Film review: Julius Caesar (1953)


This is an excellent film. It is so good that after watching it over the weekend, I wondered, “How could it be that I did not see this gem a long time ago?” The film is based on William Shakespeare’s play and featured an outstanding cast. Eyebrows were initially raised over the surprise casting of Marlon Brando in the role of Mark Antony, as people wondered how the notorious mumbler would handle one of the best known speeches from Shakespeare, the funeral oration for Caesar. At 29, he was also considered somewhat young to play the role of a senior Roman senator who would have been around 40.

Brando, however, does an excellent job. He portrays Antony as a sly demagogue, using the opening provided to him by Brutus to give the speech to rouse up the crowd against those who conspired to kill Caesar and drive them out of Rome. He leaves ambiguous as to whether he was motivated by his great love of Caesar and determination to avenge his murder, or by his sensing the chance to advance his own ambitions by using Caesar’s death to sweep aside his rivals for power in the vacuum created by Caesar’s death.

Although Caesar and Antony dominate perceptions as being the main characters in the play, they do not have the main roles in terms of the number of lines or screen time. Caesar is murdered halfway through and does not have much of a role prior to his death either. Antony appears momentarily in the first half, delivers the famous speech in the beginning of the second half, and then appears briefly and sporadically for the rest of the film.

The play could easily have been titled Brutus and Cassius, because they are the ones who really dominate it. It is they who shoulder the brunt of the film and this is why this film is so good because those two roles were played by James Mason and John Gielgud and they were positively superb, brilliant actors at the peak of their form. In the mouths of Mason and Gielgud, the language of Shakespeare, sometimes the reason why people avoid the plays because of its unfamiliarity, becomes clear and understandable.

I have never seen a film in which Mason was not exceedingly watchable. In his hands, Brutus is indeed an honorable man despite being described sarcastically as such by Antony. He is the one person among the conspirators who took part in the coup who did so because of a genuine feeling that he knew he was doing a wrong act but for the right reasons, to save his nation from someone who was on the road to becoming a tyrant. In his speech to the crowd, when he says that he did what he did because “not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more”, you felt that it was genuine. Even Antony recognized this when he says of Brutus near the end:

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

Cassius’s motives are more obscure, with suggestions that he is an avaricious man, jealous of Caesar and perhaps seeking power for less worthy motives, such as to enrich himself. But he is more astute about politics and suspicious about people than the trusting Brutus and feared that allowing Antony to speak to the citizenry following Caesar’s death would be dangerous. He was proved right. As for Gielgud, I was only familiar with him in his later years playing more avuncular roles. At first I did not even recognize the striking youthful actor playing the ‘lean and hungry’ Cassius. I have read that Gielgud, considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors, gave the best performance of Hamlet of all time and I can well believe it. Alas, it was as a play and thus lost forever. Brando apparently benefited a lot from advice that he got from Gielgud during filming about how to handle Shakespeare’s dialogue..

Here’s the trailer, with melodramatic voiceovers and in the style of that time that seem somewhat cheesy when viewed now.

After seeing the film, I realized that much of what I know about Julius Caesar and that whole period of the Roman empire comes from Shakespeare. Although he would have consulted historical sources for his play in order for them to have some verisimilitude, he was after all a writer of fiction and I was curious to see how accurate the story he told was. This Wikipedia article that I read suggests that he was not that far off.

This is a must-see film, even if you are not a fan of Shakespeare. It is a story of ambition, political intrigue, and power, as are many of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies. Its themes are eternal and watching it one sees echoes of contemporary events.

Comments

  1. cartomancer says

    Shakespeare’s Caesar play, like most of his Roman works, is based largely on the account of Plutarch (Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus) – a late first-century Greek philosopher and author. Plutarch’s account of Caesar is part of his Parallel Lives series – a set of biographies intended to compare the moral virtues and failings of famous Greek figures with famous Roman figures. Caesar is paired with Alexander the Great, and the two form a study in how absolute power corrupts even virtuous men.

    The problem with Plutarch is that he was working under an Imperial Roman system which placed great importance on Julius Caesar – the deified adoptive father of Augustus – as the font of Imperial dynastic authority. Contemporaries of Caesar – such as Cicero – saw him less as a high-minded patriotic figure and more as a cynical political manipulator. Plutarch was also concerned more with finding dramatic episodes to illustrate moral qualities in his subjects than in assessing the currents of political and social change that informed their actions. Add to this that Plutarch’s primary sources were Caesar’s own accounts of his campaigns and Livy’s Augustan history and his Caesar is definitely more heroic than was actually the case.

  2. says

    Not related specifically to this topic, but per cartomancer’s comment: there is a great TV show out there on youtube about what sources Shakespeare had, and how we can figure out what pieces of which play were influenced by what.

    I should dig it up and do a blog post around it. (rummaging around on the internets) “darn! I can’t find it!”

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    He leaves ambiguous as to whether he was motivated by his great love of Caesar…

    There’s nothing ambiguous about the soliloquy which begins “O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!”

    No doubt he had ambition, but, at least in the play, there is also no doubt about his love for Caesar or his desire for revenge.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    I never cared much for Brando (except in On the Waterfront). His style is “look at me, now I’m going to show you some acting“. It’s distracting. Same goes for James Dean. To me, Robert De Niro is a far better actor. For example, it didn’t occur to me what an amazing job he did in Taxi Driver until after the film ended.

  5. Silentbob says

    I have read that Gielgud, considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors, gave the best performance of Hamlet of all time and I can well believe it. Alas, it was as a play and thus lost forever.

    There are, however, little bits of audio on YouTube.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Rob,

    The ambiguity in the film is provided by the fact that while he gives his speech, as the crowd gets riled up by his show of grief for Caesar, when he faces away from the mob he gives a sly grin, as if to suggest that it is all an act for their benefit. The words on the page do not demand that. It is an interpretation by the actor and director.

  7. Silentbob says

    Actually, following up on my #6, I don’t think it’s true to say it’s been “lost forever”. We can’t see Sir John play Hamlet, but we can hear him.

    There’s a recording of a complete performance by Sir John and his Old Vic Company of players. I believe it was for BBC radio in 1941, but since it was Gielgud’s voice and phrasing that were considered so exemplary, it’s probably a pretty good record of his performance.

  8. RationalismRules says

    I have read that Gielgud, considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors, gave the best performance of Hamlet of all time

    I dislike “best of all time” being applied to performance, because it implies some objective standard, which simply doesn’t exist. One of the things that makes Shakespeare’s works so great is that different interpretations bring different insights – I would never consider any one interpretation to be definitive. Comparisons are odious – vive la difference!

  9. enkidu says

    Melodramatic voice over not the only problem. That music!

    Also, Romans fighting like undisciplined rabble – I don’t think so.

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