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.