This was a British production based on the stage play of the same name by George Bernard Shaw. It is a fictionalized account of Julius Caesar’s actual campaign in Egypt during the Roman Civil War. Caesar had defeated his former ally Pompey in a battle at Pharsalus and pursued him into Egypt. The Egyptians inform Caesar that they have assassinated Pompey and so he is left with the task of deciding whether Cleopatra or her younger brother Ptolemy will be the ruler of Egypt.
The play presents Cleopatra as a childlike woman who combines vivacity, intelligence and cruelty in equal measures. As opposed to the actual sexual relationship between the historical Caesar and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar is presented as an avuncular figure trying to teach Cleopatra how to grow into the responsibilities of a queen. And over the course of the stories she does grow. We see her go from a selfish child into a shrewd player who uses her relationship to Caesar to destroy her enemies and get what she wants.
Claude Rains as Caesar is remarkably amiable and if the real Caesar had been as pleasant you could imagine him having avoided all those daggers in the Senate that day in 44 B.C. G.B. Shaw’s script gives him any number of wonderful lines and speeches. They combine wit, philosophy and humanity.
Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra is charming both to look at and to listen to. She is given free rein to indulge herself and the audience with the spectacle of a child who thinks herself a goddess and a beast. And she portrays both. She can be delightful and winning or she can be a heartless murderess dripping venom from her fangs.
The supporting cast surround us with the spectacle of a “swords and sandals” epic with Roman legions and Macedonian phalanxes squaring off in the sands of Egypt. We see the burning of the Library of Alexandria and cavalry charges across the desert. The gruff but powerful Roman soldiers are contrasted to the cultured but ineffective Egyptian nobles.
Caesar and Cleopatra are still immortal names that stand for power, strength and passion. Their story can’t help but fire the imagination. But it’s also clear that G.B. Shaw is using the Romans as a stand in for the British Empire of his day. The dynamism of the Romans is shown to be the reason for their dominance of the older, more cultured but less powerful nations that surround them. And Caesar, the confident, competent and intelligent man is the prime example of this power. But we know that in just a few years Caesar will be dead and the Roman world will be plunged into civil war. The comedy of Caesar and Cleopatra will become the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. But that is no different than the First and Second World Wars that obliterated the British Empire in the modern world. And it doesn’t prevent us from marveling at the courage and daring that planted the British flag on every continent and archipelago on this planet.
Shaw has given us this sunny story of court intrigue, war and a pretty girl. It is amusing and diverting and allows us to enjoy his witty script and the considerable acting skills of Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh. Recommended for those who enjoy history, the stage or both.
This version of Julius Caesar is interesting to me because it contains two contrasting acting types. With John Gielgud as Cassius you have a British Shakespearian actor steeped in the conventions and knowledge of the traditional theater. With Marlon Brando as Mark Antony you have a great American method actor who approaches his performance as a process of absorbing the soul of the character and living the part. And because Mark Antony’s part is so bound up with a revenge motive, he is able to bring the set speech, his “friends, romans, countrymen” speech, to life. Gielgud’s Cassius is a more intellectual character and it requires a great deal of nuance to render the part interesting. His character is of an angry disappointed man who is motivated by fear, jealousy and spite. The fine British actor James Mason is Brutus and does a masterful job of portraying the honest, intelligent patriot who slays his friend for the good of his country. Louis Calhern another American actor has the pivotal but relatively minor part of Julius Caesar. Greer Garson as Calpurnia and Deborah Kerr as Portia are Caesar’s and Brutus’s wives respectively. And there are several other good performances but essentially the main action consists of Cassius and Brutus on one side and Mark Antony on the other. Cassius draws Brutus into a conspiracy against Caesar and Mark Antony stirs a popular rebellion against the assassins.
The play is cut in half by the murder, with the first half concluded by Brando’s funeral oration for Caesar. It is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches and Brando plays it to the hilt. His voice is saturated with emotion, by turns, sorrow, scorn then anger. He plays the Roman crowd and stirs them to mutiny against the “honorable men” who slew Caesar.
For Brutus and Cassius, the speeches are smaller but they still allow the characters to display their personalities. Cassius shows us his pettiness and his genuine feelings of affection for his friend. Brutus is a more austere character. Intelligence, integrity and a slightly cold persona is displayed. But at the end when his whole world starts to collapse, he allows his personal feelings to emerge somewhat and these do him credit.
This play is a study of personalities. The battle scenes are short and stylized so there isn’t a dynamism as you would see in a modern rendition of this story. Instead you have what Shakespeare would show on a stage. I don’t think Julius Caesar will appeal to everyone. It’s not exciting enough for many people. They will find it boring. But for those interested in seeing how a dying world drove friends against each other in a civil war this gives a flavor of it.
Personally, I like the play and this version of it. I’m not the biggest Brando fan but I like what he did with Mark Antony, especially the big speech. And I’m always glad to see James Mason in a production. His presence and the remarkable sound of his voice were perfect for this part. So, there’s my first Shakespeare review. That wasn’t so bad after all.
Since it’s the Bard’s birthday today let’s hear what he has to say. And let’s hope we have greater success than the conspirators.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”, Act 4 scene 3