JULIUS CAESAR as done for MGM in 1953. A hit with critics, and still getting good marks long after, this version of Shakespeare’s 1599 play was produced by John Houseman and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also wrote the adaptation. Loaded with star power, the $2,070,000 speech fest drew sufficient attendance from the rabble to claim 43rd position at the year’s box office, which was treated to one other Shakespeare spin (in a lighter vein) and two more lavish dramas of antiquity’s realms. This entry, a sage and venerated examination of power, politics and personalities, saw that ears were lent and/or bent to the tune of $6,100,000. *
In the Rome of 44 B.C. a group of Roman senators have various personal motives driving them but enough shared worry among them that they plot against and murder the Empire’s ruler, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern). Led by Brutus (James Mason), Cassius (John Gielgud) and Casca (Edmond O’Brien), their act is their undoing, duly avenged by loyalist Mark Antony (Marlon Brando). On the sidelines are Caesar’s wife Calpurnia (Greer Garson) and Portia (Deborah Kerr), spouse to Brutus.
As far as flinging facts, Shakespeare got the names right; historian Michael Grant reminds us that the English literary genius relied on such sketchy material as was available in his day, based on interpretations passed down through the ages from Greco-Roman biographer Plutarch, who opined on fabled older Romans more than a century after they were gone. But the play’s the thing, or in this case, the movie of the play. Houseman and Mankiewicz decided to focus on the characters and language rather than trappings, so the black & white production looks and feels stagey, including the under-populated battle sequence that finally arrives when Antony mops up the remaining conspirators at Philippi in Macedonia (Greece). A decade later Mankiewicz would be submerged in trappings with another, vastly larger piece of the Mark & Julius days, a wee little item called Cleopatra. **
The Art Direction picked up an Academy Award (irony striking twice as it used repurposed sets from Quo Vadis and won against a movie actually shot where this one was set, Roman Holiday): dutiful nominations were given for Best Picture, Actor (Marlon, his third in a row, after A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata!), Cinematography and Music Score. The last was the most deserved, for composer Miklos Rozsa was the Caesar of Roman cinema scores.
Brando’s casting drew mutterings at the time, with naysayers assuming the hard-to-pin-down 28-year-old rebel would mumble his way through the pronounce-precisely passages of Shakespeare’s stylized speeches. But he surprised snobs, buckling down under guidance from Bard veteran Gielgud (his first Hollywood stab), and delivered Antony’s anger with Brit-inflect effect instead of artistes affect. Many consider intense O’Brien the best in the cast (Mason thought so, as did Spencer Tracy, no slouch). Calhern makes an imposing ruler, Mason (Brutus is the biggest role) is properly impassioned, Gielgud treads manor-borne turf. Garson and Kerr are on hand for quick additional prestige. It’s a grab bag of top talent.
Take 121 minutes to shortcut your homework assignment. Friends, Romans and countrymen arrayed to shout, scheme and stab include George Macready, Michael Pate, Alan Napier, John Hoyt, Ian Wolfe, Michael Ansara, John Lupton, John Doucette, William Phipps, Douglas Dumbrille, Rhys Williams, Lawrence Dobkin, Edmund Purdom, Robert Fuller, Ned Glass and Dabbs Greer.
* This consistently praised adaptation tied in harvesting 1953 vintage coins of the realm with another Shakespeare adaptation, Kiss Me Kate (delightfully making mock of The Taming Of The Shrew). Meanwhile, Ancient Rome and its troublesome provinces were otherwise getting even more lucrative attention through The Robe and Salome.
** Shaking spears—born in 100 B.C., cut down at the age of sixty-six, Gaius Julius has been interpreted on screen by Warren William (Cleopatra, 1934 version) Claude Rains (Caesar and Cleopatra), Harold Tasker (Julius Caesar, 1950 version), Louis Calhern (’53), John Gavin (Spartacus), Gustavo Rojo (Julius Caesar Against the Pirates), Rex Harrison (Cleopatra, 1963 version), John Gielgud (Julius Caesar, 1970 version), Klaus Maria Brandauer (Druids). Besides Brando’s turn in toga, screen Mark Antony’s include Henry Wilcoxon, Charlton Heston (twice), Raymond Burr (!!) and Richard Burton.