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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 18, No. 5. April 30, 1954

Julius Caesar— — Best Shakespeare Film To Date?

Julius Caesar

Best Shakespeare Film To Date?

No film of Shakespeare has ever been wholly successful. Hollywood's "A Midsummer's Night Dream" (with James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Dick Powell) has been described as "Hollywood's Midsummer Nightmare," and a very prosaic nightmare at that: commentators thought "As You Like It" (with Olivier and Elizabeth Berger) too heavily cut, theatrical and dull, while "Komeo and Juliet" (with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) literal fidelity did not save it from almost every folly of which unimaginative simplicity is capable.

The main trouble with Shakespeare is that he talks too much for the cinema. Two directors. Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, have realised this, and these two, more than any others, have tried to present Shakespeare cinematically. But apart from Olivier's "Henry V," the films have sacrificed too much Shakespeare. Welles' "Macbeth," if not brilliantly acted, was exciting and adventurous, but any resemblance to Shakespeare was purely accidental. Olivier's Hamlet on the other hand was neither faithful to Shakespeare nor exciting and adventurous. The central performance was colourless, devoid of poetry, and far loo consistent (for Hamlet). Many of the play's problems were ignored, perhaps because Olivier was too much concerned in making his camera the chief character. In his attempt to cinematic, by use of deep-focus photography and the roving camera, Olivier had the now-famous criticism fired at him: "Too many corridors by Furse (the scenic designer) and not enough passages by Shakespeare." The film Hamlet was not a success.

But "Henry V." on the whole, was a heroic performance from Olivier, stylised and colourful sets, and exciting camera work and rhythm at the Agincourt almost made us forget the film's faults. These faults were big, but only mainly because of an Imagination that was too high-brow. There was too much mixture of convention (notably the continual progress from the Elizabethan Theatre to the actualities of the Agincourt campaign and back) and some lamentable interpretations of Shakespeare's moods.

So we see that Shakespeare has not fared very well. Film versions were either too literal or too free, or they suffered from some particular fault such as misinterpretation. Hollywood was the main offender, but Hollywood, in its own eccentric way, has now more or less made amends and shocked the world by producing "Julius Caesar" with Integrity and honesty.

M.G.M.'s Julius Caesar as an answer to Olivier and Welles, has been produced with simplicity, but with a simplicity that is imaginative. Taking Shakespeare's script with no additional dialogue by Houseman, and only a few cuts, the director Joseph (All about Eve) Mankiewicz had translated it to the screen, realising that "the play's the thing." The film is not a literal, theatrical version but is made cinematic with a camera that is all the time on the look-out for subtleties in the text, and important qualities in the characters to underline and emphasis. The photography is clean, crisp, black and white, while the grouping is full and significant and often exciting (notably in Caesar's death scene and the Anthony oration scene). Simplicity is a comparative term for the directors' treatment, but it must be qualified by the word "imaginative."

The actors on the whole are good, even if perhaps all of them are not fully aware of the little poetry this melodrama possesses. Edmund O'Brien. Deborah Kerr, Greer Garson are adequate, but laurels must go to Sir John Gielgud (Cassius) and Marion Brando (Anthony). Brando's performance is an actor's performance, not a scholar's: but what an exciting actor he is. His Anthony is unorthodox, but alive and vibrant. Sir John Gielgud gave the best screen performance of several years. His portrayal is full-blooded, and unashamedly larger than life. The audience knows this Cassius through the every flicker of an eyelid, the every change of inflection in the voice. His voice in fact is superb, catching all the poetry of the part. Sir John's style is strong and exciting refreshing after the dead-pan reserve we have grown used to.

The film has its faults: Louis Calhern gives us a Caesar that looks like a washed-out clown trying to make a comeback; and James Mason is too reserved and only hints at the "noblest Roman of them all." The directors' simplicity sometimes misses Its imagination, us in the death scenes of Cassius and Brutus. The climax and the excitement would have been greater if we had seen Cassius and Bratus leaving the battle, which should have been longer. No actor can die a significant death with only a tree trunk as company.

But let us give thanks that there are as few faults. "Julius Caesar" is argumentatively the best Shakespeare film to date.

—Ian Rich