Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Julius Caesar on the Screen: Mankiewicz (1953), Burge (1970), Wise (1979)


Brutus – James Mason
Cassius – John Gielgud
Mark Antony – Marlon Brando
Julius Caesar – Louis Calhern
Casca – Edmund O’Brien
Portia – Deborah Kerr
Calpurnia – Greer Garson

Adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Black and white. 120 min.

I wish there were more screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays such as this one. It’s difficult to think how it could be improved at all. The cast is just about impossible to surpass, the black-and-white cinematography is magnificent, the direction of Joseph Mankiewicz makes the best of each scene without the chaotic elements that today pass for originality, the traditional sets and the costumes are simple but certainly not minimalist or ugly.

We are fortunate to have two fabulous actors in the two major roles. James Mason invests Brutus with tragic pathos, and he does it so well that one almost forgets what an impossible fool “the noblest Roman” really is. John Gielgud gives what is the closest to definitive portrayal of Cassius, one of the great villains in Shakespeare, a man consumed by envy and endowed with spectacular powers for manipulating people. This is great Shakespearean acting par excellence. Each word is clearly pronounced, each phrase is carefully articulated, yet there is never any hint of artificiality, words for their own sake, or actors speaking their parts, faults all too common in Shakespearean movies (or theatre productions, for that matter).

The casting of Marlon Brando reportedly caused a good deal of controversy at the time. A mumbling American in Shakespeare? You must be joking! The sceptics needn’t have worried. Brando’s incandescent performance wipes out the competition. Mark Antony is not the most prominent character, but he takes part in two of the most crucial scenes and he speaks two splendid pieces of dramatic poetry, his “Cry havoc” soliloquy, when he is alone with Caesar’s corpse, and his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” address to the crowd which stirs them to rebellion against the conspirators. Brando is perfect at all fronts. The Forum Scene, surely one of the greatest moments in Shakespeare, is some half an hour long, two-thirds of which are Antony’s masterful playing on the crowd’s emotions. I have yet to see another rendition that matches Brando’s intensity and subtlety.

The small but all-too-important roles are superbly done as well. Edmund O’Brien is an excellent Casca, that strange hybrid between cynical detachment and superstitious fears. Portia and Calpurnia are hardly the most grateful parts in this obsessively male play, but they are important to show the contrast between Brutus and Caesar. That’s why we are fortunate, again, to have Deborah Kerr and Greer Garson, no less, in these roles. Louis Calhern is perhaps the only member in the cast who is not entirely convincing. But one must not be too hard on him. Caesar is little more than stage convention. No actor can make a character from a few lines of self-aggrandizement. That said, Louis Calhern makes a fine Caesar, not the goofy old man often presented (see the other two movies), but a man inflexibly convinced in his own divinity.

In short, as perfect a movie as is possible in so imperfect a world. Of course there are numerous small cuts, but the spirit is faithfully preserved and reproduced. On the top of all that, it is uncommonly beautiful; though its beauty is of a peculiar, austere sort, it is no less genuine for that. Here are some examples:















Brutus – Jason Robards
Cassius – Richard Johnson
Mark Antony – Charlton Heston
Julius Caesar – John Gielgud
Casca – Robert Vaughn
Portia – Diana Rigg
Calpurnia – Jill Bennett

Adapted by Robert Furnival.
Directed by Stuart Burge.
Colour. 117 min.

I wish I knew what exactly is wrong with this movie. All ingredients of a timeless masterpiece are here, well prepared and well mixed. And yet, the final result never takes off the earth. The huge dramatic potential of the play is muffled by insipid direction and very uneven cast. It is still a decent production, but it falls far short of the 1953 masterpiece.

One of the wrong things is easy to spot. Jason Robards. He is a great actor, no question about that; as the Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West he gave one of the greatest performances in movie history. But his attempt to play Brutus is the perfect definition of miscasting. I don’t like this word and I think it is used much more often than it should be, for a great actor is bound to make something memorable out of each part, but there are exceptions and this, alas, is one of them. Robards is consistently and relentlessly boring. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with the character. He diligently recites the poetry, line after line, barely modulating his voice – and that’s it. Even the gorgeous Diana Rigg can’t save their “family scene”. And without Brutus there is no Julius Caesar. This is certainly the main reason why this movie is such a disappointment. It’s not the only one, though.

I was quite surprised to find John Gielgud and Richard Johnson disappointing. Both are superior to Robards, to be sure, but I expected so much more from them. Gielgud presents a senile and eminently forgettable Caesar; but, as I’ve said above, it is mission impossible to do more with so little. Richard Johnson was a much more surprising disappointment. Four years after this movie he would be a wonderful Antony in Jon Scoffield’s movie version, based on Trevor Nunn’s stage production, of Antony and Cleopatra. But his Cassius leaves a good deal to be desired. He counts too much on sullen expression to do the job. Cassius deserves more.

Charlton Heston gives probably the best performance in this movie. No, he is not in the same league as Brando, not by any stretch of the imagination. But his Antony is living and breathing, quite unlike much of the cast; and his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” is powerful and memorable, with many subtle inflections and tightly controlled histrionics. Like Heston’s Antony two years later, this one is coherent and believable, occasionally moving and illuminating.

The movie on the whole feels like a great missed opportunity. It’s a pleasant trifle to watch, competently if not brilliantly shot, with decent if a little stagy sets, but seldom enlivened by anything like great acting.











Brutus – Richard Pasco
Cassius – David Collings
Mark Antony – Keith Michell
Julius Caesar – Charles Gray
Casca – Sam Dastor
Portia – Virginia McKenna
Calpurnia  – Elizabeth Spriggs

Adapted by ?
Directed by Herbert Wise.
Colour. 150 min.

I’m afraid this BBC production is unintentionally hilarious. Charles Gray is definitely the most ridiculous Caesar you can imagine. Blind, deaf and dumb, he roams through the Roman streets like a bat with damaged echolocation. Even Shakespeare’s far from reverent treatment can’t justify this “interpretation”. I have a soft spot for Keith Michell ever since I saw him as Captain Cook in those TV series from the late 1980s. But his Antony is hammy to the extreme; his address at the Forum is so obviously phony that no crowd could possibly believe it. Richard Pasco and David Collings might have been giving poetry recitations on the radio, so little are they concerned about body language or dramatic impact.

The production is extremely chamber, almost claustrophobic indeed, and it looks like a postcard that has long lost any colour it might have had. In spite of Herbert Wise’s impressive credentials, the direction is thoroughly conventional. The best about this movie is the virtually complete text. It is a perfect starter and, I suppose, very suitable for teaching the play. But that’s all it has to offer. Even the flawed 1970 version is vastly preferable to this epitome of dullness.

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