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WILL AND ME: Julius Caesar (1953) Review
JULIUS CAESAR (1953) REVIEW
CAST: James Mason, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando, Louis Calhern, Edmond O'Brien, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr
Director—Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Producer— John Houseman
Writers—William Shakespeare; adaptation by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
In 44BC, Brutus (James Mason), Cassius (John Gielgud), and other high-ranking Romans murder Caesar (Louis Calhern), because they believe his ambition will lead to tyranny. The people of Rome are on their side until Mark Antony (sometimes referred to as Marcus Antonius), Caesar's right-hand man, makes a moving speech. The conspirators are driven from Rome, and two armies are formed: one side following the conspirators; the other formed by Mark Antony and supporters of Caesar. Now classed as enemies of Rome, the chances of victory for Brutus and Cassius reduce dramatically.
Probably best known as the movie where Marlon Brando (playing the role of Mark Antony) broke free of his image as the mumbling wife beater from A Streetcar Named Desire by surprising many cynical critics with his version of the powerful “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s screen adaptation of the bard’s portrayal of one of the most dramatic moments in Rome’s gory history was hailed as a masterpiece by critics across the globe, who praised it for its direction, cinematography, production design, acting style and musical score. It was deemed an instant classic in its day….
….but does the film remain a classic in the eyes of a 21st century viewer?
We all have our own opinions about what classes as tasteful entertainment and what classes as a downright box office bomb, and in the case of this review, this is what I think of the film. This is my opinion on 1953’s Julius Caesar. (One does not have to follow it.) From my perspective, if I was a Roman Emperor deciding the fate of the flick during a gladiator battle, I would give it….a thumb mid-way: It’s not an awful piece of work, but neither is it an amazing film. In the point of view of this 21st century DVD/Movie/Theatre viewer, I say that the film falls into the category of: “It was okay….but it could have been a lot better though….”
As far as the English language is concerned, saying that the movie your saw was “like a rollercoaster ride” is a phrase that gets thrown around too often these days (to the point it seems as clichéd and corny as a movie that ends with a fairy tale wedding); but when it comes to this film, that phrase really does fit the description perfectly! Watching this adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar IS exactly like a rollercoaster ride filled with many ups, downs and the unexciting moments where you just go straight along the track. The rollercoaster description mostly complies with the presentation of the film, thus why it gets an Okay rating from me.
The best way to describe the ups and downs of the film is basically in the style of a Pros and Cons list:
On the subject of the quality of the acting in the flick, I would like to say: Pro—The BEST performances of the entire feature unquestionably goes to James Mason as Brutus and a young Sir John Gielgud as Cassius, the two main figures in the plot to assassinate Caesar. These two give their characters unbelievable passion, realism, humanity and a great understanding of the bard’s text. Mason and Gielgud give it their all in this flick, and when you see their acting ability on screen, their efforts do really pay off with a five star acting performance. Con—The worst performances of the feature INSTANTLY goes to Edmond O'Brien as Casca (who makes no attempt to hide his American accent when everyone else is speaking with an English/British accent), Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr as Calpurnia and Portia (the only main major female characters in the story), and Louis Calhern as the title character, who approach their roles with blandness and laziness. You can clearly see that they have put no effort whatsoever into their roles during the rehearsal periods, and frankly, I think they are (were) a complete disgrace to the acting profession. Their performances were that bad that I wouldn’t be surprised that in years to come, universities everywhere will be using their acting in this film as examples of actors who will never go far in life:
“If you are as dull and disinterested as these guys, you can kiss Hollywood goodbye and say hello to the mop you’ll be using to clean up your local McDonalds.”
(And since I’m on the subject of the acting quality in the film, I, of course, can’t leave the subject without mentioning what I think of Marlon Brando’s performance as Mark Antony: To be quite honest, he himself is an individual Pro and Con! Since I want to make this a quick read, this is my view on Brando’s performance in a nutshell: It was good, but at the same time, it was underwhelming. He does try his best and was fairly brave to try something new like Shakespeare so early in his career, but a lot of his delivery with his dialogue (notably his big speech to the citizens of Rome) come out sounding rather unsure with what the text truly means. In other words: Marlon Brando—not as amazing as people said he was in the role.)
