The best stories are those in which two people fall in love and live happily ever after. Unless, they don’t. Then, the story is even better.
There is no doubt that Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story ever told. Not only is it staged regularly, it has been turned into a ballet that is staged regularly and filmed numerous times. In 1968, the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli released a version of this story that still manages to convey the emotion and the drama of this timeless tale.
Zeffirelli made many good choices for his film. The Italian settings are lush and beautifully shot. The costumes are things of beauty. The score is magnificent and adds a great deal to the film. The love theme, which became the song “A Time For Us” recorded by many, many people, is soaring and romantic.
Zeffirelli took a very traditional approach to the play itself. Yes, he cut huge swathes from it, but I have never missed them. In fact, he should have cut more. It takes a while for this film to get going (as does the play), but once our lovers meet, the pace picks up and we get swept up in the love story.
The one chance that Zeffirelli took was in his casting. Never before, at least on film, had Romeo and Juliet been played by teenagers, the age of the characters in the play. He hired two unknowns to play the leads. He paid the price for that choice.
Olivia Hussey (Juliet) and Leonard Whiting (Romeo) are lovely to look at and managed to convey a real chemistry. They weren’t completely acting. The two dated for quite some time and became very serious. When Romeo and Juliet meet at the ball, I believe that these two are instantly smitten with each other and I believe that they would do anything to be together.
The problem, of course, is that Shakespeare is not for amateurs. The more famous the play, the more difficult it is. The actor needs to say the lines as though no one has ever heard them before and say them in a way that sounds as though he is speaking, not reciting a poem. No easy task. One, I’m afraid, that neither Hussey nor Whiting was able to accomplish. Many of their lines are garbled and several times their intonations are just wrong. Even worse, when both of them are meant to be dead, they are visibly breathing.
All of which begs the question, why does this film continue to be so popular nearly fifty years after its release? Because it tells the story well and allows a modern audience some sense of what an audience in Shakespeare’s day would have experienced while watching the play.
The action sequences are very well done and are exciting. As each fight between the two families occurs, the tension and the rage increase until they hit the boiling point. The dance is beautifully choreographed with colors swirling and eyes meeting across a crowded room.
There is a fair amount of humor in this play, especially in the first half. Zeffirelli was able to find it and use it well. As a result, the first part of this film is almost a romantic comedy. After Romeo kills Mercutio, however, the tragedy of what has happened takes over and we watch the inevitable decline with sadness.
What really makes this film stand out and what shocked film goers in 1968 is how erotic it is. The play includes a scene in bed, yet it is often played very chastely. Not here. Romeo and Juliet are obviously nude and have clearly just had sex. By filming the scene in this fashion, Zeffirelli changed forever the way the physical side of this romance would be portrayed. Changed it for the better.
While that scene is the most famous, there are others in which the two are fully clothed but manage to convey how hot they are for each other. The first is at the dance when Romeo grasps Juliet’s hand. Sparks fly.
The second is the balcony scene. One of the most famous scenes in all of Shakespeare, it is difficult to play it as fresh and exciting. I love this version. Romeo and Juliet both know that what they are doing is against the rules. Like the millions of adolescents that will come after them, however, they don’t care. All they care about is talking to each other and kissing each other.
This film was one of my earliest introductions to Shakespeare. I loved it as a child and, luckily for me, I grew up in a university town that showed the film at least once a year. I went to see it as often as I could, more often than not crying at the end.
It is not a perfect film. It is, however, lush, beautiful, and romantic. Most importantly, it's sexy -- something every love story should be.
ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.