22 April 2016

Julius Caesar (1970) vs Antony and Cleopatra (1972)

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra A Curious but Entertaining Double Bill
by Kristin Battestella

Friends, Romans, countrymen....” Count 'em once, twice – Charlton Heston plays Marc Antony in the 1970 adaptation of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as well as the 1972 follow up Antony and Cleopatra. While neither picture is perfect, together these films make for an elusive but pleasant duo providing full embellishment on two lesser filmed Bard works.

AIP's Julius Caesar lets slip the dogs of war with leftover armor and barren skeletons on the desolate battlefield while the opening narration informs viewers on the previous war with Spain. Despite trumpets and parades, the largely faithful two hours is slow to start with no subtitles on the bare bones DVD and unfortunately undynamic characters cramping this history's innate momentum and otherwise fine performances. This version just isn't as intense as it should be – the locations and design are beyond a merely videotaped play staging yet it's lacking some cinematic flair. Director Stuart Barge (also of the infamous 1965 Othello) doesn't have command of the picture's weight, and the pace sputters in going through the motions from act to act. Lengthy two man conversations may seem like a lot of iambic pentameter chit chat for only a few simple actions, but the testing the waters dialogue layers the treasonous whispers to tease this inevitable outcome. Who's on whose side? From the Ides of March to “Et tu, Brute?” famous quotes anchor this hotbed, perilous time and secreted assassination planning. A moody dream sequence montage with screams and bloody statues invokes more booming prophecy, and the simmering approach to the public stabbing scene ups the ante. Quick intercut editing mirrors each slice, peppering the murder with a chaotic, bloody, almost ritual horror eerie. More familiar speeches and shrewd revenge move fast in the second hour as ghostly fires and comeuppance arguments bring Julius Caesar round right for the falling on swords finale. I love this era of history and this play – Julius Caesar is among my top three Shakespeare works. This is Roman history as told by Elizabethans adapted in the seventies yet the intriguing aristocratic parallels linger today. Ever are there a small few who claim they are doing right for the majority by creating war and strife, amirite? 

With effortless presence and a classy command of the text, John Gielgud's (A Bafta winner for the 1953 Julius Caesar film as Cassius) Julius Caesar almost seems cramped by the close camera with little room to let his charisma fully blossom. The slightly fragile Caesar swoons as others dote upon his hem, yet he remains revered in his refusals to rule. His charm is disarming – this is a likable, nice guy with battlefield glory, so why are people out to get him? We keep hearing of his military might before the play and current whispers of potential power to come, and Gieglund's would be Vader of the piece anchors the audience. We're looking for a reason to go along with the conspirators, and Caesar's stubbornness soon makes its interference known as he ignores repeated warnings to mind his fate and put his ear to ground for what might be afoot. Caesar's arrogance subtly increases – he gets ahead of himself with his North Star assurance and is genuinely shocked at his favorites joining the plot against him. Did he deserve to be stabbed? Maybe not, but Caesar was wrong in not heeding such prophecies and the political climate. Of course, the character is killed in the opening of the third act, and the viewer's morale compass switches to Caesar's avenger Marc Antony. Now, Charlton Heston is not the spring chicken he was in the 1950 Julius Caesar production. I'm not sure about that zany red comb over hair nor the skimpy wrap tunic and that wearing his mama's curtains dress – Chuck looks like an overgrown cherub! Fortunately, his familiar, strong voice and firm delivery earn Marc Antony's worth once the backstabbing unfolds. We agree with him against these crazy plotters thanks to an emotional, shocking plea. Marc Antony's weeps for all the SPQR to see, rousing and endearing the common people more that both Caesar's late missteps and those knife wielding traitors. It's a twitter war at its finest, and Marc Antony's shrewd politics assures the public feels in the right. He goes for the visceral by showing the corpse as evidence and pointing out the limp reasoning and stupid execution of a plot the public didn't ask to have done in its name. Wow, Julius Caesar just becomes more and more contemporary, doesn't it?

Ironically, it's even easier to be on Marc Antony's side because Jason Robards (All the President's Men) as Brutus is surprisingly flat, dry, and mid century sword and sandal dull. This is not what this conflicted, at times cowardly, and always potentially juicy character deserves. Poor Robards feels like he is doing his dialogue phonetically, and poor direction certainly plays a part. Didn't anybody check the dailies? This Brutus isn't morally upset or pained, but slow to draw his own conclusion and too wishy washy one way or the other. Richard Johnson's (The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders) far better command of the plot and performance at hand makes one wonder why Cassius is trying to recruit him at all, and gasp, this Julius Caesar could have excised Brutus and been better for it. Cassius' strong arm arguments are so smooth you don't know you are being so pressed, and his true color revelations put an exclamation – er sword point on Julius Caesar. Diana Rigg (The Avengers) as Portia also adds a moment a tender uplift to Brutus with wisdom, grace, and strength behind the man. Can the rest of her Shakespeare cred become available on video please? The trouble with Julius Caesar is that there are several critical but quite small roles that can't be combined or eliminated – especially when you can cast a great name for the clout or much needed financing. While Robards struggles, Robert Vaughn's (The Magnificent Seven) slick Casca proves it's not an American issue with Billy in Julius Caesar, and the late great Christopher Lee has some hefty proclamations, if only for a mad moment. Why couldn't he have been Brutus? Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds) is also almost an irrelevant afterthought as Octavius, though the character obviously plays a more substantial part in Antony and Cleopatra.

