Fearful of Roman dictator Julius Caesar’s (Louis Calhern, The Asphalt Jungle) unlimited powers, senators Brutus (James Mason, A Star is Born) and Cassius (John Gielgud, Arthur) lead a conspiracy to assassinate him. When Caesar’s protege, General Mark Antony (Marlon Brando, The Godfather), finds out that his beloved mentor was murdered by the senators, the angry soldier swears revenge.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!”
Hollywood has never been big on Shakespeare. In a money-driven industry, adapting Shakespeare to film appears to be a recipe for box office disaster. First of all, regular moviegoers find The Bard’s prose difficult to understand. In addition, Shakespeare’s plays are impossibly long and talky, hardly the stuff that blockbusters are made of.
It isn’t as if Hollywood didn’t have the right to be skeptical about the commercial viability of Shakespeare. Though critically acclaimed, early Shakespeare movie adaptations A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and Romeo and Juliet (1936) struggled to make money. However, encouraged by Laurence Olivier’s financially profitable Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios decided to try again.
The success of MGM’s Roman epic Quo Vadis (1951) steered the studio towards Shakespeare’s toga-and-sandal play Julius Caesar, and their instincts turned out to be right: Julius Caesar was well-received by both critics and audiences. This is definitely one of the smartest Shakespeare adaptations. The film looks beyond the specific politics of the era to focus on timeless themes of loyalty and honor. Every speech carries the necessary power, and the staging of the scenes is a masterclass in minimalism.
Writer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve and Cleopatra) made the decision to stay close to the play. For this reason, movie and play share the same narrative flaws. The first half is so intense that the second half is dull in comparison. All of the play’s best lines — “Ides of March,” “Cry havoc,” “The evil that men do,” “Et tu, Brute?,” “I am constant as the Northern Star” — are delivered during the first half. Perhaps trimming the the last hour would have helped the movie as a whole.
In any event, Marlon Brando’s stunning performance as Mark Anthony overrides the movie’s few flaws. Julius Caesar was a game-changer for Brando. Despite being widely admired for playing inarticulate characters, most people thought Shakespeare was beyond the actor’s range. Brando proved naysayers wrong. His diction is perfect — it doesn’t even sound like his voice — and he definitely looks the part (a super-buffed Brando looks like one of Michelangelo’s statutes coming to life).
It doesn’t matter if he is doing political double talk or slyly manipulating the emotions of a crowd, Brando is consistently brilliant. It’s just too darn bad he is barely in the movie. For the uninitiated, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar really revolves around Brutus (Mark Anthony and Caesar are mere supporting characters), which is why I believe the play’s original title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, makes more sense. Anyhow, despite his limited screen time (approx. 26 minutes), Brando is undeniably magnetic.
James Mason (as Brutus) and John Gielgud (as Cassius) are the real stars of the movie. As you might expect from two British actors with substantial training in the works of Shakespeare, Mason and Gielgud are sensational. Louis Calhern is surprisingly commanding as the ill-fated Caesar. Edmond O’Brien (The Killers) is also superb as Casca. Greer Garson (Mrs. Miniver) and Deborah Kerr (The End of the Affair) appear briefly as Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife) and Portia (Brutus’s wife) respectively.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Julius Caesar remains, to this day, one of the most accessible Shakespeare movies. If anything, the film makes clear why the play is still relevant today: it’s a reminder of the pitfalls of power. I’m sure that even people who find Shakespeare a bit heavy-handed will enjoy this intelligent picturization of one of The Bard’s most intriguing plays. Highly recommended! B&W, 121 minutes, Not Rated.