Thursday, May 9, 2013

Cinema Caesars -- A Streetcar Named Antony

Julius Caesar (1953)

120 min.
Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Writer: William Shakespeare (adapted by Mankiewicz)
Starring: Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Greer Garrson, and Deborah Kerr

After watching the 1970 film of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar it was suggested that I look again at the earlier John Houseman production staring Marlon Brando in the pivotal role of Mark Antony.  In fact I had seen the film many years ago, and remembered it as being quite good, however a “refresher” viewing did seem in order.

Unlike the 1970 film, which was more of a low budget ‘labor of love,’ this earlier effort was a prestige production, given a large budget with the intent of making a first class film of Shakespeare’s play, while also riding on the coat tails of the recently popular Quo Vadis and beating The Robe to theatres by several months.

Although the title is Julius Caesar, the play and the film are more concerned with Brutus and his interplay with Cassius and Antony.  In this Mankiewicz has cast well.

As Brutus, James Mason displays the brooding intelligence of a man clearly swimming in political waters far deeper than he is qualified for, either by training or temperament.  Likewise Gielgud, as Cassius, is appropriately manipulative.  Cassius has his own agenda and is happy to use Brutus to reach that end.  In a similar manner, Mankiewicz has filled the other roles with excellent actors who are uniformly comfortable with Shakespeare’s language to the point that they can use it as a means of investing their characters with a reality that is both honest and entertaining. 

All of this is to the good and serves the production well, but it is in the casting of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony that Mankiewicz and Houseman show true genius.  Originally the director had sought Paul Schofield (A Man For All Seasons, Quiz Show) for the role of Antony, but changed his mind when Brando’s screen test came in better than expected.  Brando was an actor of immense talent and is not only comfortable with the language but more than holds his own with the classically trained actors in the cast who have far more experience with the Bard.  Brando’s timing and dramatic sense are impeccable.  What’s more, Brando infuses Antony with a pugnacious air that seems completely appropriate to Antony both dramatically and historically.

In terms of screen time, Antony might be considered a secondary character, for he really has only one scene to call his own, but what a scene it is and Brando plays it for all that it's worth!  Antony’s speech alone, as played by Brando, is worth the price of admission.

That being said …

In all other considerations this production is no better than the 1970 film.  Costumes are standard “Hollywood Roman” with many of the legionaries wearing armor we will see again in 1959’s Ben-Hur.  The same holds true for the sets (portrait busts of Hadrian are everywhere present) and once again, as with the 1970 film, the Battle of Philippi bears no resemblance whatsoever to history or indeed to anything particularly Roman.   Of course, one does not watch this film looking for historical insight, or even fidelity, but rather for excellence in acting and in this the viewer will not be disappointed.

More to the point, how does the 1953 film compare to one from 1970?

The key to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is the triumvirate of Brutus-Cassius-Antony.  The balance among these three characters is both critical and delicate – the play rises or falls on this and it is here that we see the big difference between the two films.

I admire the 1970 film for the energy and effort of the cast and crew working with their limited budget.  In many respects the film feels like a good community theatre production and one appreciates the work and commitment on display.  However, in that production the critical triumvirate, as played by Robards-Johnson-Heston, is wildly out of balance.  Despite the good work done by many of the actors they cannot restore the balance upset by Robards’ poor performance.

In contrast, the acting triumvirate at the center of the 1953 film, Mason-Gielguid-Brando is perfect.  The strength of the acting talent on display here is so good that, rather than being impressed with how well the actors recite Shakespeare we are caught up in the story itself and wonder what the character will do next (even though we know the play line by line).

The key scene in both the play and the films is the Forum oration given by Brutus and Antony.  The play turns on this scene.  Heston, as Antony, works hard to restore the energy sucked out of the scene by Robards, but despite his best efforts he is not up to the task.  Mason’s Brutus, on the other hand gives a superb speech, setting the stage perfectly for Brando who does not waste his fellow actor’s efforts. Brando builds upon that well laid foundation, his smoldering rage barley kept in check as he turns the people of Rome from rejoicing at the death of a tyrant to mourning the loss of their father.  It is a performance for the ages.

Much has been written about Brando as the premier American Actor, but most viewers, who are familiar only with his later films, may wonder what all the hoopla is about.  Watching his performance in Julius Caesar leaves no doubt as to his talent.

In an earlier posting I gave the 1970 film a favorable review, and I stand by that – I enjoyed that film with the caveat that Jason Robards is terribly miscast as Brutus.  However, I have no such misgiving about the 1953 production.  Indeed, if you are looking for acting at its finest you need look no further than the Mason – Brando speeches in the Forum. 

The film is currently available on DVD from Amazon

This review was first posted in January, 2011 on the Ancient Warfare Magazine website
 (c) 2011 David L Reinke

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