Next on the list is the direction of the film: Pro—The portrayal of The Battle of Philippi towards the end of the film was really amazing to watch. It gets the heart pumping and a lot of the sweeping camera shots, the impressive scale of extras dressed as soldiers used, and the choice of location made it look ahead of its time (compared with other films released during the 50s). Whenever we think of Ancient Rome (especially during Caesar’s self-appointed reign), the image of bloody battles and countless soldiers marching across a rocky valley instantly comes to mind. We frequently associate Ancient Rome with its history of war and bloodshed, and this movie does not disappoint our expectations when we come into a Roman film with the hope of seeing that commonly associated image. Con—The rest of the direction for the film was just f***ing awful! The staging was clumsy, the director seemed ignorant of his surroundings and the camera struggles to work out who the lens should be pointing at. Plus, a lot of the major scenes in the story are given a touch of the Anti-Climactic: The most notable scene that was butchered is perhaps the death of Caesar (often considered the second most famous scene in the entire play), where the whole scene is rushed and the camera almost remains in one place, hardly ever moving to show the expression of the faces and give it a sense of drama. The first half of the story focuses on the stresses of organizing an assassination (i.e.—“Is it morally right?” “What would become of me if I did it?” “Will I be punished for it?”), but when it gets to that moment where everyone has no choice but to just get on with it, we are treated to a
climatic build-up that is dull and undramatic. Mankiewicz was hailed as a talented director back then, but in the 21st century, he’s nothing but a glorified Ed Wood.
Next on the list is the production as a whole: The set design, the cinematography, etc:
Pro—The cinematography for the night-time scenes were the most artistic and gothic lighting techniques I could ever see (putting me in mind of the cinematography used for Olivier’s adaptation of Hamlet); the production design for what I believe was The Theatre of Pompey (where the assassination of Caesar took/takes place) looked fairly good (but it does have a few flaws that I’ll discuss momentarily); and Miklós Rózsa’s musical score is something worth listening to for hours (especially the marching theme used to introduce Caesar). Cons—Everything else of the production (as a whole) was just as awful as the direction! The set design for the market places looked inaccurate and more Elizabethan than Roman; half of the stone buildings (especially the outer texture of The Theatre of Pompey) are clearly made out of wood that they didn’t bother to pretty up to resemble authentic stone bricks (thus suggesting how low their overall budget was); Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography for the rest of the movie appears faded and unsure if it’s supposed to be a feature film, a live recording of a theatre production or a cheap made-for-television production; and the costumes are lifeless and disturbingly pornographic when you see what Brando wears in the first two scenes that he appears in during the first few minutes of the film! Any excuse to appeal to horny teenage women I suppose!
(And since I’m on the subject, another aspect of the overall production that really pisses me off a great deal is the fact that Brando gets first billing for the film, even though his character is only a SUPPORTING CHARACTER! He isn’t on screen for that long and his existence in the narrative rarely drives the plot along (other than the speech he gives to the citizens of Rome, convincing them to turn against Brutus and Cassius). As much as Brando is a legend in Hollywood, the reason why he deserves the top billing for a role that isn’t the main character is nothing short of arrogant on both John Houseman and Brando’s part! As Brando’s career moved on, he soon developed a reputation for acting like a Prima Donna on the set of most of the projects he worked on (notably the behind the scenes conflict he caused during the filming of 1962’s The Mutiny on the Bounty) ; and frankly, I think I discovered where that part of Brando’s personality began!)
It was considered a masterpiece in its day, but in the 21st century, we know that we can expect better from actors of the past, present and future. The acting of Mason and Gielgud is brilliant and the direction and production does have SOME good quality, but at other times, it shows that it was clearly directed by an incompetent filmmaker. It’s not an awful flick, but it’s not a great flick either. Ergo, it only gets a thumb halfway from this self-appointed web emperor.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar—worth a look, but don't expect too much from it.