Shakespeare in Film – Part 2 – Julius Caesar (1953)

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.

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