*. I may have read Julius Caesar more than I have any other Shakespeare play. Macbeth and Hamlet would be the only competition. I’ve always liked the play, and it makes good theatre too.
*. That said, this production may be one of the most disappointing adaptations of Shakespeare ever put on film, considering the talent involved and the effort made. Only the battle scenes, however unhistorical, impress.
*. It was widely criticized at the time, with the performance of Jason Robards as Brutus usually singled out as especially bad. And it’s a negative judgment that has stuck. Is it fair?
*. I would like to say something in defence of Robards. He plays Brutus as a stick, but Shakespeare’s Brutus is a stiff prig, his tragic flaw being his faith in his own puffed up ideals. And the fact is Robards was horribly miscast. Those shifting eyes, that sardonic voice . . . whoever saw Robards playing Brutus?
*. I would like to say at least this much in Robards’ defence, but I can’t. The plain truth is that Robards is awful. Awful. It’s hard to call what he’s doing acting at all. He’s just reading his lines. Roger Ebert: “He stares vacantly into the camera and recites Shakespeare’s words as if he’d memorized them seconds before, or maybe was reading from idiot cards. Each word has the same emphasis as the last, and they march out of the screen at us without regard for phrases, sentences or emotional content. We begin to suspect, along toward Robards’ big speech over Caesar’s body, that Robards’ mind has been captured by a computer from another planet and that the movie is an alien plot to drain the soul from mighty Shakespeare.”
*. In addition to his lifeless reading of the part, he also looks like a Roman matron and doesn’t project any sense of authority (or auctoritas), moral or otherwise.
*. Since there seems to be near universal agreement on this point I’ll add nothing more except to quote the judgment of Robards’s co-star Charlton Heston, who said that Robards gave possibly “the worst performance by a really good actor” in film history. (He also didn’t like the director and cameraman, by the way.)
*. I’ve remarked elsewhere that American actors have no problem handling Shakespeare, but that what makes a mess is mixing Brits and Americans together in the same production. This rarely works. It doesn’t work here.
*. The rest of the cast, I think, do pretty well. John Gielgud is fine, if less than commanding, as Caesar (he’s been Cassius in 1953). Richard Johnson’s Cassius looks like he needs a bath. Richard Chamberlain makes a great Octavian: young, androgynous, and dangerous. Robert Vaughn steals nearly every scene he’s in with oily knowing looks and rolling his eyes (the classic scene-stealing trick) in such a dramatic way you can pick out the whites even when he’s out of focus and in the distant background of a shot.
*. Then there’s Charlton Heston. The star. He’d already played Mark Antony 20 years earlier on film, and here he does good job portraying the consummate player but now looking a bit old for the part. I wished he’d kept his clothes on. Flashing his bare ass in Planet of the Apes (1968) was OK, but he appears less than virile here when he strips down for the Lupercalia run. He was 47 when he did this movie, but 47 in 1970 was like 67 today.
*. The opening voiceover doesn’t add anything to the film, and I can only see it confusing audiences. What does Caesar’s campaign in Spain have to do with anything? Polanski’s Macbeth, released the next year, would also start with the aftermath of a great battle, but at least that was in the play (and it’s more effectively done).
*. It was the Orson Welles stage production of Julius Caesar in New York in 1937 (subtitled Death of a Dictator) that brought back the mob’s killing of Cinna the poet and injected a more contemporary political meaning into the work. I don’t think Shakespeare needs to be contemporized, but this is a political play and I think such an approach is useful. It worked for Ian McKellen’s 1930s-themed Richard III, to take another example. Here, however, the murder of Cinna is cut and there’s really no political angle being pursued at all. It’s not really an “interpretation” of the play so much as a mere staging.
*. Technically, there’s little to recommend. The sets look fake. The lighting is off in many scenes. The editing is clumsy, both within scenes and at the scene divisions, which come like commercial breaks. The sound seems very unnatural, which diminishes the performances even more. Philippi is scored like it’s a spaghetti Western showdown.
*. That final shot beneath the end credit roll isn’t a freeze frame! You can see the wind blowing Chamberlain’s hair, which means they’re just holding themselves in a frozen tableau. That struck me as really weird, but also appropriate.