Beware the Ides of March. You can expect all manner of bad omens, murders most foul, and pretentious features like this one. The Roman year began in March and it took fifteen days to recover from their new year’s celebration. On this day in 44 BC, give or take a calendar change, Julius Caesar, who ended the Roman Republic after years of internal battles dating back to Romulus and Remus, was assassinated in a conspiracy of about 60 Senators who inflicted 23 stab wounds on the new dictator.
Mark Antony, who was Caesar’s underboss, united the people of Rome and went after the conspirators, finally forming a triumvirate with Lepidus and Octavian to rule the fledgling empire before “going native” in Egypt with Cleopatra. That period in Roman history is one of the most documented in ancient times and it was the basis for William Shakespeare’s classic play Julius Caesar. That play and its unofficial sequel, Antony and Cleopatra, would spark some of the most spectacular stories in motion picture history.
MGM’s Julius Caesar was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also adapted the screenplay by trimming the original play. Mankiewicz didn’t go for the visual grandeur of other historical epics, but rather presents Rome as a bustling city under the shadows of majestic columns, ruled by jealous and shady politicians who trust no one and who should not be trusted.
Crowds of people gossip as statues look over a governing body made paranoid by a man who declared himself dictator for life. Intimate scenes play out behind the larger stages. We hear the cries or cheers of the Roman citizenry in the distance. Mankiewicz elicits nuanced but traditional performances from the actors, with one notably contemporary performance. Julius Caesar won an Oscar for the art direction of Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno, Edwin B. Willis, and Hugh Hunt, but the sets look like sets.
The film was produced by John Houseman, who had staged the play with Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre players on Broadway in 1937, and starred Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, James Mason as Brutus, John Gielgud as Cassius, Louis Calhern as Julius Caesar, Edmond O’Brien as Casca, Greer Garson as Calpurnia, and Deborah Kerr as Portia.
Most of the actors in the film had their Shakespeare bona fides and a lot of them had already done the play itself. The two Brutuses (Brutii?) were reprisals from earlier stage performances. James Mason struck the last blow as Brutus at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in the 40s. John Hoyt wore Decius Brutus’ tunic in 1937.
Hoyt was an alumnus of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and would go on to make his bones as Dr. Philip Boyce in “The Cage,” the pilot episode of Star Trek. History tells us that Decimus Brutus was the third to strike Caesar, and was more likely to be thought of as a son by Caesar than the other Brutus. John Gielgud tempted Brutus before at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1950 and would play Julius Caesar in the 1970 film version.
As Cassius he stirs the seeds of sedition in the young idealist again, derisively mocking Caesar as weak, “Give me some drink, Titinius (John Parrish), as a sick girl. Ye Gods.” As a young man at the Old Vic Theatre in 1930, Gielgud played Mark Antony and he coached Marlon Brando for the film. He was so impressed by Brando’s preparation and dedication that he offered to direct him in a stage production. Brando passed on it, just as Caesar thrice refused to wear a crown on the Lupercal.
If you read reviews and critiques of Julius Caesar of the time, most of the esteemed reviewers and Hollywood followers were bemused by Marlon Brando, the method student of the “scratch and sniff” school of acting, playing one of the classic roles of the beloved bard. The old guard in the industry called him the “mumbler” and the “slob.”
But what about Brando fans of the time: Teenagers who went to the movies to see Brando riding a motorcycle, wearing a leather jacket and jeans or getting beat up On the Waterfront docks? They wanted to see Brando rip his shirt open and carry Stella up the stairs for some good makeup sex, not thee-ing and thou-ing in a toga and sandals, though he did get to show off a little of his great and powerful gams.
Most of the action, at least the kind of movie action that audiences wanted at the time, the battles, the suicides, the Roman lust, happens off-camera. Brando is powerful as Mark Antony. He engages the crowds, as a group and individually, when he mourns his fallen boss. He rouses the rabble to battle. He initiates a mythic Italian vendetta, like the aging Vito Andolini would in The Godfather. Brando’s Mark Antony is the picture of loyalty.
He steals victory from the honorably rebellious senators, led by Brutus, while praising them, just like he steals the film from the stagey, speechifying thespians, while taking lessons from them. Brando comes alive halfway through the film, erupting past the formal performances when he admits that the best part of him lies in the coffin with Caesar. Brando would get his third best acting nomination in three years for his Mark Antony.
James Mason plays Brutus as a needy mope. He wants you to like him, to side with him, to go to battle for his honor and the good of Rome, but he’s probably a moody drunk and is no fun at orgies. Even his wife, Portia, played by Deborah Kerr, complains about his “musing and sighing” when he steals from her bed in the middle of the night. Brutus repays her by making her an accessory and she is one of four suicides in the film.
Louis Calhern’s Caesar is a blowhard. He’s such an asshole you want to stick a knife in him yourself and maybe give it a little twist. He’s not much better as a great Caesar’s ghost, scaring Brutus, but no one else, when he visits the war room. Besides the soothsayer (played by Richard Hale), Caesar’s wife also has premonitions of his timely demise. Calpurnia dreams of groups of Romans washing their hands in the blood that flows from a statue of Caesar.
Calpurnia was played by Greer Garson who was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won the Best Actress Oscar for Mrs. Miniver in 1942. Julius Caesar was John Gielgud’s first American movie but he doesn’t really come alive until he accepts his death after losing battle after battle with General Gloom-and-Doom Brutus. Edmond O’Brien, who had starred as the hapless CPA who reports his own death to the cops in the film noir classic D.O.A. and who earned the trust of James Cagney’s most psychotic gangster in White Heat, is greasy and sleazy as the duplicitous Casca.
When HBO’s Rome hit, I got into a Roman jag, reading the Anthony Everitt histories and Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra,” watching and re-watching The Last Legion (mainly for Aishwarya Rai), Cleopatra, Quo Vadis, Caligula, and, of course, Julius Caesar. I wasn’t watching specifically for Brando, but his Mark Antony has so much explosive charisma, we forget that the tragic hero is Brutus. It’s not that Brando is playing in a different movie than the rest of the cast; he doesn’t stand out as a misfit, but as a presence.
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff; William Shakespeare pulled personal stories out of his historic plays and went to ancient Rome time and again to find the drama in such legendary figures as Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra and Gaius Marcius Coriolanus. Ruthless rulers who lived in ruthless times still had their inner doubts and bouts of weakness.
Tyrants come and go, only to be replaced by sleeker (or in our current case, dumber) tyrants. That is the nature of rule and it is older than the ancient world and new as today’s filibuster or drone strike. Shakespeare sees the riches-to-rags story in all of them. The higher the characters are the better to watch them fall. Some might say that assassination is preferable to war. It only takes out the top dogs and leaves the mongrels to chew on the bones. When I was a kid, I watched Julius Caesar for the assassination scene. In my head I think I wanted it to be a bit more like a Hammer Production, 60 senators surrounding and stabbing away.
Shakespeare exaggerated the number of stab wounds, but of the 23 that the coroner reported, only one was a fatal wound. The Senate couldn’t even get that right.