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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]

Shakespeare on Film

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Shakespeare on Film

Why is it so difficult to film Shakespeare? Why can't a director just place a camera in the stalls and photograph an Old Vic performance? He would then have a permanent record and one more or less guaranteed in its quality. Well, the old hands raised-in-horror attitude to photographed plays' has been increasingly shown to be based on misconceptions (e.g. the success of the filmed record of the Comédie Françcaise doing Le Bourgeois Gentilhomtne), but it is, of course, impossible to transfer a work from stage to screen without being forced to make many changes or compromises. While many of these cannot be avoided, it is legitimate to wonder what causes sometimes wholesale changes in many plots (e.g. Separate Tables, Summer of The Seventeenth Doll). Similarly, while one realizes that much material in Shakespeare may have to be jettisoned or altered (speech setting the locale, the telescoping or compression of scenes) to result in a cinematic whole, what is it that prompted Olivier to eliminate Guildenstern and Rosencrantz entirely from his version of Hamlet, and Welles to remould Macbeth and rearrange Othello so drastically?

Essentially the question seems to be, are you going to use as much as possible of the total play, admitting that consequently there will be much that is unsuitable, are you going to use the original work as merely the starting point for a cinematic 'interpretation' or 'essay' which may be as different from the play as a hawk is from a handsaw, or are you going to attempt a happy optimum, and just as easily come to grief? One thing is certain whatever you do. You can't please everybody, and certainly not the critics!

Even in the silent cinema, Shakespeare was fair game for the film maker; though the actors often had to mime outrageously they had the advantage that the audience presumably already knew the story.

In 1913, Forbes Robertson appeared in Cecil Hepworth's version of Hamlet and seven years later another version appeared from Denmark which 'explained' Hamlet's enigma by exposing him as a woman! Thus the actress Astra Nielsen played the leading part.

In the 1930's, during its wholesale adaptation of the classics, Hollywood produced three sound versions of Shakespeare works, George Cukor's Romeo and Juliet, Gottfried Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Paul Czinner's As You Like It. In all these, their theatrical origin was always apparent. In Romeo and Juliet (with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) Cukor was faithful to the text, there was little tampering with the plot and his approach was reverent, literal and dull. Reinhardt left out quite a lot of the text in A Midsummer Night's Dream, yet the film sprawled badly (well over 2 1/2 hours), the actors were generally miscast, and the speech was poor. The production as a whole was over-lavish and ostentatious. Strangely enough, Joe E. Brown, James Cagney and Hugh Herbert were quite successful as the clowns. Czinner adopted a simpler approach in As You Like It, one that suggested a lack of imagination, for it not only excised large portions of the text, but was particularly stagey in conception. Elisabeth Bergner, as Rosalind, and Olivier, as Orlando, were adequate but never inspired.

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With the appearance of Olivier's Henry V and Hamlet in the forties, the kudos flew fast and freely. These were British, hence must be authoritative, and the prestige they gained was out of all proportion to their achievement. Olivier's style was not as different from the earlier American efforts as might be expected, but where they were stilted, Olivier's were sometimes pretentious and glib. The simpler approach to Henry V was more successful in its viewpoint — that of the traditional hero. It was beautifully mounted (sometimes a little too enamelled) and often vital and well planned, though its excursions into Elizabethan theatre settings were unfortunate.

In Hamlet, the camera became a participant and its continued movement was only one of the many distractions. Hamlet's subtleties were played down, some irritating cuts were made and the over-all conception of the tragedy simplified. There was no doubt that this was intended to be a 'significant' film — Art with a capital A.

Richard III, many years later, was a vast improvement over the earlier two. This was better cinema in all ways; the camera movement was never excessive, Olivier's Richard brilliantly engaged our sympathies, and there was none of that striving after effect that disfigured Hamlet. Generally the film moved sharply and neatly. Though it wandered somewhat in the later stages and the battle scene was strangely lacking in excitement, it was an exciting and tense film and ranks high as a faithful interpretation.

