Sunday 12 October 2008

Julius Caesar (1953)

It's been said, of course, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In 44 BC when we begin this Hollywood adaptation of Shakespeare's story, Julius Caesar returns to Rome victorious over Pompey in a civil war and the city and its senate wants to make him ultimate ruler, which would seem to his friends to fit his ambition. Such power is palpable: as he leaves the stadium where it's offered to him, the world appears to stop at his word. He pauses and the whole procession pauses; whatever he asks for is granted. Yet Brutus and his colleagues, people who know Caesar well, decide to kill him for his and Rome's own good.

This was a huge production that ran against many time honoured trends. It sprang out of Hollywood, from the mightiest of the studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but it doesn't feel like such. MGM obviously poured money into it and threw major names at it, but these names are good ones, even when they wouldn't appear to be like top billed Marlon Brando, who in hindsight looked the part magnificently; and if he couldn't match some of his colleagues here on the acting front, it can be said that he doesn't mumble in the slightest and surpassed expectations. The biggest Hollywood bias is not in his casting, but in the fact that he got the Oscar nomination instead of the stunning James Mason, who as Brutus was undoubtedly the lead if not the owner of the highest credit. It's amazing how much he can emote with a mostly still face and a mostly calm voice.

Director Joseph L Mankiewicz, hardy a minor name himself with four Oscars and films like All About Eve behind him, went to Stratford-upon-Avon to see a production in Shakespeare's own town and consequently cast John Gielgud as Cassius. This isn't the sort of casting you'd expect from Hollywood, but it's as right as it is surprising. Gielgud is superb, full of envy, conspiracy and frustration, and it's a genuine pleasure to see one of those performances that would, for Mankiewicz's casting, be yet another that we can only read about in the words of those who saw it on stage. Film acting used to be seen as second class to stage acting, and maybe still does to those who matter, but it certainly has a far greater tendency to be seen.

The choice of actors is only one surprise for a Hollywood production, but I'm glad to see people like Gielgud, Deborah Kerr, Greer Garson and especially James Mason do their work. Brando is not the only Hollywood name here and he's not the only surprise. Louis Calhern switches appropriately between joviality and seriousness as Julius Caesar himself and Edmond O'Brien is worthily fearful as Casca. Many of these names also have little screen time to make their impact but use it well. Kerr in particular must have about a minute of screen time and Garson not much more.

Needless to say, beyond the names already mentioned and those of many others languishing in the bit parts, along with Miklos Rozsa who composed a magnificent score, there's one standing so far above them all that his name stands defiantly above the title: William Shakespeare. Now I'm no Shakespeare nut, though I've seen a number of film adaptations of his work and even a couple on the stage, but his talent is unmissable here. The most surprising thing of all is that Hollywood chose to script this straight, so much so that nobody gets a writing credit.

It's told in its original language and while this language is so removed in time and style from our own version of it and so full of vocabulary that it sometimes flows over us so quickly that we can't follow, it's truly stunning how much of it is still current. So much of this play has entered popular culture that there's impact in realising it. I don't believe I've ever read or seen Julius Caesar before, but I was surprised to find that I knew so much of it, as quotes, references or even just as words or concepts that it introduced to us. In an era when Shakespeare tends to be given to us in translation to modern settings and language, it's almost shocking to be effortlessly drawn right into a version that is as traditional as they get.

And so this is a huge success, even though that everything I've learned about the Hollywood studio system would tell me that there's no way such a thing could be possible. Hollywood doesn't respect tradition and it pays fast and loose with material to suit its own ends. Hollywood casts according to box office expectation not talent, or more accurately in this era according to its own internal politics. Whatever caused it to break all its rules and make a Shakespearean film that appears right, at least to my admittedly highly untrained eyes and ears when it comes to Shakespeare, I really don't know, but I'm happy for it. The only flaw I found was in the way every stabbing came across as unrealistic in the extreme, even if taken from the perspective that this was originally a stage play. On the epic scale of the film though, that's about as insignificant as it gets.

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