Retro Review Double Feature: Julius Caesar
Beware the Ides of March! With Erik off to Vegas on a research trip to Caesar’s Palace, this month we’ll be serving you up some of our favorite antiquities from ancient Rome. Our first stop comes from some guy named Shakespeare (never heard of him, but I think he may be friends with Kenneth Branagh.) Many versions of the iconic play have been put to film, the two most notable being the 1953 version, which starred Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, and the 1970 version, with Charlton Heston as Antony. Apparently starring in this role turns you into a crazy old crank later in life…
Julius Caesar (AKA How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Roman Tyrants and to Love Ritual Stabbing) tells the story of…Brutus and Antony, mostly. Julius Caesar returns to Rome triumphant, having dispatched the army of his political rival, Pompey. There is a furor over what role Caesar will take in politics, now that he apparently stands alone in terms of prestige and military power. To that end, Cassius, a Roman Senator, hatches a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar before he can ascend to complete power as a tyrant. He enlists the aid of Brutus, one of Caesar’s closest friends. Brutus is honorable and patriotic, but allows his idealism to make rash decisions. After much inner turmoil (and many dramatic monologues) Brutus decides that despite his love for Julius Caesar, and despite the fact that Caesar yet to make any overt plays to overthrow the Republic, he must die. Too much power cannot be allowed to reside in any one man. To that end, the conspirators put their plan into action.
The wild card in the whole drama is Marc Antony. A cunning politician and military man, he was second to Julius Caesar in power, having served him loyally through many campaigns. The conspirators sound him out, but cannot come to any agreement on his intentions. He is left out of the plot, but hears news of it and attempts to head Caesar off before it can be carried out.
It’s hard to play coy about a 400+ year old play detailing historical events that are 2000 years old…but I wouldn’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t had the pleasure of it. Conspiracy, betrayal, bloodshed and civil war all abound, so you really should see it yourself. Now, as to which version you should see?
Julius Caesar (1953)
Filmed in black and white and shown in monophonic sound, this version of Julius Caesar can be a little hard to bear for those not accustomed to older films. While both versions are faithful to Shakespeare’s dialogue, the earlier version seems much more in line with a film adaptation of a play, and retains much of the feel of a staged reproduction of the play. Several larger sets are used, and numerous crowds swarm both the senate and the battle field, but the film’s technique is much more in sympathy with its smaller stage brethren. While this does stilt the cinematic feel of the piece a touch, it allows the production’s greatest assets to shine: this cast is jam-packed with exceptional performances. Marlon Brando’s Antony is not even the most captivating character, despite having the most notable lines. James Mason as Brutus gives a fantastic portrayal, delivering his lines with grace and fluidity (no small feat for Shakespeare’s diction) and really creates a dynamic and conflicted character. John Gielgud (who rose to silver screen fame almost completely on his ability to do amazing Shakespeare) gives the sly Cassius real teeth. If you’re a fan of the play, or just sympathetic to poor Brutus, this version is for you.
Julius Caesar (1970)
While the 1970’s version of Julius Caesar has been critically reviled (mostly due to Jason Robards’ atrocious performance of Brutus) it does have several nice features to it. It’s paced and shot much more in line with modern films, and has much of the pomp and spectacle associated with other sword and sandal epics such as Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, Spartacus, and the similarly derided flop, Cleopatra. Like many of these epics, it also features Charlton Heston…who is a dynamo as Antony. Compared to Brando’s portrayal, Heston is practically manic in the role. Having played the role multiple times in multiple films, Heston clearly has some relish for the part, and it shows. His renditions of Antony’s famous speeches are riveting, flouting many of the conventions of its delivery, adding pauses and asides (without altering the lines,) which give his reading of the text a more realistic and organic feel. This version is the weaker of the two Julius Caesar films, but has real merit for those who like a good old fashioned bloody spectacle, or who come down on the side of Antony in this tragic fiasco.