Julius Caesar remains a bit obscure perhaps because up until recently, there hasn't really been a quality video release. Though shrewd in avoiding a big entry spectacle and taking care of the opening titles at the same time, the widescreen credits look cropped or zoomed in and blurry. We can, however, still spot some apparently under dressed slave boob shots, FYI. Unfortunately, the rest of the picture remains a flat, cut and scan fullscreen, leaving a congested feeling despite relatively few up close shots. Move the camera back please and show more of the colorful togas, statues, and crowded plazas. The ancient wares and graffiti add much needed Roman spirit while columns and stonework anchor the slightly small scale sets and seemingly simple Shakespearean stage dressings. Our villainous stabbers all seem to be dark, bearded, or greasy haired – perhaps not the best visual but the distinctions help the audience recognize these crazed assassins. Storms and lightning create mood to match the waxing on fate and stars, and although this Julius Caesar is lacking in panache, it's pleasing to see such focus on the flawed people and empire-shaping twists instead of some dated seventies spectacle. The sweeping music by Michael J. Lewis (Theater of Blood) is reserved for choice soliloquy crescendos, and the green outdoors, golden helmets, and horse action accent the partings well made. Like Julius Caesar, the 1972 Antony and Cleopatra was filmed in Spain complete with bonus Egyptian gold and orange motifs alongside crisp blue waters, ancient pirate ships, and red centurion capes. Be it the Roman villa or the Nile, viewers immediately recognize where a scene takes place, making Antony and Cleopatra feel more colorful, lavish, and cinematic compared to Julius Caesar's congested interiors and forum drab. A making of half hour on the DVD featuring Fraser Clarke Heston provides more behind the scenes details, and hey, subtitles! Save for a full Egyptian finale, Cleopatra and her entourage are also dressed in more Greco-Roman fashions – a historically debatable or artistic choice perhaps. However, the sea battle footage reused from Ben-Hur is too obvious despite the montage overlays and film trickery. The seaside establishing shots are enough alongside the close quarters barge battles. Smoke, fire, sword slices, and hacked, bloody limbs do far better than this cheesy whiff of1959 re-glory.

Then again, I was the obnoxious sophomore who couldn't understand why we weren't reading Antony and Cleopatra after just studying Julius Caesar. They go together, people! Several years later the best friend and lover of the deceased go to battle with his heir and die for love – today Hollywood can't make up this kind of epic franchising fast enough. Heston not only stars in this picking up where Octavius left off but also directed and adapted the smooth Elizabethan delivery and wouldn't know it was Shakespeare casual old speaketh, which in itself says something about the much more effortless performances under this actor's director compared to Julius Caesar. Roman rivals, pirates sweeping the Mediterranean, lovers chillaxing – Antony and Cleopatra sets the busy scene with Egypt versus Rome parallels as Marc Antony's dawdling with Cleopatra leaves the triumvirate ruling Rome perilously imbalanced. Some coming and going scenes or to and fro messengers, however, feel redundant, sagging the lengthy two and a half hour runtime. We've just seen what is being told, and such transitions could have been trimmed in favor of combining or lengthening the titular tug and pull. Antony and Cleopatra is structured as if the separate locations could be staged side by side, darkening or illumining each empire as needed. Unfortunately, that back and forth is uneven in the first half of the film when our duo spends more time apart – Antony and Cleopatra are actually separated for more time onscreen then they are together. Marc Antony hearing Cleopatra's quotes in his head while he's in Rome or listening to the asides of others do better in invoking the spirit of the stage. Likewise, the Soothsayer almost mystically appears in both places, linking the isolated fates in an almost self-aware breaking the fourth wall before some surreal penance and the epic action finale. The final forty minutes of battles betrayed and cavalry action raise the stakes as these would be titans of Egypt and Rome realize their fall with fine, if fatal soliloquies. Antony and Cleopatra is a little messy, but that is the nature of their reality show trainwreck relationship. This battle of the sexes, love/hate war, and who is using whom scandal can shakedown any number of ways, and this Antony and Cleopatra throws in some gladiator practice for good measure, complete with a thumbs up from Octavius, because, of course.

