For this month’s final review for Genre Grandeur – Shakespeare on Film Movies, here’s a review of Julius Caesar (1953) by James of Blogging By Cinema Light.
In case you missed any of the reviews, here’s a recap:
- Hamlet (1948) – James
- Othello (1951) – David
- The King (2019) – Darren
- All Night Long (1962) – David
- West Side Story (1961) – Rob
- Hamlet (1990) – James
- Ran (1985) – David
- Romeo Must Die (2000) – Sally
- Hamlet (1996) – Rob
- Throne of Blood (1957) – David
- Julius Caesar (1953) – James
In addition, I reviewed 3 movies for my companion series, Genre Guesstimation. Unfortunately, none of them will be considered among my favorites.
Thanks again to James of Blogging By Cinema Light for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s genre has been chosen by Sally of 18 Cinema Lane and we will be reviewing our favorite Youth-Led Movies.
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Jan by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Try to think out of the box! Great choice Sally!
Let’s see what James thought of this movie:
Lend me your eyes.
Joe Mankiewicz’s first film at his new home at M-G-M was for producer John Houseman, who had produced Orson Welles’ acclaimed 1937 stage version of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar”, staged as if it was a tribal war in Haiti. Welles and Houseman had a venomous falling-out once they both established their film careers, and when Welles started making films of Shakespeare plays (starting with 1948’s MacBeth), something might have gotten under Houseman’s skin. Perhaps to show him up, Houseman made plans for his own production of “Julius Caesar”, with a cast that comprised some of the best film-actors in the world. Mankiewicz adapted the screenplay and then casting began, combining stars from the M-G-M stable and some of the most notable Shakespearean actors of the time.
As well as Marlon Brando.
Now, Brando had made his impression on-stage and on film with “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and was the much-ballyhooed klieg-light of “The Method” form of acting, which stood in sharp contrast with the more formal acting of the rest of the troupe, so his casting raised some eyebrows and more than a little skepticism, given his more natural—the term used was “mumbling”—style of acting, especially given his co-stars. After all, co-star John Gielgud was considered a preeminent interpreter of Shakespeare. Brando, knowing what an opportunity he had, prevailed on Gielgud to give him some pointers on negotiating Shakespeare. The rest is pure Brando cunning.
You know the story: “the lean and hungry look;” “It’s all greek to me;” Caesar, beware the ides of March;” “Et tu, Brute.” Roman emperor Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern) enjoys a popular reign among everyone except some members of the Roman Senate who see the monarch as having too much power and holding onto it for too long, negating any advancement for them, and approaching one of two of Caesar’s confidantes—not his military leader Marc Antony (Brando), but the conscientious Senator Marcus Brutus (James Mason)—that the only way they can depose Caesar is to assassinate him.
Several senators confront Caesar and when they can’t persuade him to see their way on a specific petition, stab him to death, the previously loyal Brutus being the last to attack and delivering the final, fatal blow.
With Caesar dead, the “liberators” consider the matter of the power vacuum his murder has created (as well as the fear of the populace’s reaction to it). To ensure that there is a united front, the conspirators get the stated agreement of Antony to not condemn them when he requests to speak on Caesar’s death, assuring that they can make the case for their actions first. It allows a they said/he said with the balance of power at the tipping point.
It’s the pivot point on which Shakespeare’s play (which is more concerned with the character of Brutus than Caesar) hangs and it is a story of contrasts. Fortunately, Mankiewicz has the right actors to make it play. Mason is all practicality and ideology, making the case for the senators and against Caesar. He lays out his arguments and swings the people to his reasons. But, once Brutus and the conspirators take their leave, Antony brings out Caesar’s bloody body and speaks the “Friends, Romans and countrymen” speech, casting himself as the disadvantaged speaker and playing on the crowd’s emotions, rather than their reason.
It’s a masterful piece of writing and under Brando’s fiery delivery (in his formal British-accented “Jor-el” voice), a fine example of mass-manipulation. Capitulating to the assassins’ demands that he not speak against them, Antony slyly and repeatedly reminds the gathered throng that the murderers are all honorable men, but makes it clear to the crowd that he does so under duress, and then picks apart their arguments against Caesar. He then hammers his purpose home while appealing to the crowd’s self-interest, by providing Caesar’s will and reading off (or making up) that Caesar made the people of Rome his beneficiaries.
Brando starts out stern and placating, then seemingly breaks down with emotion, building to a feverish pitch and finally screaming the last line, as the crowd starts to rebel against the conspirators (and many of the set’s furnishings) and he stands above all and watches the fruits of his handiwork.
With a wedge formed between the conspirators and the people, Antony is free to wage war against them, and, at that point, director Mankiewicz opens up the play out of the studio—Rome is portrayed as bound blocks of marble that have before dominated the film—its own version of a stage’s proscenium arch that traditionally frame the Bard’s works, to ever so briefly expand the scope by moving out into the real world way from columns and polished surfaces and to Nature’s disarray, as the conspirators squabble with each other and their union begins to fray.
It’s the best version that I’ve seen of the play, with strong performances from the entire cast (which also includes Edmond O’ Brien, Greer Garson, and Deborah Kerr) and particularly strong performances from Mason and Gielgud, which is where other versions I’ve seen have fallen a little flat. The roles of Cassius and Brutus are particularly central to the play as it centers on the turning of Brutus to perform an act of betrayal in what he is convinced is a good cause, only to find that it is all for naught and must come to terms with his conscience over it—a sort of “Hamlet” in reverse.
It’s an odd combination of star power and acting prowess, and is one of the best presentations of Shakespeare put on the screen.