Clocking in at over four hours in its uncut form, the 1963 epic Cleopatra featured an all star cast headed by Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. The lavish production spared no expense in bringing the ancient worlds of Rome and Alexandria to life on the big screen. And what’s even better is that this film featured not just one diorama, but two.
About three hours into the film, Marc Antony prepares to engage Octavian’s forces at Actium, on the western coast of Greece. The first diorama we see on Cleopatra’s flagship captures the topography of Actium and the positions of the opposing fleets.
Antony has the option to abandon his ships, which are now blockaded by Octavian’s larger navy, and fight Octavian on land. However, he decides to confront Octavian’s forces at sea. He erupts in anger when his generals question his decision to send ground troops into a naval engagement they aren’t trained for.
As the battle begins, every step of the engagement is duplicated in miniature on a second diorama. On her flagship, Cleopatra watches in horror as the miniature Egyptian ships positioned on the diorama are set ablaze, mirroring the fate of their full size counterparts at sea. This is one of the few movies in which a diorama is used to illustrate the main events taking place, retelling the story in miniature.
Unlike many Hollywood epics, this one is based on actual events. The Battle of Actium is well documented and represents the pivotal point in history when Rome changed from a republic to an empire.
Some of the details have been altered for dramatic effect, but the film captures the essence of the events which took place. And for diorama aficionados, the icing on the cake is the inclusion of two dioramas which are much more than set dressing. These miniatures help draw us into the conflict that serves as the climax of this fascinating story.