Julius Caesar (1953)
directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

In 1952, MGM coupled its substantial $1.7 million investment in Shakespeare with one of the most inspired casting decisions in Hollywood history. A year after stunning audiences as macho, mumbling Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando was to play the “wise and valiant” Marc Antony. Columnists expressed astonishment, TV comedians impersonated Kowalski’s rendition of “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” but the star, declaring himself “sick to death of being thought of as a blue-jeaned slobbermouth,” had decided that Julius Caesar must kill his Streetcar image. He spent hours imitating recordings by great British Shakespeareans such as Olivier; then, after a disastrous cast read-through, asked John Gielgud to record Marc Antony’s lines.

Instructed by Mankiewicz to “stop copying the goddamn Limeys,” Brando eventually concluded that he must also temporarily set aside the Method insistence on playing emotional subtext, because with Shakespeare “the text is everything.” Thus liberated, suggested producer John Houseman, Brando was able to let the language express all emotion and thought, peaking in the funeral oration.

Mankiewicz’s taut and assured direction respects Houseman’s pre-production injunction not to “distort Shakespeare’s text with cinematic devices.” He does not show Caesar’s fainting fit or the conspirators’ flight from Rome, eschews adventurous camerawork and uses Miklós Rózsa’s score sparingly, between scenes, so music never distracts from the speeches. He spices the urgent, coldly reasoned plotting with supernatural dread, notably when the blind soothsayer rises up from a crowd and during the spectacular storm before the conspirators’ meeting. During the assassination there are no shouts from the killers, nor screams from Caesar, and the silence is as shocking as the sight of these civilized men’s pristine togas suddenly stained with blood. Enter Brando to wrest control of plot and film.

For the next 10 minutes Brando brings Shakespearean rhetoric to life with irresistibly charismatic acting as reaction shots show the rough-looking plebeians falling under his spell. That the remainder of the film cannot sustain the intensity of the conspiracy, the assassination and its aftermath has much to do with a play whose second half feels as anti-climactic here as in every stage and screen production I have ever seen.

Great credit must go to Houseman. Having agreed to MGM’s demand for budget savings by re-using sets and costumes from its last Roman epic, Quo Vadis? (1951), he successfully resisted front-office pressure to shoot in color. Monochrome photography and austere (and ultimately Oscar-winning) art direction were better suited than lush color to Shakespeare’s cool, clinical drama, and footage of Roman legionaries marching behind eagle-topped standards would, Houseman hoped, remind audiences of newsreels of Fascist and Nazi rallies in Italy and Germany.

When the film opened, The New York Times said it surpassed Olivier’s Hamlet and in Britain the News Chronicle’s critic found it “maddening” to concede that Hollywood had made “the finest film version of Shakespeare yet.”

100 Shakespeare Films

Extracted from 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal, BFI Publishing, 2007. Reprinted by kind permission of BFI Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy of100 Shakespeare Films and other books from the BFI Screen Guides series, visit their website at www.palgrave-usa.com.