Saturday, May 11, 2013

Julius Caesar (1953--1970)

Director: Joseph Mankiewcz, Stuart Burge              Writer: William Shakespeare
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa, Michael J. Lewis            Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg, Kenneth Higgins
Starring: Marlon Brando, James Mason, Charlton Heston and Jason Robards

Choosing a favorite Shakespeare play seems a bit like choosing your favorite child. Nevertheless, this is my favorite of his plays. Julius Caesar takes in so many different aspects to it, comedy, tragedy, history, political struggle, philosophical questions, battle tactics, and character study. Set in 44 B.C. at the height of Rome as a world power, Julius Caesar has solidified his power at home as well by reducing the Senate to an advisory capacity and gaining the support of the people by instituting land reforms. But just as he is about to assume the position of emperor of the vast empire, a conspiracy forms among a group of senators who believe this will destroy Rome and seek to restore the Republic that has always been the controlling force.

In 1937 John Houseman produced Orson Welles’ version of Julius Caesar in New York. Welles set the play Nazi Germany and it achieved some success. Fifteen years later Houseman brought the definitive version to the screen. James Mason and John Gielgud were cast as Brutus and Cassius respectively and they give tremendous performances. Marlon Brando was a hot commodity at the time, and so he was given the role of Antony and he does a good job. The great Louis Calhern plays the title character who, ironically, has a very small role. Edmond O’Brien is Casca, Deborah Kerr is Portia and Greer Garson is Calpurnia, and the rest of the supporting parts are equally as impressive. The actors deliver at their lines in a conversational manner that makes Shakespeare’s poetry come alive. In addition you have a powerful epic score by Miklós Rózsa which really solidifies the greatness of the film.

Then we have the 1970 version, which is a complete disaster, and that’s too bad. Connecting the two films is John Gielgud playing Caesar this time. You also have Charlton Heston as Antony, Jason Robards as Brutus, Christopher Lee in a bit part as Artemidorus and a host of other second rate actors of the time. But the biggest problem with the 1970 production is with the director Stuart Burge. For some reason he decided that a conversational style was not appropriate for his film. He had the actors slow down their dialog so much that it literally destroys the film. I call it Captain Kirk’s Shakespeare, because the dialog is so stilted, so laborious that that there’s no way for the film to recover. As a result, everything that Burge tries to make dramatic falls flat because the pace is so incredibly slow. In addition the choice of Robards as Brutus kills the production. It was as if he was directed to show absolutely no emotion at all.

Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. I think it doesn’t get its due because most people don’t understand just how multifaceted it is. Houseman was able to understand, and his director, Joseph Mankiewcz, did an excellent job of bringing it to life on the screen. Even the black-and-white images do a lot to enhance the earlier version. It gives the film a vitality that the later, color picture lacks. Mankiewcz had a short but distinguished career as a director, helming pictures like All About Eve and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, while Burge, other than Caesar, spent most of his career directing in television. In the end the choice is no choice at all. John Houseman’s 1953 version of Julius Caesar is the superior film and, sixty years later, still the only version worth watching.

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