Monday, April 14, 2014

Julius Caesar, Starring Marlon Brando

Our reading of Julius Caesar is now over.  But we did see a movie of it, not one of these modern, "innovative" interpretations of Shakespeare that are all the rage, but but a fine, traditional version, the 1953 version, starring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony.  My comments on the movie:

Crowds are bigger in movies than they ever could be on stage.  The opening sequence, in which a cobbler jokes with two tribunes, punning on cobbler as meaning either bungler or shoemaker is cut short, and rightly so.  The pun just doesn't hold up so well.  When the tribunes go to take the crowning off Caesar's statues, his soldiers stop them and march them off to an unknown fate.  It works well, much better than the play in which it is simply said later that they were "put to silence."  In fact, Caesar's soldiers seem to be all over and it is not safe to speak too freely in public.  Very effective, both in creating an atmosphere and playing to the anxieties of a mid-20th century audience.  (And to us today, as well).

Brutus' wife, Portia, begs him to tell her what is going on, but does not reveal that she stabbed herself to test her tolerance for pain, nor do we see her totally freaking out the next day.

The movie does not mind men declaring their "love" for each other, but scrupulously avoids any use of the term "lover" to mean friend.  (And no matter how often the play used the expression, or how close together, my book  felt the need to explain the proper meaning of "lover" every goddam time it was used!)  When Artimedorus gives Caesar the letter warning of the conspiracy he simply signs it "Artimedorus," while in the play he signed it "Thy lover, Artimedorus."  Brutus simply addresses the crowd as "Romans, countrymen," instead of "Romans, countrymen, and lovers."  Instead of saying, "I slew my best lover," he says, "I slew Caesar."

The actual assassination is powerful.  As the conspirators attack Caesar, Brutus stands aside, some distance off and takes no part.  Caesar puts up a ferocious struggle and manages to break free and make his way over to Brutus, his best friend, seeking his protection.  And Brutus pulls his knife and finishes him off.  The emotional impact, the horror of the scene is intense.  It makes you understand why Dante put Brutus in the bottom ring of Hell, chewed on by Satan for all eternity.

When Brutus addresses the crowd, they are portrayed as initially hostile, which is appropriate, artistically and historically.  He wins them over, although a woman in the crowd screams when Caesar's body is carried out. (There are women as well as men in the crowd).  As for Anthony -- well, when he says, "Bear with me/My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar/I must pause till it come back to me," he turns away from the crowd and pretends to cry, but is really listening for their reaction.  Yeah, that sounds about right, based on his later behavior.

The utterly baffling two announcements that Brutus' wife Portia is dead are cut down to one.  And, again, I think wisely so.  Unless you can somehow convey a good reason for the double announcement, leave it out. When Brutus sees Caesar's ghost, you get the distinct impression that his real fear is not that he will die in the upcoming battle than that he is losing his mind.  (Or does he, after all, hope that he is losing his mind because that means he might survive the upcoming battle?)

As for the final battles, they are much abbreviated and, I would say, wisely so.  The ebb and flow of it is simply confusing and reinforces the impression that the play is falling apart.  Instead, they show Antony's forces attack and the conspirators' forces defeated.  Various individuals dying, either in combat or by their own hand, is cut down, to just Cassius and Brutus.  I did miss Brutus' epitaph for the dead Cassius, "Friends, I owe more tears/To this dead man than you shall see me pay./I shall find time, Cassius, I shall find time."  I always thought this was a beautiful expression of intense emotion by restraint, as grief for a friend struggles against the urgency of the situation.

And at the very end, when they come across the body of Brutus, the speeches of Antony and Octavius are reversed.  In other words, in the original, Octavius (as the future Emperor Augustus) is given the privilege of speaking last.  Antony gives a eulogy of Brutus, followed by Octavius proposing that he receive an honorable funeral, which sounds cold and jarring immediately following Antony's moving epitaph.  So the movie puts the honorable funeral speech first and closes with the epitaph -- an improvement, I would say.

In short, I appear to regard this as a good adaptation.

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