Elizabeth Taylor's epic Egyptian love story 'Cleopatra' turns 50 years old this week, but remains the high benchmark for movies that made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Cast drop-outs, giant egos, scandals and sickness: these things and more contributed to Cleopatra's status as a legendary money pit. To honour Cleo's glittering golden anniversary, we've rounded up seven of the most shambolic movie super-productions – movies that'll make you think twice about ever becoming a director...
[The most epic movie set meltdowns]
Original budget: $2 million
Actual budget: $44 million (adjusted for 2013: $323 million)
What happened: Elizabeth Taylor happened. The actress, who had already been paid a then record $1 million salary, fell ill during shooting (a tracheotomy saved her life) and delayed shooting for so long, half the cast had to quit. The English weather proved troublesome to Taylor's health (and was hardly an adequate stand-in for Egypt) meaning the film had to be uprooted to Rome, where all the sets were rebuilt. Everything that had been shot was useless, thanks to the cast members that had departed, while the scandalous affair between Taylor and co-star Richard Burton gave the movie bad publicity. Director Joseph L Mankiewicz (who was fired and rehired) originally turned in a cut that was six hours long, eventually editing it down to a mere over three.
Was it worth it? The film won four Oscars but was beaten to Best Picture by 'Tom Jones'. Though critical reaction was mixed, 'Cleopatra' stands the test of time as a true epic: a giant, shimmering monument to excess that wouldn't look out of place in Ancient Egypt.
Original budget: $135 million
Actual budget: $200 million
What happened: James Cameron had a vision for 'Titanic', and he would be damned if he'd let things like money or injuries or panicking studio executives stop him from realising that dream. Believe it or not, there was a time during production when 'Titanic' the movie was predicted to sink like Titanic the ship – Cameron requested an additional $65 million in budget and overshot by three weeks. Kate Winslet chipped a bone in her elbow and claims she almost drowned; shooting in, on and around water led to several cast and crew members contracting pneumonia. The coup de grâce was the disgruntled crew member who laced the set catering with PCP, leading to the hospitalisation of 50 people.
Was it worth it? A total worldwide gross of over $2 billion dollars was all the validation James Cameron needed. It remained the most successful movie for twelve years until Cameron topped himself with 'Avatar', another mega-bucks movie that was predicted to bomb.
Original budget: $100 million
Actual budget: $175 million
What happened: Water is not the friend of the blockbuster. It is notoriously difficult to shoot on water, as James Cameron would soon find out on 'Titanic', but Kevins Costner and Reynolds drowned where Cameron would ride a wave of success. For starters, the man-made floating Atoll set off the coast of Hawaii was hugely impractical and was destroyed by a hurricane mid-shoot; Kevin Costner almost died during production in a yachting accident; his stunt double almost got lost at sea while travelling to work; the film's stunt co-ordinator got the bends while shooting underwater. Filming was so fractious, director Kevin Reynolds and his star fell out – some reports suggest Reynolds was fired, others say he walked away. Joss Whedon was flown in for last-minute rewrites and described the experience as "seven weeks of hell".
Was it worth it? Though the movie eventually scraped a meagre profit once it hit home video, it was deemed a flop upon release. For our money, however, it's still a unique action romp with much to love, not least Costner's amusingly-gilled anti-hero, The Mariner.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Original budget: $12 million
Actual budget: $31.5 million
What happened: The shooting of 'Apocalypse Now' was so shambolic, an entire film – stunning documentary 'Hearts Of Darkness' – was devoted to telling its story. First, Harvey Keitel was fired and replaced with Martin Sheen, who subsequently suffered a heart attack (aged 38) during filming. Typhoons flattened the primitive jungle sets. Marlon Brando turned up on set several stone overweight, forcing director Francis Ford Coppola to shoot him mostly in shadow. All in all, filming lasted a torturous 16 months. Said Coppola, once he'd finally finished editing the film together: "We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane."
Was it worth it? Totally. 'Apocalypse Now' is routinely voted one of the greatest war films ever made, perfectly capturing the madness of the Vietnam conflict. Had everything gone to plan, it probably wouldn't have been half as interesting.
Heaven's Gate (1980)
Original budget: $11.6 million
Actual budget: $36 million
What happened: Production on 'Heaven's Gate' is the stuff of legend: rumour has it the film was five days behind schedule after six days of shooting. Michael Cimino apparently wanted to rival 'Apocalypse Now' for on-set carnage, shooting 1.3 million feet of film (to Coppola's 1 million) and shooting up to 50 takes, often waiting until 'the right cloud' rolled into the scene. Cimino was extraordinarily wasteful: he demanded both sides of an entire street set be demolished and each moved by three feet (only afterwards did a crew member point out he could have moved one side six feet) and built an entire irrigation system underneath a field used in a battle scene so it'd stay green. The only sensible thing he did was change the locks to the editing room.
Was it worth it? Deemed a flop on release thanks to a ruthless edit (The New York Times called it "an unqualified disaster"), 'Heaven's Gate' has slowly found new friends over the years. Last year's director's cut re-release (now only 216 minutes!) was described as "an absolute masterpiece" by the director of the Venice Film Festival.
Original budget: Unknown
Actual budget: Unknown
What happened: Despite the relationship between director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski being strained to say the least, Herzog returned to the well for 'Fitzcarraldo' – the story about the rubber merchant who hauls a 320-tonne steamship over a hill. Never one to do things by half, Herzog actually performed the incredible feat without the use of special effects, but it was a famous ordeal: war broke out on the Peru-Ecuador border where filming was located, drought almost killed several crew members and 40% of the movie had to be trashed after original lead Jason Robards was taken ill. His replacement? Werner's frenemy Kinski, who caused Herzog so much grief, one of the native Peruvian chiefs allegedly offered to have him killed.
Was it worth it? By gosh, yes. It's fitting that a film about such an incredible achievement was itself a complete and total marathon from start to finish, but it makes for essential viewing.
Gone With The Wind (1939)
Original budget: $2.5 million
Actual budget: $3.9 million
What happened: Perhaps the ultimate troubled movie. Filming of the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's novel was delayed by two years in order to secure Clark Gable for Rhett Butler, while auditions for Scarlett O'Hara saw 1,400 women try out for the role before Vivien Leigh won the part. The movie went through three directors – George Cukor was fired after three weeks of shooting despite two years of pre-production, MGM's Sam Wood stepped in when replacement Victor Fleming suffered from exhaustion – and countless writers were hired to work on Sidney Howard's sprawling screenplay. Second only to 'Ben Hur' as the most expensive movie of its era, 'Gone With The Wind' was so epic it was almost out of control: at one point, five separate units were shooting individually.
Was it worth it? Adjusted for inflation, 'Gone With The Wind' is still the most commercially successful film ever made. So yes, it was worth it.