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Non-Review Review: Julius Caesar (1970)

Julius Caesar is a very ropey production. Produced by Commonwealth United Entertainment and American International Pictures, it doesn’t stand up as an enduring adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. While quite a few of the essential ingredients are lacking, Charlton Heston actually does a fairly good job as Marc Anthony – it’s just that he’s never quite as good as Marlon Brando had been in the role back in 1953. On the other hand, Jason Robards is woefully miscast as Brutus, transforming “noble Brutus” from the most honest man in Rome to the most sinister of assassins. The production values are fairly decent, but Julius Caesar perhaps provides evidence that these sorts of historical epics were already on the way out by the start of the 1970s.

Friends! Romans! Countrymen! Lend my your expensive set designers!

The production design is actually quite nice, with Julia Trevelyan Oman’s Roman sets looking like they carried over from the lavish productions of the fifties or sixties. Oman’s design evokes the massive sense of spectacle and scale that one associates with those kinds of pictures, even if one can sense the budget getting a bit tight at time – the sets clearly appearing like they were made of paper mache, or the fact that the weapons are clearly no made of metal. Still, it’s always wonderful to see that sort of design.

On the other hand, director Stuart Burge seems to have no real idea about bringing Shakespeare to the big screen. The Bard’s work has been imagined and reimagined so many times that it’s easy to forget that it’s essentially just a bunch of people talking about stuff. The key to a successful Shakespeare adaptation lies in the actors reciting the powerful dialogue – it’s the director’s job to help those performances sell the immortal prose to the audience. If the director can, like Kenneth Branagh, find a more fluid way to convey Shakespeare’s ideas to the audience, that’s a bonus.

Marc his words!

Instead, Burge overwhelms his actors, and feels the need to play up the spectacle at the cost of drowning out his actors. We get extended and clumsy battle scenes when we should be focusing on characters. We get a ridiculously overblown nightmare sequence in what should be a moment carried by the leads on camera. The inevitable murder sequence is ridiculously overblown. There’s fake blood everywhere, and Caesar just stumbles around like a horror villain who refuses to die. It’s as if Burge seems to believe that the murder of Caesar is the most important moment in the film, and so pours everything into it.

Of course, it ends up feeling rather ridiculously hammy, to the point where the dozens of stab wounds inflicted on Caesar feel less like overkill and more like prudence. Burge makes sure include as many shaky camera shots and blurry images as possible, just in case we didn’t quite get the idea that this guy was dying. Even the idea that Brutus is haunted by the murder of Caesar is overwhelmed by the cheesy effect used to render John Gielgud’s head amidst the flames. Michael J. Lewis’ score is intrusive, and detracts from (rather than enhances) everything going on.

A Brut-al performance, by all accounts…

Of course, there might be a reason for this. Jason Robards makes for a truly terrible Brutus. He plays Brutus somewhat similar to the way that he portrayed Cheyenne  in Once Upon a Time in the West. Every line is uttered in a stoic and vaguely sinister manner – almost a threat. We’re supposed to see Brutus as the most honest man in Rome, but Robards instead portrays him as this cold figure, calculating.

His decision to spare Marc Anthony is supposed to seem compassionate and considered. Instead, Robard makes “noble Brutus” sound like a Bond villain as he boasts, “Anthony is but a limb of Caesar.” It’s not that he wishes to avoid bloodshed, merely that Marc Anthony “isn’t a threat to him”, to quote a cliché. He might as well be stroking a cat as he instructs his fellow conspirators, “And for Mark Antony, think not of him, for he can do no more than Caesar’s arm when Caesar’s head is off.”

Naked ambition…

To be fair, Robards does inject a bit of energy into the character in the second half of the movie, making us believe that Brutus is truly a man who found himself out of his depth. There’s a lot more passion in his rants against Cassius than in anything else he does over the course of the movie. “I did not think you could have been so angry,” Cassius comments, and he could be speaking for the audience. The result, however, is a version of Brutus who seems like a quiet schemer until things start going wrong – and then he falls apart. It makes the praise that other characters (including Marc Anthony) give him seem a bit shallow, and a little out of whack.

