Appellate Judge Erick Harper knows that the faults of this tepid Shakespeare adaptation are not in its stars, but in itself. Well, actually, some of the stars aren't such a big help either.
Our review of Julius Caesar (1970), published June 14th, 2004, is also available.
No grander Caesar! No greater cast!
As some readers may know, I teach 10th Grade English (among other things). One of the rites of passage that each sophomore must endure in the spring of the year is an encounter with William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
Facts of the Case
Julius Caesar (John Gielgud, Elizabeth, Propsero's Books, Murder on the Orient Express) returns victorious from a battle against those who would overthrow the Roman Republic. The crowd goes wild; some get it into their heads that it would be a good idea to scrap the idea of the Republic altogether and make Caesar their king. Chief among his admirers is Marc Antony (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes (1968), The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur); his detractors include the ambitious, envious Cassius (Richard Johnson, Khartoum, Aces High) and the sardonic Casca (Robert Vaughn, The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). Torn between the rival factions, torn between his loyalty to the Republic and his loyalty to Caesar, too naïve to see that his friends are less honorable than himself, is Brutus (Jason Robards, Magnolia, Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Hour of the Gun), the "greatest Roman of them all."
As enjoyable as Shakespeare's original tale of political intrigue and conflicting loyalties is, there is not much to like about this 1970 incarnation, as a film or (especially) as a DVD. First things first: let's dispense with the idea that this is a new release. This is simply a repackaged release of the existing 2004 Republic Pictures DVD with fancier cover art. Everything down to the disc menus, horrible audio, and headache-inducing video of the earlier disc is precisely replicated on this one.
Just how bad is this video transfer? It starts out showing the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, shamelessly teasing us into a false hope that the package may have been mislabeled, that maybe this film hasn't been butchered into a TV-friendly shape. However, after the opening credits, the frame seamlessly expands, morphing to fill the whole screen, losing around half the image in the process. At first, this almost seems OK, since the image quality during the opening sequence is comparable to watching the Zapruder film through your next-door neighbor's screen door. Image quality improves noticeably after the zoom-in, almost approaching (pre-digital) broadcast television quality, but quickly degrades again into a grainy, jerky, jittery, flickering mass of video trash. Mosquito noise sparkles around anything approaching a hard edge or shiny surface. Dark or shadowy areas swim in inky blackness so that it even becomes impossible to distinguish an actor's pupils from his irises. Flesh tones are so distorted that it seems an epidemic of the scarlet fever has descended upon the Roman populace. Picture quality is so blurry in places that I instinctively reached up to try to clean my glasses for a better look; it didn't help.
Audio quality matches the video quality. The mono audio sounded for all the world like I had taken the center channel speaker from my sound system and placed it in a microwave-safe container—or perhaps a whole microwave oven—before watching the movie. It reminded me of those scenes in various films where characters have a conversation inside a movie theater, and the audio of the movie they are watching continues in the background.
Of course, not even a stellar DVD transfer could save this movie from its own cast. Particularly bad is the usually-dependable Jason Robards in the pivotal role of Brutus, the man torn between his faith in the Republic and his faith in his associates. His flat, lifeless delivery of his lines is painful to watch, and he fails utterly to bring any sort of life or believability to his character. Imagine John Wayne's painful cameo in The Greatest Story Ever Told drawn out to feature length and you will get some idea of how out of place he seems in this film. His complete lack of energy seems contagious, and the dead slowness of his scenes infects the film as a whole.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are a few bright spots in this film. Three actors in particular manage to make their performances seem like acting and their characters seem like real people, rather than that whole affair coming off like some sort of recitation. Sir John Gielgud was considered, according to the information I have read, the greatest Shakespearian actor of his generation, and this film is no exception. His Caesar is vain, arrogant, and aloof, exactly what the part as written requires. Diana Rigg (The Avengers, Evil Under the Sun) has a smaller amount of screen time, but is remarkable as Portia, Brutus's faithful wife. However, perhaps the biggest surprise and the biggest treat of the cast is Robert Vaughn as Casca. Vaughn brings out the character's wily, playful slyness and sense of humor and makes him a likeable, understandable, real human being.
Charlton Heston also deserves honorable mention for his portrayal of Marc Antony. This marks the second time Heston played the role on film, the first being a creative but impoverished 1950 indie production. Heston, like Vaughn and Rigg, succeeds in delivering Shakespeare's language in a way that sounds like human speech, not just rote regurgitation. He is a bit histrionic and melodramatic at times, but that is not entirely out of keeping for this character.
Overall, this is not a horrible adaptation of Julius Caesar, but most agree that it is not as good as the 1953 version starring Marlon Brando as Brutus and a much younger Gielgud as the devilish Cassius.
Guilty! The film might be salvageable and not a terrible use of your time, but this DVD is simply a horror. Lionsgate deserves to get thrown to the lions for this repackaging of a disc that wasn't any good to start with.
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