All arguments between advocates for republics and enforcers of tyranny may be moot if all is controlled by capricious supernatural elements. The best part of Stuart Burge's 1970 adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is its sense of the dreamlike and the fantastic, the very palpable influence the stars really do have on mortal faults. But it's got a great cast, too, and despite cutting too much from the text I really don't think this one deserves its bad reputation.
Calpurnia's (Jill Bennett) dream sequence is terrific, for one thing, with pulsing fade ins and outs of footage of mobs, Caesar's bust actually bleeding in a dark void, and Christopher Lee as Artemidorus intoning his warning for Caesar about the conspirators. He never actually gets a chance to speak his warning in waking life in this version but it works a lot better as part of the dream. The echo effect on his voice and the soothsayer's ("Beware the Ides of March . . .!") reminds me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland in a very positive way.
It really emphasises the incredible number of portents in this play where soothsayers, birds, the weather, and dreams are constantly trying to talk to the characters. If, as Cassius (Richard Johnson) says, the fault really is "not in our stars but in ourselves," it's not for lack of the stars trying.
That famous line is rarely quoted in full, "The fault (dear Brutus) is not in our Stars but in our Selves, that we are underlings." The reason Cassius is typically portrayed as a villain is that he, unlike Brutus, is motivated at least partially by his pride but he really doesn't deserve to be played like Snidely Whiplash, which Richard Johnson kind of does here. A lot of what he says makes sense in light of the fact that Caesar is becoming a dictator in what has long been a proud republic.
Why should that name be sounded more then yours
Write them together: Yours, is as faire a Name:
Sound them, it doth become the mouth aswell:
Weigh them, it is as heauy: Coniure with 'em,
Brutus will start a Spirit as soone as Caesar.
Now in the names of all the Gods at once,
Vpon what meate doth this our Caesar feede,
That he is growne so great? Age, thou art sham'd.
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of Noble Bloods.
When went there by an Age, since the great Flood,
But it was fam'd with more then with one man?
There's a television production with Peter Cushing as Cassius I'd dearly like to get my hands on.
There are several Hammer regulars in this production too, though. In addition to Christopher Lee, Andre Morell, my favourite Quatermass, plays Cicero, though if you blink you'll miss him. All of his dialogue was cut, you just see him walk past the screen in one shot, his role reduced to a curiously overcast cameo. In the play, he has dialogue with Casca about the weather, maybe Burge felt the storm effects worked well enough on their own. But Cicero's line, "But men may construe things after their fashion, clean from the purpose of the things themselves," is a nice thing to keep in mind while watching the play. It speaks to the conflicting motives of the conspirators which itself reflects the potential faults in decisions made by a group of people against a single clear vision like a Caesar's. The famous scene where Mark Antony sways the crowd after Brutus has spoken over Caesar's corpse shows just how much readier a crowd is to believe in a person than a principle.
Which makes Brutus' faith in a Roman love for republic so tragic. You might say it should've been obvious Antony would win the crowd over when the spectacle of Caesar's corpse is right there in front of them, but it only goes to show how much belief Brutus has in his own reasons and the capacity for other people to reason. He forgets how people might "construe things after their fashion".
Roger Ebert considered Jason Robards as Brutus to be a big weak point in the film, calling him "wooden". He's really no better or worse than he is in Once Upon a Time in the West or Melvin and Howard; I think the woodenness Ebert talks about is Robards' deliberate decision to make Brutus seem dispassionate. Here's a man who would murder a man he loves for a principle. The contrast between his performance and the others', though, may have a lot to do with the fact that he's an American in an otherwise almost entirely British cast who deliver their lines with the creativity of inflection and love of the language characteristic of traditional British stage actors. But there are other Americans in the cast who fit in better, including Robert Vaughn as Casca and Charlton Heston as Mark Antony.
While Robert Johnson maintains a straightforwardly villainous portrayal of Cassius, Heston takes the opportunity of playing Antony to deliver a more morally ambiguous character than he often had chance to at this stage of his career. His grief is sincere on beholding Caesar's corpse but he also luxuriates in an opulent picnic on the battlefield. It's one of those things that makes Antony seem like Charles II and Brutus like Oliver Cromwell by contrast and, indeed, I found myself thinking of the movie Cromwell which was released the same year. Alec Guinness' portrayal of Charles I is pretty restrained and Richard Harris is more more fiery than Robards here but obviously the story has a lot of philosophical similarities.
The cast of this Julius Caesar also includes Diana Rigg who's very memorable in a brief appearance as Portia; Michael Gough as one of the conspirators, making the most of only a couple lines; and John Gielgud plays Caesar himself, solid as always.
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In crimson steam the chain redeemed an eye.
For climbing rocks the newt awards a bike.
In circuits placid tigers eat the pie.
Through cloudy paints will thinner lightning strike.
A hollow hit resounds from golden bells.
But lucky storms return the ship to port.
An octopus contrives galactic Hells.
The snow returns to take the hidden fort.
The only legs support the speckled fawn.
Beneath the candy screen a movie plays.
Enchanted keys collect the doughnut dawn.
The bobbing frigate cleanly missed her stays.
A sinking flag was winking over waves.
The ocean rears a canny brace of knaves.