Our Appellate Judge Erick Harper is as constant as the North Star—and as regular as Ex-Lax.
Beware the Ides of March!
Julius Caesar has always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I love the complex, heartbreaking dilemma of honest, noble Brutus, caught between personal loyalty to his friends and public loyalty to Rome, finally undone by his inability to believe that Cassius and the rest of the conspirators are less honorable than himself.
This well-remembered scourge of tenth-graders across the country has been brought to the screen several times. Most people who follow this sort of thing are probably familiar with the 1953 Joseph Mankiewicz version starring Marlon Brando as Marc Antony and James Mason as Brutus. In 1970 director Stuart Burge assembled an all-star cast including Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes (1968)) as Antony, Jason Robards (Tora! Tora! Tora!) as Brutus, Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven), and Richard Chamberlain (The Towering Inferno) for a lavish big screen version of the play.
Twenty years prior, however, a young Heston, just beginning a film career, appeared in an extremely low-budget independent production of Julius Caesar, playing the same Marc Antony role that he would later reprise in the 1970 version. Watching this film, it is not hard to see how Heston went on to become famous; even in this ancient and somewhat amateurish film, his rugged looks and commanding presence blow any of his co-stars off the screen.
Heston is good as Antony, perhaps better and less melodramatic than in his 1970 outing in the role, but he is not the most interesting part of the film. Due to the limited budget for the film, director David Bradley had to be very creative in staging this tale of treachery and intrigue in ancient Rome. In this case, necessity was the mother of an interesting visual style that owes a lot to German Expressionism. Bradley covers his lack of sets and extras with very interesting contrasts in light and shadow. He uses a number of extreme close-ups on actor's faces or even just portions of faces, carefully shadowed to convey the characters' inner states. Sometimes this is a bit overdone. For example, anyone familiar with the play knows that Cassius, played here by Grosvenor Glenn, emerges as more or less the chief villain in the piece. (Yeah, yeah, interpretations may vary, but bear with me here.) In Bradley's hands, with his extreme close-ups and almost chiaroscuro lighting techniques, Cassius appears like a spectral figure from a Murnau film rather than merely an ambitious Roman politician. Likewise, in order to conceal his use of familiar Chicago locations to stand in for Rome, as well as his lack of extras for battle scenes, Bradley uses editing techniques worthy of Eisenstein or Riefenstahl to give the film visual appeal and energy. The overall effect of Bradley's shoestring mise-en-scene is very effective, with some interesting shots and compositions that would not feel out of place in episodes of The Twilight Zone. The film is worth seeing just for Bradley's treatment of the climactic battle on the plains of Philippi (with sand dunes along Lake Michigan standing in for the battlefield), which he manages to make amazingly engaging despite the laughable performances of his extras with their dime-store costumes and props.
VCI's release of Julius Caesar does a nice job of preserving the film in all its low-budget, independent, half-century-old glory. The image is surprisingly good, all things considered. The sound is exactly what you might expect, all things considered. It's about on par with old newsreels of Wendell Willkie, with loads of static, hiss, crackle, and what sounds like projector hum thrown into the whole congested, tinny mix. Dialogue is out of synch with the image at times, but that is not the fault of VCI either. As another one of Bradley's cost-saving measures, most of the film was shot silent with dialogue recorded later.
VCI has included a couple of special features on this disc. The first is a photo gallery of scenes from the production. It is done in animated style with the pictures swooping in an out in a sort of 3-D presentation. You don't really get a chance to look at the photos, but it's kind of cool and no more useless than the static photo galleries included on so many DVDs. There is also the text of a scholarly analysis of Marc Antony's funeral speech—interesting, but the sort of thing that would work better as a printed booklet in the case, rather than waiting for screens of text to scroll by at their own leisurely pace. Finally, there is a promo trailer for VCI's "Sword and Sandal" collection.
Fans of Shakespeare will appreciate this interesting take on the play. Fans of Charlton Heston will appreciate this historic look at one of the first screen appearances by one of the most prominent actors in the history of American film. Fans of film, especially independent film, will appreciate the stylish filming techniques and the skills needed to bring ancient Rome to life on a miniscule budget.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• "Beware the Ides of March" -- Analysis of Marc Antony's Funeral Speech
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