Friday 15 March 2013

Julius Caesar (1950)

Beware the Ides of March!

First things first.  This isn't the famous 1950s Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando - that was 3 years later.  This is a more obscure version with a very much lower budget, and a much more experimental directorial style.  And, of course, a 26-year-old Charlton Heston wearing what I can only reasonably describe as a pant, making his second movie appearance (his first being a silent version of 'Peer Gynt' for the same director in 1941).

Julius Caesar is my favorite Shakespeare play, and this version is probably my favourite Shakespeare film.  Quite a bit has been trimmed out, which I'd speculate was as much out of budgetary necessity as artistic desire, but I don't think the film is in any way damaged by the reduced number of lines.  I did, one year, take the Ides off work to watch three Julius Caesars in a row: this one (at 106 minutes), the 1970 version (116 minutes) which casts Charlton Heston as Marc Antony again, and the BBC Shakespeare version from 1979, with Charles Gray as Caesar, which runs longest at 150 minutes.  Watching them in that order, I got to see much of the play thrice, which is always a good way to watch Shakespeare, and got to discover new lines and scenes in each version.

Cassius Speaks

David Bradley (who, being an American, isn't the same David Bradley today famous for playing Argus Filch) directs, and takes for himself the plum role of Brutus.  He's good as an actor, but far more interesting as a director (and now, alas, better known for directing 1968 TV Movie 'They Saved Hitler's Brain').  The film never tries to be naturalistic, and so relishes in the merits of Shakespeare's text, rather than trying to pass off this ancient work of grand oratory as something casual or comfortable.  As the above screenshot may suggest, shots are often very dynamic, dramatic moments underlined quite blatantly by editing as well as performance.

To a modern viewer it might lack subtlety, but it seems wholly appropriate both for the starkness of the film stock, and for the play as written, with its swanky oratory and quotable speeches (often delivered as speeches, since there's a crowd to be persuaded).  I'd go so far as to say that this would be a very good version to watch if you're starting to study the play, since the themes, symmetries and rhetorical devices are so clearly highlighted as to be plain and evident to anyone lending the film their attention.  Sadly, the only version of the film I've been able to get my hands on looks, for want of a better word, 'crappy', and I suspect it passed onto domestic VHS somewhere between the original 16mm film and the eventual DVD, so giving it your full attention isn't as easy as it might be.

Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.
This is while Caesar's still alive, by the way.

So, what's it actually about?  I don't mean to assume that everybody knows all Shakespeare; off hand, I could only talk with any competence about five of the tragedies, three of the comedies and zero of Shakespeare's histories.  Despite its setting, Julius Caesar is counted as a tragedy rather than a history, since, though it's set in the past and regards real events, the core is about a good and sympathetic man who builds the road to his own destruction.  Who is that man, on this occasion?  Whose is the tragedy?  Studying this at school I assumed it was the tragedy of Julius Caesar, since (spoilers!) he gets stabbed to death by a gang of uppity senators, and that thereafter the role of hero passed from Caesar to Marc Antony.  This is sort-of right, but mainly wrong, as I've eventually learnt.  For one thing, it's far more morally interesting than that (and, given my suggestion that this film version lacks subtlety, I feel I should point out that Bradley makes a very good job of this moral complexity, even if he does make his Cassius unambiguously evil).  This is, in fact, a tragedy about Brutus.

'Oh,' I hear you cry, 'but Brutus is a murderer'.  Actually, I'll credit you with more intelligence than this, and it's my 12-year-old self I'm here addressing.  Yes, Brutus is one of the senators who stab Julius Caesar so - indeed, he's a close friend of Caesar, so his betrayal is worse than that of his peers.  The others act as much for personal advantage as for the love of Rome.  To oversimplify, Caesar is president but wants to be king, which will deprive the senators of power.  Brutus loves Rome, and can see the merits of his nation on the cusp of destruction, as Caesar edges towards both a crown and a claim of divinity, turning the mighty democracy into a theocratic despotism.  He alone can justify the assassination with sincere words: 'This is my answer: it's not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more'.

Cunning angles disguise a low number of extras in an excellent battle scene.

Marc Antony's excellent rabble-rousing speech (you know, 'friends, romans, countrymen', etc.), delivered with all the ingenuity and power of a tabloid newspaper, makes Brutus seem villainous indeed.  And, of course, the crowd goes wild.  You know, killing-people wild.  Just as in 'M' (1931), when the mob run rampant, inflamed by paranoia and ready to assume any innocent is the kindermörder, or as in the hopefully apocryphal modern tale of a crowd smashing up the home of a pediatrician because they think the word means pedophile, so here the people of Rome bring fire and fury, 'a sudden flood of mutiny'.  In a favourite scene of mine (marred, in this film, by an attempt at innovation which sees the action inelegantly superimposed on a border of burning buildings, a gang of plebians stab a poet to death because he happens to have the same name as one of the conspirators, Cinna.  And who'd have thought the young man had so much blood in him?

Anyway, one thing leads to another, and it turns into a war, the senators forced to take up arms against Marc Antony and the angry people of Rome.  At this point, it all becomes rather more political than personal, and the film chooses to accelerate toward the end with only an enthusiastically edited sequence of stabbing, dying and horseing.  It's an interesting war, from a historical point of view, as (for one thing) a young fellow called Herod so impressed the senators, for whom he was fighting, that they later made him the king of Judea (with, as they say, hilarious consequences), but that's so much another story that it's nothing to do with the play, still less the film, and I'll set aside my interest in minus-first-century history for another blog.  Brutus sees which way things are going, and does a king Saul, impaling himself on a sword.  Marc Antony later finds the body and finally gets it, after five acts of various people being hailed for nobility they lacked or condemned for an apparent dearth of the stuff.  'This was the noblest Roman of them all'.  The play doesn't quite end here, but the film does.  Charlton Heston. silhouettes, sad horn music, end titles.

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!'

On this DVD set, in a quality that is mediocre yet sufficient, one may find this 'Julius Caesar' and Bradley and Heston's other notable collaboration, a silent 'Peer Gynt' from 1941.  There are also a number of episodes of 'Studio One', a series which cut classic novels and plays down to 52 minutes and shot them as-live on video with a multi-camera set-up.  It's a bit strange, being so used to America's glossy TV output, to see some that wasn't shot on film with a single-camera, but there's plenty to enjoy in these very concise productions of 'The Taming of the Shrew', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Jane Eyre', and my favourite 'A Bolt of Lightning', in which he plays James Otis, who said "no taxation without representation," and threw the Boston Tea Party.  It's out of print at present, but if it comes back and you share my strange fascination with the acting style of Charlton Heston, you may like to give it a go.

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