Cleo is humour, not historical accuracy. At the same time, Julius Caeser is a mainstay in English classes, so the play is at least familiar to a large percentage of the population, even if all the details might have been forgotten after the inevitable exam.

Carry On Cleo makes great use of the sets remaining after Cleopatra left Pinewood Studios. Cleo herself spends most of her screentime in her milk bath. Set reuse let the crew save money, keeping the budget low. Money could be used elsewhere for other sets that were needed and costuming. Historical films tend to cost more through costuming and set design, as modern clothes and locations tend to look modern.

The movie does have issues thanks to the march of time. Social conventions have changes, so the casual sexism of the Sixties is glaring. The worst, like Seneca, are played for laughs with the characters help in contempt already. There’s no overt nudity; the Carry On movies flirted with what was allowable but never crossed the line. The audience can fill in for what isn’t shown.

Overall, Carry On Cleo hits the beats of both plays, Julieus Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. The movie plays with a few ideas, holding them in parody. Considering that humour is the goal, the movie succeeds with enough of the plays left intact to carry the plot along. Afterall, a parody that veers too far astray isn’t as funny.


This article was originally published at THE REMAKE ZONE.

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