Perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest play, Julius Caesar has been adapted for film and TV many times, and this 1970 version was an attempt to mount a semi-epic adaptation under a fairly restrictive budget.
Apparently no expense was spared to snare a top-notch cast (yes, that includes The Man from U.N.C.L.E’s Robert Vaughan as slimy Casca), but the plethora of names were probably extra insurance to get the funding locked, much in the way Kenneth Branagh had to take chances on actors such as Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon to make the Hamlet (1996) money men happy.
Running just under 2 hours, the length of this compact adaptation unfortunately guarantees a number of intriguing actors have less than a single scene, if not one line. Diana Rigg, as Caesar’s wife Portia, is gone after a brief scene; Michael Gough is in and out in the blink of an eye; and Christopher Lee appears in a quick montage, and has a moment where he yells at Caesar’s feet.
That isn’t to say their absence is felt, but it feels like a tease, and the film’s keystone actor isn’t bland John Gielgud as the doomed leader nor first-billed Charlton Hest as Marc Antony (who really does nothing until Caesar’s death), but Jason Robards, giving a strangely monotone performance as back-stabber Brutus.
The intricacies of Shakespeare’s plotting and dialogue are still intact, but the chief problem with Robards is his apparent decision to portray Brutus as an introverted, conflicted man whose droning voice reflects his emotionally restricted state – he stays blank-faced until the murder because emotions would raise suspicion among his friends.
Once Brutus and his killers have been vilified by Marc Antony in front of Rome’s citizens and sent fleeing to the battlefield to fight for their survival against the alliance between triumvirate Antony, Octavius Caesar (Richard Chamberlain), and Marcus Lepidus, Robards finally begins to emote because Brutus is now a desperate man, trying to hold onto his sense of rightness in killing Caesar when the plans of a new Rome lie in ruins.
With the exception of Richard Johnson, who remains consistently strong as Cassius, by the last act it’s too late for Robards, and it’s just a matter of procedure as director Stuart Burge goes through Antony hunting down Brutus and his inevitable death.
If a decent anamorphic transfer of this ‘scope production existed on DVD, the flaws may not be as severe, but Lionsgate has twice chosen to use the same ugly laserdisc master (the first, in 2004), which fades to black and fades up again at the hour mark – the period where you’re supposed to flip the disc to Side B.
After the main titles, the film zooms in to full screen, and shifts back & forth in pan & scan mode until the end credits, when a pull-back to 2.35:1 reveals three figures standing in the frame instead of one. The colours are washed out and hued orange, making Heston look even sillier in his yellow curly wig and sweaty orange chest. The sound is low and doesn’t flatter Michael J. Lewis’ grand sc
Part of the issue may lie in the film being produced by Commonwealth United, a production and distribution company whose actual production slate between 1966-1975 remains out of circulation, including The Magic Christian (1969), The Madwoman of Challiot (1969), and Ballad of Tam Lin (1970). Until someone gives a damn and releases a properly mastered disc, the mediocrity of this misfire will remain pungent.
Director Burge had directed previously an adaptation of Julius Caesar for TV in 1959, and tackled Shakespeare again with Laurence Oliver in the film version of Othello (1965). Gielgud played Cassius in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ 1953 version of Julius Caesar, whereas Johnson played Marc Antony in a 1974 TV version of Antony and Cleopatra.
More importantly, with his relationship with producer Peter Snell, Heston managed secure financing for Antony and Cleopatra [M] (1972), a far more successful production, and the first of three films directed by Heston, including Mother Lode [M] (1982) and the TV production of A Man for All Seasons [M] (1988).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan