Prompted by the grand finale of Rome, we took another look at Cleopatra, which is one of those movies I can rewatch every few years. Compare-and-contrast is a fun enough game, and Marcy, who was never entirely sure which of the HBO characters were fictional, was entertained by noting differences in motivation and plot. Every frame of Cleopatra must have cost more than an entire episode of Rome, but the storytelling is much more contemporary on HBO. The movie nearly bankrupted Fox because it was designed to trump TV by outspending it. Forty years later, it has been shown up by… a TV show. But the images are still twice as wide, and the characters twice as grand.

Here’s what fascinated me, though: the palatial sets, outlandish backdrops, and outsized drama of Cleopatra resemble another, much more recent epic about larger-than-life figures. Along with forties serials, The Hidden Fortress, Ray Harryhausen and all the other usual suspects, there is no doubt that the Cinemascope epics of the fifties and sixties, and specifically Cleopatra, served as a blueprint for the Star Wars films. Archetypes in ever-morphing hairdos and caped costumes acting out eternal tragedies and reciting awkward, overwritten lines of dialogue — especially Revenge of the Sith, the episode in which the galactic shit hits the fan, is the spiritual and cinematic heir of Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s four-and-a-half-hour epic.

Read on for more about Star Wars, Grindhouse, and why Jar-Jar Binks is cooler than Stuntman Mike. Also, lots more screenshots.

Natalie Portman can’t match the throaty charms of Elizabeth Taylor, but there is more than a hint of Richard Burton’s furious self pity in Hayden Christensen’s boyish impunity. Even in 1963, the grandiosity of Cleopatra must have registered as fake, its tone too old fashioned and genre-bound for the times. Dwarfed by the enormous sets, Rex Harrison and Martin Landau look as uncomfortable as Ewan McGregor in front of the green screen.

George Lucas is famous for directing his actors to “do it again, only faster,” and Mankiewicz, perhaps aware of the money being spent on everything surrounding the actors, was exceptionally stingy with close-ups. His actors exclaim their lines as if they were on stage, giving the movie a deliciously overripe flavor. Cleopatra: “There are never enough hours in the days of a queen, and her nights have too many!” Amidala: “Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo!”

Each Star Wars prequel, culminating in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, was met with critical derision. “The dialogue is astonishingly feeble, the acting unforgivably wooden,” and so forth. Despite the negative reception, the films were enormous successes . Fast forward to Easter 2007. Grindhouse just opened to acclaim and disappointing box office numbers. Hailing the film as a loving homage to an outdated kind of movie experience, critics fell all over themselves to announce that they, too, were aficionados of exploitation cinema who used to get their feet stuck in the goo on old 42nd street, etc.

I suspect QT’s playground bully attitude (and shameless Weinstein Co publicity) had more than a little to do with the way Grindhouse was embraced. For any outcast film nerd, it was a tough offer to refuse: Quentin would validate your sickly movie lust and celebrate it as the coolest fucking thing ever–you just had to be willing to overlook the fact that Death Proof is an uninspired, overlong bore of aimless, derivative shtick. You could call it “a Tarantino movie,” and that means normal standards don’t apply, bitches.

The Star Wars prequels didn’t wear their influences on their sleeve, but the opening crawl straight out of Flash Gordon might have tipped us off (Episode III: “War!”). The Star Wars crawl serves the same purpose as Machete, the fake trailer that kicks off Grindhouse: it’s a way to let us in on the joke right from the start. However, Star Wars didn’t come with motherfucking QT cool built in, and consequently, there was precious little talk about the fact that it was also an iconic and elaborately structured homage, chock-full of cross-references and film geek allusions, every bit as loving a tribute to vanishing, unfashionable cinematic traditions, kitschy space operas, forties horror matinees, and overblown Hollywood epics as Grindhouse is to exploitation flicks.

Better yet–and this is the crucial distinction–Star Wars works where Death Proof fails, perhaps because its admiration for the movies it emulates isn’t eclipsed by the director’s self-indulgence. Face it: true movie love doesn’t care how hip it is, and true cool doesn’t have anything to prove.

Cleopatra. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963. ****