It’s a bit of a shame, because Charlton Heston isn’t actually half bad as Marc Anthony. of course, he’s in the shadow of Marlon Brando’s portrayal, but Heston always had a rugged charm to him. As played by Heston, it’s easy to believe that Anthony was a man just waiting for an excuse to explode – perhaps reflecting some of the historical commentaries on his character. Even after Brando, I still find it quite strange to see an American actor – particularly such a quintessentially American actor – in the Shakespearean role, but Heston acquits himself more than admirably.

Roman around like he owns the place…

Heston relishes that fantastic eulogy sequence, perhaps one of the truly amazing Shakespearean monologues, but he also does quite well with some of the smaller moments, the more controlled interactions and dialogues. Heston even manages to evoke a sense of pathos as he asks the body of his dead friend, “Oh, mighty Caesar! Do you lie so low? Have all your conquests, glories, triumphs, achievements, come to so little?”

To be fair, the rest of the supporting cast is pretty great, even if nobody really distinguishes themselves. It seems like Burge wasn’t necessarily interested in the cast or the performances. There are nice small roles for cult figures like Robert Vaughn, Diana Rigg and Michael Gough here, and it’s good to see them all. It’s just a shame that there wasn’t more focus on the actors.

Not quite a banner production…

Julius Caesar is far from the most auspicious of Shakespeare adaptations. In fact, with a much stronger version produced less than two decades before, one might wonder why this was made. Heston is solid, but the rest of the movie suffers. Robards performance isn’t strong enough and Burge’s direction doesn’t trust his cast. It’s a shame, because the production design actually looks quite nice.

4 Responses

  1. You give a pretty balanced review of this movie. I remember watching it in a high school English class and generally liking it, even though my classmates were snickering at the more cheesy moments. Eventually I hope to do my own reviews of some of the great ancient epics of the ’50s and ’60s; it’s a genre that intrigues me.

    Charlton Heston is one of my favorite actors, but I recognize his range isn’t the greatest and he can easily be miscast. I recently saw him as Sherlock Holmes (in an adaptation of a non-Conan-Doyle story) where he just wasn’t working; he had none of the coldness, theatricality, or energy that Holmes requires. The contrast was more marked because that movie was in 1991, at the same time that Jeremy Brett was defining the role of Holmes. But Heston can play against type. I thought he was excellent as Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), appearing scheming and manipulative while not wholly devoid of honor. There’s a twinkle in his eye that works for Richelieu but didn’t work for Holmes; the same light hardens into a spark when he gets angry, which served him will in Spartacus. Ah, but I’m beginning to wander now. He’s not as magnetic a presence as Brando, for sure, but he has stature and intelligence.

    • Thanks.

      I think Heston is fantastic, if only because he radiates gravitas. It’s very hard not to be caught up in whatever the heck he’s doing, no matter how strange the casting decision might seem. He was also a pretty great actor, which tends to get overlooked, but he had this tremendous screen presence that I think really set him aside from his contemporaries (and from the majority of modern leading men).

      (There is a short scene here that I think nails it, and I feel bad for not mentioning it above. After his eulogy for Caesar, which is one of the great Shakespearean monologues, he’s touring the sites of the riots, and Heston just does it with such incredible confidence (even drinking from a leaking wine barrel) that he just sells you on his version of Marc Anthony.)

      In a way, I think, that’s why his cameo in Wayne’s World 2 worked so well. (And is one of my favourite movie gags.) It was hammy, over-the-top, but also massively powerful and really hard not to get drawn into. Even though it’s a joke, it’s still way more engaging than it should be, at least on paper.

      • Typo: Gah, I meant the spark in his eye served him well in Ben-Hur…obviously, since it was Kirk Douglas in Spartacus!

        Aye, it’s the gravitas and confidence that sets him apart from most other actors.

      • No worries, I figured that was what you meant!

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