“The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar.”
Olivier… Branagh… Leguizamo… Of all the greats to have performed Shakespeare on screen, the name Marlon Brando would never spring to mind. When it comes to acting, he is undisputedly one of the best. But his method acting roots and natural, mumble mouthed performances in so many of his iconic roles would never make me think he was up to the precision required to deliver Shakespearean dialogue. So when I was deciding on which 10 Shakespeare movie adaptations would make the cut for Shakespeare Week, seeing Brando’s name in the credits was a guarantee that Julius Caesar would make the cut. If for no other reason than pure curiosity.
It’s the year 44 BC, and Julius Caesar (Loui Calhern) returns to Rome after winning a war against Pompey. By his side are two great friends and allies, Brutus (James Mason) and Marc Antony (Brando). But the loyalty of Brutus is soon put the test, and ultimately compromised, by scheming senator Cassius (John Gielgud). It’s not long before Brutus is leading the charge, helping plan and execute the murder of Julius Caesar, for what he genuinely believes is the good of Rome.
Knowing that Marc Antony’s loyalty could never be corrupted, the conspiring senators lure him away from the scene before they commit their deed. But he can’t be kept away for long, and while Brutus is able to convince the romans citizens that the assassination was for their own good, his dry speech is quickly forgotten when Marc Antony delivers is own, passionate rebuttal. Soon, Antony and Brutus are going head to head, with the Roman citizenry split behind them.
OK, so don’t I feel like a real dick for watching this on the assumption that Brando might be a bit of a train wreck. Because it turns out, Marlon Brando can get his mouth around Shakespearean dialogue just as efficiently as he could get it around a donut in later life. I’ve never seen a live version of Julius Caesar the play, but I assume the “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech is a highlight.
But even with that assumption, I wasn’t ready for totally and completely Brando would deliver it. There are other speeches by other characters before and after that one, but I can’t imagine many of them are remembered from this version. Because Brando basically drops the mic and walks away with this entire movie once he’s done.
Of all of Shakespeare’s plays based on real events and historical figures, this is the one where I knew the most facts going in. And I think that made a real difference in being able to enjoy it a little easier than the rest. It takes every ounce of my concentration to take in Shakespeare’s dialogue if I’m gonna understand even half of it. So sometimes, the plot can get away from me as my comprehension is generally a few minutes behind the movie. But with Julius Caesar, I knew the story, which meant I was free to revel in the words and performances, while subconsciously filling in the plot. Turns out, watching Shakespeare is hard work. Entertaining, but sometimes equal parts rewarding and frustrating.