November 2, 2014
Julius Caesar (1953)
Grade: 82/100

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Stars: James Mason, Marlon Brando, John Gielgud

What it's about. The Shakespeare play set in Italy, first century B.C. Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern) returns to Rome following military victories that make him the unchallenged ruler of the Roman Republic. Roman senators such as Casca (Edmund O'Brien) fear that Caesar will usurp their power and become a dictator. So, they conspire to lure him to the Senate, and murder him.

The consiprators are led by eloquent and hesitant Brutus (James Mason). Cassius (John Gielgud) becomes his partner in crime, more eager to perform the dirty deed. Calpurnia (Greer Garson) begs her husband not to go to the Senate, and Portia (Deborah Kerr) implores Brutus to return to her bed. But neither wife succeeds, perhaps because Garson is getting older, and Brutus appears to prefer lute-strumming preteenager Lucius (John Hardy).

Once Caesar resembles a pin cushion, the conspirators attempt to placate the restless Roman public. Brutus' speech to the mob concludes that Caesar was lusty for power and needed killing, but his address is followed by Caesar ally Mark Anthony (Marlon Brando), who stokes a riot. Brutus and Cassius flee and raise an army near Phillipi, while Mark Anthony and Caesar's adopted son Octavian (Douglass Watson) lead the opposition army.

How others will see it. The Robe (1953), another toga party made the same year as Julius Caesar, was actually a much bigger box office hit. But the present film was nonetheless profitable partly because it reused sets from a prior Roman-era epic.

It certainly drew more praise from critics. At BAFTA, Gielgud won Best British Actor, and Brando won Best Foreign Actor. The movie also garnered five Oscar nominations.

Today at, the movie has a middling 6500 user votes and a good-but-not-great user rating of 7.4. The rating is consistent across all demographics. Naysayers are a significant minority and dwell upon what they consider to be stilted dialogue and artificial, stagey acting. They have a point, since real-life individuals neither talk, nor act, like their cinematic counterparts. Whether that difference is germane is an altogether different matter.

How I felt about it. Given the quality of the source play and the all-star cast, in hindsight it seems that Mankiewicz and MGM could only have achieved a great success. But there are many examples of average Hollywood movies based on Shakespearean works. That Mankiewicz pulled it off is a credit to his judgment to stick to the play instead of contriving a "commercial" adaptation.

But Shakespeare's gift of the English language gives the three principals (Brutus, Anthony, and Cassius) more eloquence than they deserved. Undoubtedly, their historical actions were guided by a desire for power instead of the ideals of republic rule, or revenge for a murdered dictator. Anthony appears to have been the worst of the group, since he executed thousands to consolidate power in Rome following Caesar's assassination.

The play is guilty of chronology consolidation. Caesar's will is read by Anthony to the public within an hour of the former's death. Two years of subsequent intrigue is dispensed with altogether. There were actually two Battles of Philippi, held three weeks apart. Octavian lost the first battle and had to hide in a swamp to survive. The more rash Cassius committed suicide, unaware that his side was not defeated.

Of course the film cannot replicate the scale of the second battle, which squared off hundreds of thousands of soldiers. The movie's depiction more closely resembles the Battle of Little Bighorn, where General Custer met his end nearly two millennia later.

Thus it is best, as always with Shakespeare's histories, to view them not as a documentary, but merely as a setting for his magic with language. It helps, of course, that the cast is stocked with A-list actors, with "Mumbles" Marlon Brando merely the most famous among the leads.

We do wonder, though, at Shakespeare's obsession with the ghosts of murdered kings. In "Hamlet", the ghost talks his son into revenge. In "Julius Caesar", the ghost prefers to pester Brutus. In both cases, the ghost is a personification of guilt, an emotion more difficult than rage to convey onstage.