Well then, Chuck's Marc Antony looks a little older with whitish blonde hair for Antony and Cleopatra – but he's still going around in some kind of nude thong thing. Heston looks much better in armor atop his horse in full Shakespearean command, but Marc Antony is angry that strife in Rome interferes with his new, alluring roost with Cleopatra. He doesn't care about his late wife's campaign against Octavius, but reluctantly returns to Rome to claim his family's wars were not his own. So much for partying in Egypt when marrying another gal adds to your troubles! The drunken scenes are a little off, and although Heston knows where the direction of Julius Caesar went wrong, perhaps he's not so good at directing himself when playing this kind of blinded by lust character. However, I do wish he would have directed more, albeit without himself as star or with another collaborator on the script. This cast does well thanks to his performance first expertise, and Marc Antony's conflicts, soliloquies, and final scenes give Heston room to just act. Although Cleopatra may have a quick, lying under Marc Antony introduction, Hildegarde Neil (A Touch of Class) has a firm voice to convey Cleopatra's anger as well as a solid hold on The Bard's dialogue. Initially, more time is spent on Cleopatra's la di da handmaidens and gay in both senses of the word henchmen while the queen's passionate pleas echo over Marc Antony's angst. Some of this humor is too lighthearted hippie and misses the mark, but it also parallels the fluid sex and cross dressing of the Elizabethan stage. Cleopatra is a tough figure to portray, and Neil superbly makes the character and debated historical figure a person – a young, naive, smitten and insecure ruler in love. Cleopatra is not just some kind of exotic habit everyone insists Marc Antony quit, for the viewer sees her plain before the mirror jealousy as well as her full pharaonic regalia. She's violent and at times equal in a role reversed sexual power play with Marc Antony as each tries to gain the upper hand whether it is good for either's country or not. Neil doesn't look super young next to Heston, either, and in the final twenty minutes she holds her own alone with strength in mourning and grace in defeat.

Eric Porter (The Forsyte Saga) as Marc Antony's consul Enobarbus also knows the right things to say and do as this peacemaker between such two big egos. He's weathering their lust, hoping they will just get this love/hate thing out of their system. Unfortunately, Enobarbus can't take the pull of Antony with Egypt against his own loyalty to Rome. The character may not seem super important between the eponymous rulers, however this is a relatable, tragic figure encapsulating how the common people and simple soldiers are the victims caught in the middle as the big wigs play their capture the flag war games. By contrast, John Castle's (I,Claudius) Octavius is a sassy little fellow, even a downright brat. His slick and selfish ways should make him a good politician, but Octavius is too much of a jerk. One can't help but look back and wonder if Rome was better off in Caesar's hands compared to him – but of course history would prove differently for the villainous victor here. Although Roger Delgado's (Doctor Who) Soothsayer may be more medieval in style than Roman for Antony and Cleopatra, that's okay. Audiences expect a whiff of the supernatural and some ironic author winks from Bill. Again, there are even more recognizable but perhaps superfluous secondary players in Antony and Cleopatra, with Julian Glover (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) as the go between messenger Proculeius filling the toga and Freddie Jones (Emmerdale) as Pompey putting on his best argh! for only a few somewhat unnecessary scenes. Some lines are already moved in the otherwise faithful adaptation, so why not go for broke with an extreme cinematic splice? This Antony and Cleopatra could have excised all the extra speaking parts that do nothing but delay the snowball toward the fatal confrontations viewers want to see. Gasp, this film could have gotten by with even half the cast, but heck, we'll keep the elemental Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Octavius, Enobarbus, and the mystical Soothsayer for good measure. Tee hee.

It's tough to find both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Varying streaming options and Netflix rentals expire or very long wait, but the 1970 Julius Caesar feels a little forgotten compared to the 1953 Marlon Brando adaptation of Shakespeare's deadly Roman hotbed – which, call me crazy, is not a favorite of mine. Yes, there are design flaws and miscasting consequences here, but there's plenty of good with several scenes more palpable for the Roman or Shakespearean classroom. Such out of control egos and historical parallels are ripe for millennial audiences, too. The players in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra had the world at their grasp, and nobody knew what the heck they wanted – a lesson not learned in 44 B.C., 1623, or 2016. Although Julius Caesar is an oft read story capable of surviving any film wrongs and there have been a few Et tu adaptations, I'm still waiting for the definitive Julius Caesar Shakespeare film. Okay, putting the Iambic pentameter into Latin with English subtitles would be too much to ask. Betraying Bill by putting these two plays together and cutting the flak for an intense sword jabbing cinema escapade is probably wishful thinking, too – but hey, paging director Kenneth Branagh and star Tom Hiddleston! With Julius Caesar's open ending and such hefty history to follow, Antony and Cleopatra rightly completes our innate what happens next needs. One can't leave the fate of Rome up in the air like that, and The Bard gives us the tough, often unclassifiable, and bitter conclusion to match.

No comments: