What is Jason Robards doing in a Shakespeare film? Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees is still scratching her head in bafflement.
Our review of Julius Caesar (1970), published March 9th, 2007, is also available.
"Beware the ides of March!"
I was tempted to throw together a little sonnet with which to launch my review of this version of Shakespeare's tragedy Julius Caesar, but in fact the lines of poetry that kept running through my head as I contemplated this disc were of much more recent vintage: "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: It might have been." With a terrific cast, an attractive production, and a tight, brisk script condensed from the source play, this Julius Caesar might have been great. Alas, it is merely…pretty good.
In case your most recent perusal of Shakespeare's play was in high school, let me refresh your memory of the plot. As our story opens, Julius Caesar (John Gielgud, Prospero's Books) has just defeated Pompey in battle and is greeted with wild acclaim by the Roman citizens, who almost immediately offer him the crown. Among the happy populace are some who do not wish to see Caesar rule Rome, however, particularly the cunning Cassius (Richard Johnson, Lady Jane). He fixes on the idealistic Brutus (Jason Robards, Philadelphia) to spearhead a plot to assassinate Caesar, and by appealing to Brutus's family pride as much as his distaste for despots he recruits Brutus for the conspirators' side. The conspirators carry out their plan and murder Caesar, and although at first it seems that they will be able to sway the populace into celebrating what they see as a victory over tyranny, Marc Antony's moving eulogy to Caesar whips up the fickle crowd into an anti-Brutus frenzy. The opposing forces will meet again in battle, as Brutus, now haunted by visions of the murdered Caesar, leads what comes to look like an increasingly futile fight against the forces of Marc Antony (Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur) and Octavius Caesar (Richard Chamberlain, Shogun), nephew of the assassinated leader.
For fans of political drama, it's a gripping story. We see early conflicts between the conspirators that will later come back to bite them on the gluteus maximus, as when Brutus makes the executive decision not to make a clean sweep by killing Marc Antony, a powerful and popular soldier, at the same time that they dispatch Caesar. Brutus's desire to take the high road whenever possible weakens his forces time and again. His influence does catalyze a nice character arc for Cassius, however, whose scheming tendencies give way to a more noble-minded approach to the conflict like that of Brutus. On the other side of the battle lines, Marc Antony and Octavius Caesar are both ruthless warriors; Antony is the more experienced, but Octavius is catching up quickly, and the power struggle that erupts between the two provides a smaller parallel of the main plot.
The cast features so many great names that the list of actors could be a poem in itself: Sir John Gielgud as Caesar. Charlton Heston as Antony. Diana Rigg as Portia, Brutus's wife. Christopher Lee as Artemidorus. And…Jason Robards as Brutus.
And there we come to the first and gravest of the problems with this film.
Now, I am very fond of Jason Robards, and I'm always pleased to see his name in
a movie's credits. But he is not remotely right as Brutus. Perhaps in an attempt
to portray the character as cerebral rather than outwardly expressive, he ends
up conveying very little emotion. By far the worst problem, however, is that
Robards sounds terribly uncomfortable speaking Shakespeare's English. His
delivery is stilted, stiff, uninflected—except when he's permitted to
shout, at which point he relaxes and seems to forget to be inhibited. Aside from
these rare moments, though, he sounds as if he's never acted before in his life.
I even found myself wondering if he couldn't relax without the cigar that has
become his onscreen trademark. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Brutus
is supposed to be a renowned orator, yet, as Robards performs him, this is a man
who would have been kicked out of Cicero's oratory training program as a lost
Of course, he is in excellent company. Heston's Antony is virile, energetic, and self-assured, as he should be; he does nibble a bit at the scenery in his big oration, but that's appropriate for the character, who strikes me as the ancient Roman equivalent of a celebrity athlete or rock star. Gielgud's Caesar is lovable but pompous, vulnerable yet arrogant—a nicely balanced performance. Diana Rigg (The Avengers) is the most inspired casting I could imagine for the fiery, courageous Portia. Her fierce characterization of one of Shakespeare's strongest female characters actually overpowers wishy-washy Brutus in their scene together; one can't help thinking it's too bad she couldn't have led the conspirators into battle, because then they might have stood a fighting chance. As pretty-boy Octavius, the young Richard Chamberlain smoothly portrays the self-indulgent dilettante who is becoming a force to be reckoned with. Even Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), one of the last actors I'd expect to see doing Shakespeare (well, after Robards), performs Casca with humorous slyness and a welcome lightness of touch. Magnificent Christopher Lee, sadly, gets shafted with the teensy role of Artemidorus, but he delivers his two or three lines with passion and conviction. If only one could jump in a time machine and convince director Stuart Burge to cast him as Brutus.
I mentioned the attractive production, and indeed the film does create a handsome visual landscape, particularly in the scenes set in the streets of Rome and on the battlefields, although the matte work and special effects during the thunderstorm scene are pretty amateurish. The costumes are a curious mixture of Italian Renaissance overlaid with classical Rome, but the overall effect is attractive and will probably not be jarring to the average viewer. After so many recent films of Shakespeare's tragedies that have taken the high-concept approach to production design (such as Richard III and Titus), it's almost novel to see a straightforward film interpretation that doesn't move the action to another era or jazz it up with contemporary touches. It's a smart decision here, as it prevents the film's look from becoming dated.
Similarly, the transfer doesn't show its age as much as one might expect. True, there is a soft or fuzzy quality to some of the night scenes, and there's a faint nagging feeling that part of the color spectrum has vanished and that the film is just a little more yellow-brown than it should be. Nonetheless, the blacks are deep and rich, there's surprisingly little grain, and the level and clarity of detail in the brighter scenes are quite impressive for a thirty-year-old film. No one will mistake this for a new film, and there are a few instances of wobble that mitigate the effectiveness of the cinematography, but this transfer is on the whole quite agreeable.
Except, that is, for the one unforgivable crime, and the other major detractor from this disc: the shocking decision to present this film in pan and scan. "Zounds!" I hear you exclaim. "They take an epic historical film—with scenes of parades, mob scenes, battles being waged, and massive armies clashing—and cut out almost two-thirds of the picture? Do mine ears hear aright?" That they do, sweet my coz. After a letterboxed prologue and credit sequence, which only serve to get one's hopes up, the film devolves to butchered full frame. The epic scope of Shakespeare's play is chopped down to the point that conversations among conspirators sometimes consist of a shot of a character silently listening to the two shoulders on either side conducting dialogue across him. It's enough to make one want to recruit a little band of conspirators and stab the DVD 33 times on the steps of the Lions Gate production offices. Consistent with this soulless treatment of the film, there are no extras for this disc besides attractive menus and scene selection.
Despite my complaints, I do recommend this disc, especially for Shakespeare fans and for admirers of the lead actors. But I'll never be able to look at Jason Robards the same way again. I think I'm going to get to work on that time machine now.
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