Top critical review
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
on January 11, 2015
Gaius Julius Caesar may have had the most dramatic assassination in history... or at least it seems that way, since almost everyone knows it through the lens of William Shakespeare.
And it's hard to imagine a better actor to play him than the late Sir John Gielgud, who took the role of the famed Roman statesman in a star-studded 1970 adaptation. Christopher Lee, Diana Rigg, Charlton Heston and Richard Chamberlain all give excellent performances as well, but the movie is hampered by a stiff and clunky Brutus and an instantly forgettable Cassius.
Julius Caesar (Gielgud) is returning to Rome in triumph, only to be stopped by a strange old soothsayer who warns him, "Beware the ides of March." Caesar brushes off the warning, mainly because he has no idea that a conspiracy is brewing under his nose. In a nutshell, a group of senators led by the creepy Cassius (Richard Johnson) are plotting against Caesar because of his wild popularity, suspecting that he wants to become KING. Cue the horror sting.
Jealous Cassius' latest convert is Brutus (Jason Robards), one of Caesar's best buddies -- he immediately begins plying Brutus with tales of how Caesar is manipulating the masses. Brutus is slowly swayed over to the conspiracy's side, beginning to believe that Caesar as a great man corrupted by power. Everything comes to a a devastating assassination on... guess when... the ides of March, which will elevate some men to greatness and destroy others.
A star-studded adaptation of Shakespeare is a tricky thing, because it will either be a magnificent tour de force... or a celebrity pet project by people who aren't up to the challenge. For the most part, the 1970 "Julius Caesar" is the former, as smaller roles are given to actors who are beautifully suited to the role -- you can see Diana Rigg as Brutus' passionate wife Portia, and Christopher Lee as that poor schmuck who tries to warn Caesar of his impending assassination. These roles are the less splashy ones, but the actors' charisma makes them leap off the screen.
And of course, Gielgud is simply perfect as Caesar -- regal, charismatic, with an air of warm wisdom and yet capable of steely, cold-hearted resolve. He has only a few scenes, but you glimpse many dimensions during that time. And Charlton Heston makes an amazing Marc Antony, despite some really odd clothes and a bad red wig -- he's capable of being passionate and cynical, clever and vibrant. You can tell that Heston really threw his soul into this role.
Here's the problem: since most of the movie's scenes revolve around Brutus, any production of "Julius Caesar" requires an excellent actor as Brutus. This movie... does not have it. Robards gives a planklike, mushmouthed performance as Brutus. And he reacts very strangely during the more intense scenes -- he looks almost embarrassed, like a kid in a school play.
Unfortunately, this causes many of the scenes to feel awkward and stiff as well, particularly the ones where Brutus is the dominant presence. It's incredibly awkward to see Diana Rigg giving a powerful performance opposite Robards; it's like watching her repeatedly running into a wall. The movie feels like a patchwork at times -- some scenes are clunky and stiff, while the ones that rely on Heston and Gielgud are rich and passionate, with lots of nuance.
One thing that cannot be criticized is the dialogue -- Shakespeare's speeches are powerful and intense, particularly Antony's famous speech to the Roman people ("The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones"), but Brutus' impassioned argument with Portia ("You have some sick offence within your mind") and Cassius' oily slanted editorials about Caesar. It also goes for shock and blood during the actual assassination, horrifying you after so many scenes of verbal plotting.
And as a random point, a llama is seen during the opening credits. Apparently the people who made this movie do not know where llamas are naturally found. Hint: nowhere that ancient Rome had access to.
The 1970 adaptation of "Julius Caesar" suffers from some miscasting among the conspirators -- Gielgud and Heston gave magnificent performances, but many scenes are dragged down by an unfortunate Brutus. Worth watching, despite its flaws.