It all began in Britain. That’s not only where the play came from, but we have this Julius Caesar thanks to the immense success of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 screen adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ”Henry V”. Four years later, Olivier directed another Bard classic, Hamlet, to great acclaim. Interest in making a similar film in America grew. When producer John Houseman was offered a chance, he knew that he wanted either Joseph L. Mankiewiz or William Wyler to helm the picture, because they were both very good at directing dialogue. He also knew that the movie shouldn’t have a classically British cast. What would be the point of making it in the U.S. in that case?
Rome, 44 B.C. Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern) has just returned after defeating the sons of his great rival Pompey. When he holds a victory parade, a soothsayer approaches him and warns: ”Beware the Ides of March”. Caesar ignores his words, but they are true. That date in the Roman calendar, March 15th, is the one chosen by a group of conspirators who intend to kill Caesar. They are led by the senator and general Cassius (John Gielgud) who is trying to talk another prominent politician, Brutus (James Mason), into joining them. This isn’t an easy choice for Brutus, who is close to Caesar, but still considers him a threat against Rome.
After much consideration, Brutus joins the conspiracy, but there is one man standing in the way of success: Mark Antony (Marlon Brando), one of Caesar’s most loyal generals…
A toned-down political power play
Houseman and Mankiewicz, who was ultimately chosen as director, decided to do this as a somewhat toned-down political power play, inviting comparisons with news reels showing Fascist movements in Europe. The plot was meant to look contemporary. Brando’s presence reinforced that feeling. He brought his youthful Method acting style to the part of Mark Antony, delivering a wounded yet forceful and even conniving performance in the film’s most famous scene. It comes shortly after Caesar’s assassination when Mark Antony convinces the conspirators that they should let him address the crowds outside the Senate, and then proceeds to give a stirring speech that turns the people against Caesar’s murderers.
Brando’s performance is attractively contrasted with more traditional British actors like Gielgud and Mason who are both excellent in supporting turns, veterans of the play in fact; this is a star-studded, very lively cast, though there was reportedly some tension between Brando and Mason in particular. It is a superior adaptation of the play, magnificently staged by Mankiewicz and his team, taking us to a Rome of glory and ill foreboding; it’s more autumn than spring here.
Moments of tragic grandeur are balanced with intimate reflections. Cassius and Brutus share a common goal, but not really philosophies. The former simply wants Caesar gone for the good of Rome, but the latter struggles with his decision. How far can you go to protect the people? His reasoning is what Mark Antony takes and uses against him and the other conspirators, in the end leading to civil war.
Traditional in many ways, the film is enlivened by confident direction and bold casting choices. Now, about that Rome of glory that I mentioned. Part of the classy, epic feel of the film is due to Miklós Rósza’s rich, lavish music score that has us imagining sweeping romances and conquests that defy the odds. Strange to think that the core of the film is not that but tortured deliberations on what to do next.
Julius Caesar 1953-U.S. 120 min. B/W. Produced by John Houseman. Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Play: William Shakespeare. Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg. Music: Miklós Rózsa. Art Direction: Edward Carfagno, Cedric Gibbons. Cast: Marlon Brando (Mark Antony), James Mason (Brutus), John Gielgud (Cassius), Louis Calhern (Julius Caesar), Edmond O’Brien, Greer Garson… Deborah Kerr.
Trivia: Paul Scofield was allegedly considered for the part of Mark Antony.
Oscar: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. BAFTA: Best British Actor (Gielgud), Foreign Actor (Brando).
Last word: “I haven’t permitted any of my films that I had any control over to be submitted or shown at any festival. The only picture that I directed that was submitted to a film festival was ‘Julius Caesar’. It was rejected at Venice because it was not up to the ‘artistic standards’ of the festival. This was an official rejection. Their reasons were that only a ‘Hollywood’ director would commit such a gaffe as to have Brutus read a book, as to have clocks strike, as to have various things which any semiliterate person knows are the fascinating and famous anachronisms which Shakespeare committed in his play.” (Mankiewicz, “Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Interviews”)