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Julius Caesar (1953)

"Friends! Romans! Countrymen! Lend me your ears!"

There aren't all that many big-screen adaptations of Shakespeare's Classically-themed plays, partly because they can be a bit hard to follow if you're not familiar with the historical context. That's a shame, though, because there's some great stuff in these plays, based on various ancient sources but especially on the Lives of Plutarch - in this case, those of Julius Caesar and Brutus (Mark Antony as portrayed in this play is rather more cunning and upstanding that he appears in Antony and Cleopatra, which, thanks to Octavian/Augustus' effective propaganda and Plutarch's Life of Antony, depicts him in the more familiar way, as a womanising alcoholic).

Julius Caesar was made relatively early on in the 1950s heyday of epic Classical films, following on from Quo Vadis (1951) and made in the same year as The Robe. The director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, later went on to direct one of the films that helped to bring the Classical epic fashion to an end, Cleopatra (1963), which nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox and, despite being the highest grossing film of the 1960s, didn't go into profit until 1973. Luckily Mankiewicz showed rather more restraint in making Julius Caesar (plus, his lead actress didn't become seriously ill and then need to relocate somewhere hotter than England on this film).

Films based on Shakespeare plays always have to find a balance between the way the play is written - to be performed by a few people on a small stage with little or no scenery - and producing something that feels properly cinematic. Much of Julius Caesar takes place in rooms, tents, shadowed walkways and one painted backdrop that even the black and white filming can't really conceal. However, Mankiewicz does expand the story out from the stage a little, using the familiar tropes of Classical epics - the procession at the festival of Lupercalia looks like a smaller version of Marcus Vinicius' triumph in Quo Vadis, and he provides a decent sized crowd for Brutus and Mark Antony's speeches.

(Mark Antony, by the way, is not naked in the Lupercalia scene, I'm sad to say. Historically, this festival required noblemen to run naked through the streets, whipping women with goatskin. In February. Antony was still naked when he offered Caesar a crown three times, as Cicero firmly points out. I have yet to see a film or TV show depict this accurately - not even the BBC/HBO Rome, which skipped it. I was most disappointed. We do get to see a young Marlon Brando in just a little skirt-thing though).

The most important thing in Shakespeare films, though, is always the acting, and for me the thing that makes this film is Marlon Brando as Mark Antony. I've never seen On the Waterfront or A Streetcar Named Desire (I know, I'm a bad film buff) so before this film, I knew Brando from The Godfather and Apocalypse Now - great films, but the latter in particular is not exactly Brando's finest hour, acting-wise. Seeing Brando in this film was a revelation. He's absolutely brilliant - compelling, emotive and charismatic.

There are other great actors here too, of course. John Gielgud as Cassius and James Mason as Brutus are especially watchable, as you might expect. I think a lot of actors, however, get carried away by reciting the poetry of Shakespeare's dialogue and don't invest the lines with as much emotion as they otherwise might. In Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr's case, this might be symptomatic of their general style as well (plus their parts, Calpurnia and Portia, are tiny and not very interesting) but Louis Calhern as Julius Caesar, though he characterises him okay as a bit of a bully to Calpurnia, seems so intent on the grandness of his famous final line ("Et tu Brute? Then fall Caesar") that he doesn't really get across the emotion of the moment.

I think that's why I love Brando's performance in this film so much. His Stanislavski-inspired style of acting (Wikipedia informs me he did not, contrary to popular opinion, consider himself 'Method') is so much more effective on screen than the more declamatory style that sing-songs the words but sometimes loses the meaning. The poetry of Shakespeare's dialogue will come through however you say it, because that's the genius of Shakespeare, but to experience these productions as a piece of drama, rather than as "Shakespeare", you need actors who concentrate on the emotion and human significance of the piece, and Brando does that perfectly.

Notes and Quotes

 - As ever, lots of familiar lines come from this play, of which these are just a few:

Cassius: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Julius Caesar: I am as constant as the Northern star!

Mark Antony: Cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war.

Mark Antony: This was the most unkindest cut of all.

Brando makes this film - three out of four historically inaccurate representations of the Lupercalia festival.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.

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