Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

35. Stuart Burges’s Julius Caesar (1970)

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I’ve explained before how Caesar is a difficult play to like. Julius Caesar dies in Act III, Scene 1, but even before that most of the play is about noble Brutus, the man who would kill Caesar because he loved Rome too much to let it be ruled by a tyrant.

Brutus is difficult to like, and if you don’t like Brutus, then the play can be a grind.

In Stuart Burges’s 1970 film of the play, Brutus was played by Jason Robards, one of the finest American actors of the twentieth century. In the film of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Robards’s performance was part of the perfection of that cinematic masterpiece.

As Brutus, not so much.

His speech sounds like that of a bored robot, as if trying to power through an overdose of Quaaludes, and those big drooping eyebrows didn’t help the movie, either.

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Robert Furnival’s script adaptation doesn’t add much subtext, other than Romans seemed to be a bit Roman, so visually there’s not much to latch onto except the acting. Everyone tended to look very sweaty.

If you begin to despair that this Caesar will indeed be a grind, though, the rest of the casting is stellar and interesting. John Gielgud plays Caesar. Charlton Heston played Brutus’s eventually adversary, Marc Antony. Portia, Brutus’s wife, was played by Dianna Rigg (Emma Peel in The Avengers, Mrs. James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and as Oleanna Tyrell in Game of Thrones).

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Richard Chamberlain played Octavius Caesar. And if you listen and look carefully, a few lines were given to Christopher Lee.

The tremendous surprise is that the best performance seems to have been given by Robert Vaughn, of Pootie Tang and Man from UNCLE fame. As Casca, Vaughn seems totally in his element, and steals scenes without even seeming like he is stealing scenes.

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“This movie is called Casca, is it not?” he seems to be saying.

The richness of the ensemble can make you overlook Robards’s woodenness, if you are patient.

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Then, before Antony’s funeral oration, and again in his argument with Cassius, Robards’s Brutus seems to wake up and actually act for twenty whole minutes … before becoming mopey and somnolent again.

But after Caesar’s assassination, Antony, thank goodness, becomes one of the primary characters. Through the first half of the play, Heston just seems greasy and skinny, a peculiar cipher who doesn’t seem especially athletic. Of course, this characterization is largely Shakespeare’s—we are meant not to notice him much until Caesar’s death. Heston demonstrates that he could deliver Shakespearean dialogue masterfully, and portrays Antony’s awakening as a leader of Rome with compelling vigor.

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With such an Antony, Brutus didn’t stand a chance.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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