Orson Welles also made some notorious attempts at Macbeth and Othello. As Henry Raynor said:

'Orson Welles' Macbeth confirms the gulf of approach between the Shakespeare films of the 30's and of the 40's. The earlier ones were "reverent" to the extent that they did not really attempt a style of their own; Olivier's films half bridge the gulf, and Macbeth crosses unmistakably over into "cinema" first and Shakespeare second. Like all Welles' films, it is exciting and adventurous, with a genius that is no less genius for being perverse.'

Any schoolboy could be supercilious about the way Welles slashed the originals, omitting and transposing key scenes, stressing some aspects of character, simplifying others, but it would be wrong to dismiss these interpretations as mere striving after novelty. In Macbeth, Welles emphasized the barbaric and savage components in the man and treated the play as a kind of Gothic experiment, missing the nobility and paradoxical elements in his hero's character. The acting and speech were atrocious and yet if this is not Shakespeare it is still exciting cinema. Welles has given us some magnificent scenes, maddeningly sandwiched with melodrama, and has ruthlessly pruned where he could not transplant. But there is more vitality here than in Olivier's conception of the melancholy Dane. His Othello was similarly frustrating, with its arbitrary excursions and its striking and superb visual images. In the title role, Welles completely captured Othello's simple nobility, MacLiamnor was a confusing Iago, and the rest (including Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona) were inadequate, but David Robinson hit the nail on the head when he said:

This flawed and faulty film is infinitely more vital, stirring, invigorating, than half-a-dozen more reverent, pedantically impeccable attempts.'

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We can pass over Castellani's Romeo and Juliet without doing more than noting that it was made, for it suffered fatally from the inadequacy of the director and principals — Laurence Harvey and Susan Shentall. The film was a chocolate box cover version of the original and was often tedious and static where it should have been tense. A lamentable flop, it has since sunk without a ripple.

The news that Brando was to play Marc Antony in a Hollywood version of Julius Caesar was received incredulously by many British critics. But when the film appeared it was generally greeted as the best filmed Shakespeare yet. Drawing on a host of accomplished performers (Gielgud, Calhern, Mason, etc.), the director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, treated the play with sensitivity and discretion. A fine balance was struck between theatre (the use of slightly artificial sets) and cinema (the camera moved unobtrusively and always purposively) and minor cutting of the text was skilfully done. The crowd scenes were beautifully handled, the mob becoming a character itself, and the exposition was taut and rhythmically paced, the whole thing moving forward irresistibly. The performances were extremely good though Gielgud sometimes seemed too theatrical — his words occasionally delivered somewhat coldly and without emotional conviction.

Another surprise was the arrival of a new version of Othello, this time from the Soviet Union. The director, Sergei Youtkevich, made this a magnificent film, Sergei Bondarchuk playing the Moor. Filmed in Sovcolor, the drama was incisive, the imagery striking, and the passion entirely credible, set in a background of sun-drenched landscape. The dubbing was skillfully handled by members of the Old Vic. As Derek Prouse said:

'An elevating and intensely satisfying exposition of the play, this Russian Othello must rank with the best of filmed Shakespeare.'

It fittingly won the award for direction at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.

Arriving soon after came another Soviet film, this time of Twelfth Night. This also was handsomely mounted, but scenes were transposed or cut and the subtitling was inadequate. The actors and director (Yan Fried) were always competent, sometimes inspired (e.g. Klara Luchko as Olivia), and much of the original feel of the play came across quite well, but the final impression was one of a distinguished failure.

Of all the attempts at film Shakespeare then (not to count those others 'inspired by' or 'adapted from' such as Joe Macbeth or Throne of Blood, a Japanese Macbeth directed by Akira Kurosawa, set in sixteenth century Japan), we have only three great pictures and many others not so great. Inevitably the failure has been in the difficulty of transfer — to cut or not to cut, the problems of the soliloquies, and other problems of convention. On how successfully the director equates the opposing claims of literal fidelity on the one hand, and the demands of the cinema on the other, will depend the success of his film.

Arthur Everard