The film opens with a title card reading; “Whilst the characters and events in this story are based on actual characters and events, certain liberties have been taken with Cleopatra.” If you don’t find that hilarious, quit while you’re ahead.
The Carry On series had come of age with this, the tenth entry in the series. Sid James, Kenneth Connor and Joan Sims rejoined the fun and games while Jim Dale graduated to official romantic lead.
In ancient Britain, square-wheel-maker Hengist Pod (Kenneth Connor) is among those captured by the Roman forces of Mark Antony (Sid James) and taken to Rome where he is sold in the slave market.
He and his friend Horsa (Jim Dale) manage to escape and find refuge in a temple where they are welcomed with open arms by the sex-starved Vestal Virgins.
Sought by troops, Horsa does mighty deeds with his sword before making his escape. Left behind, the weak-kneed Pod is thought to be the valiant warrior who has saved the life of Caesar (Kenneth Williams), and the latter promptly appoints him his bodyguard.
Thus Pod becomes the fear of all – except Mark Antony, who guesses the truth.
Caesar sends Mark Antony to Alexandria with instructions to dispose of Cleopatra (Amanda Barrie, pictured below) and install Ptolemy on the throne of Egypt. But Cleo and Mark hit it off so well together that Mark disposes of Ptolemy instead and, returning to Rome, induces Caesar to visit Cleo with the intention of assassinating him.
The conspiracy collapses in an unexpected but lively fashion, with Pod once again getting credit where no credit is due.
Hengist Pod is able to return with his friend Horsa to Britain where (thanks to a love potion which was the property of Cleo) his shrewish wife finds him a completely changed man.
The film was, of course, a timely spoof of the mega-production Cleopatra (1963) with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The sets built at Pinewood for the 20th Century-Fox blockbuster were left standing when the film moved back to Hollywood, providing the perfect chance to make an immediate comic version. Thus, the sets were of amazingly high quality and the costumes were fresh from the backs of Burton and Harrison.
At the heart of Carry On Cleo is the stunning and delightfully dotty performance of Amanda Barrie as the seductive Queen of the Nile, cleverly constructed as a naive and childish figure.
Amanda’s simple-minded commands and fluttering eyelids are a masterly piece of work and her relationship with Sid James is priceless.
James comes fully to the fore in this, his first venture into Carry On history.
When he joins forces with Barrie’s mindless Cleo, the gags flow thick and fast, with Sid’s streetwise hold on the situation highlighting the childish naiveté of Barrie during the ‘loan’ wordplay.
Kenneth Williams, in arguably his finest role as the manic Caesar, has the perfect sounding board for his camp, flamboyant outbursts, including the immortal line: “Infamy, infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”
While these characters run the Roman Empire, back home in stone age Britain, bumbling Kenneth Connor and hot-blooded hero Jim Dale are enjoying the quiet life.
When the Britons meet the Romans it’s the cue for various comic misunderstandings, a hatful of corny puns and the most polished comic epic ever filmed.
It is Connor’s humbling Englishman abroad that gets the funniest lines when these Anglicised Romans don’t understand his cultural references.
Cleo is quite clearly a landmark in the history of Carry On, with a perfect cast of expert players, a well rounded, do-anything-for-a-giggle screenplay, and sets that the usual budget could never have afforded.
All the elements come together superbly for one of British cinema’s most respected and effective comedy films.
The production came under fire from Marks & Spencer for using the company’s official colours, green and gold, for Cleo‘s slave market, Marcus & Spencius. The joke treatment of the company name wasn’t a problem, but the use of their logo colours was. The situation was amicably resolved and Marks & Spencer enjoyed free and regular publicity for the next 30 years.
Francis De Wolff