Carry On Cleo was the tenth of the Carry On movies and one of the most successful. It was a box-office smash hit at the time of its release in 1964 and remains one of the most highly regarded movies of the series.
I’ve always had a preference for the Carry On movies dealing with historical subjects. They seem to lend themselves particularly well to the over-the-top and highly theatrical comedic style of the Carry On films.
Carry On Cleo has the considerable advantage of some absolutely perfect subject matter - Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, the plot against Caesar’s life and Caesar’s and Antony’s romantic dalliances with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.
Hengist Pod (Kenneth Connor) is a British wheel-maker who has invented a new and highly advanced type of wheel - the square wheel. The advantages of the square wheel are obvious. Well, they’re obvious to Hengist Pod anyway. Along with his friend Horsa (Jim Dale) Hengist is captured by the Romans and sold into slavery. They end up in the galleys.
While all this is going on Caesar (Kenneth Williams) has sent Mark Antony (Sid James) to remove Cleopatra (Amanda Barie) from the throne of Egypt and replace her with her brother Ptolemy. Antony takes one look at the gorgeous Queen of Egypt and decides that it’s a much better idea to back Cleopatra against Ptolemy.
Hengist and Horsa end up in Rome where the bumbling and cowardly Hengist ends up being mistakenly given the credit for slaying half a dozen would-be assassins and becomes Caesar’s bodyguard. Caesar and Antony travel to Egypt where they are in competition for Cleopatra’s affections and Antony’s best chances of gaining those affections is obviously to assassinate Caesar.
This film obviously has, by Carry On standards, a fairly substantial plot. More importantly Talbot Rothwell’s script has an abundance of gags nearly all of which come off. And the historical subject matter isn’t just a colourful background - the gags and the story are perfectly integrated and while there’s the usual supply of double entendres there’s also some genuine wit.
The actors throw themselves into their roles with tremendous enthusiasm. They clearly appreciated having such a strong script. Kenneth Williams, Sid James and Charles Hawtrey are wonderful but then they always were. Kenneth Connor gives one of his best Carry On performances. Joan Sims doesn’t get much screen time but she’s in blisteringly good form as Caesar’s neglected, jealous and shrewish wife Calpurnia. Amanda Barrie as Cleopatra is a delight. Jon Pertwee puts in an appearance as a mad soothsayer.
Carry On Cleo was a very fortunate production indeed. It was shot at Pinewood and producer Peter Rogers was able to use some magnificent sets that had been built for the mega-budget Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra. They were never used for Cleopatra since the production of that film was moved to Rome but Carry On Cleo director Gerald Thomas was more than happy to make use of them. Some of the costumes (including those worn by Amanda Barrie) had originally been made for Cleopatra as well. As a result Carry On Cleo looks like an incredibly expensive movie. In actual fact it’s budget was a paltry £165,000 (compared to the $44 million that 20th Century-Fox poured into Cleopatra). Carry On Cleo looks absolutely gorgeous.
The movie was shot widescreen and in colour to take full advantage of the terrific sets.
The ITV Studios DVD, from their Carry On: The Ultimate Collection boxed set, includes an entertaining audio commentary with Amanda Barrie and Julie Stevens (who plays Horsa’s lady love). The transfer is extremely good.
It’s all outrageous fun, and it’s worth it just to hear Kenneth Williams deliver the line that was voted in a 2007 poll as the funniest line in movie history. This may be the best of all the Carry On movies. It’s certainly in the top three. I’d even go so far as to rate it as one of the best movie comedies of all time. Very highly recommended.