Written by Robert Savage
Julius Caesar’s murder at the hands of Brutus and Cassius is arguably the most important event in ancient Roman history. It set off a series of wars from which the Roman Republic never recovered. Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 film Julius Caesar is one of the most definitive accounts of the drama that unfolded before, during, and after his assassination. An adaption of Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, this film focuses on psychology and the political values of the time. It primarily tells the story of Brutus and whether he allies with the conspirators or his friend Caesar. The film is a great study of Roman politics, analysing the motivations of each character. It is what makes the movie so good. There are no heroes or villains. Both sides put forward their cases, but it is up to the viewer to decide whether Caesar’s murder is justified. It brings a grounded realism that most films set in ancient Rome lack.
A hand coloured promotional poster SOURCE: The Guardian
The dynamic between James Mason as Brutus and Gielgud as Cassius is also probably the best dynamic I have seen on screen between the two historical figures.
The build up to the assassination of Caesar is told well. Cassius is introduced as a complex character within the first ten minutes. Part of him seems genuinely concerned for the Republic, but the other part seems resentful at his loss of power during Caesar’s rise. John Gielgud does very well in portraying Cassius as a bitter politician who will stop at nothing to finish Caesar. Unlike HBO’s show Rome, Cassius plays a big role in the lead up to Caesar’s assassination. His motivations and speeches were compelling to me as a viewer. Moreover, I would argue that the character study of Brutus is slightly better than other portrayals including the HBO show. The moral dilemma he goes through in the first half of the film allows the audience to sympathise with Brutus. I feel like he would be the Brutus I would most likely follow into battle. The dynamic between James Mason as Brutus and Gielgud as Cassius is also probably the best dynamic I have seen on screen between the two historical figures.
On top of this is the performance from Marlon Brando as Mark Antony. Antony becomes a central figure in the second half of the plot once Caesar is assassinated. Brutus refuses to murder Antony out of principle, which again adds to his character development. Brando’s depiction of Mark Antony is different to other interpretations. He emphasises Antony’s friendship with Caesar and the emotions he would have felt after his assassination. Often, I think that portrayals of Antony are one dimensional focusing on his erratic personality or his later obsession with Cleopatra. Brando’s performance is a convincing display of Antony’s regret, as well as his brutal characteristics. For many this was a surprise. Newspapers like the New York Times argued that he was a ‘mumbler’ and ill-suited for Shakespeare. However, Brando proved them wrong, providing one of the best performances of Shakespeare from an American. His ‘dogs of war’ speech is iconic, fantastically showing Antony’s rabid thirst for retribution against the conspirators.
Cassius and Brutus plotting the assassination SOURCE: Folger Theatre
It is important to stress the Shakespearean elements of this film. The dialogue is based on Shakespeare’s writing, so it will not be to everyone’s taste. Those looking for a straight-talking action thriller would be best served looking elsewhere for a Roman film. In my opinion the Shakespearean language aids the film’s story. The imagery created by Cassius in his tirades against Caesar helps to build the tension before the assassination. It really helps to illustrate how much Cassius has come to loathe Caesar. After Caesar’s death there are two speeches. One is delivered by Brutus arguing that Caesar had to die, whilst the other is by Antony as he fans the flames of war. Though this battle of speeches is quite unrealistic, it does keep you on the edge of your seat as you wonder which side the Roman mob will side with. Though Mason and Brando were not full trained Shakespearian actors they quickly learnt and delivered impressive speeches. Both were backed up by superb actors like Deborah Kerr and Gielgud who had theatre experience.
Mankiewicz also achieved the near impossible task of holding together the egos on set.
We must not forget the director Joseph Mankiewicz when discussing the success of this movie. Mankiewicz is not always my favourite director. For example, his other Roman film Cleopatra is too long and was plagued by on set problems. Yet, this film is one of his clear achievements. The assassination of Caesar is done very well with a slow build up before the dramatic attacks on Caesar. Compared to many of the assassination scenes in cinema at the time, this one felt a lot more realistic. Unlike Cleopatra, this film goes on for the right amount of time, clocking in at two hours. Mankiewicz also achieved the near impossible task of holding together the egos on set. James Mason and Marlon Brando quickly fell out after Mason complained that the Mark Antony character was getting too much of the spotlight. In typical fashion Brando then claimed that the director and Mason were engaged in a three-way relationship with Mankiewicz’s wife. That Mankiewicz was able to get through these issues to produce this engaging film is a testament to his directorial ability.
There are a few issues with the film that would lead me to suggest that you should watch other shows and films to compliment this one. The historical accuracy is a bit off given the condensed time of the film, and its basis in Shakespeare. It is more of a character study which I enjoyed, but others may prefer a completely historically accurate plot. The last thirty minutes are lacking in intensity compared to the first hour and a half. The civil war after Caesar’s death is dealt with in rapid fashion and it feels a bit distant from the rest of the film. Perhaps my perspective was skewed from seeing the battle scenes in the HBO series, which had the benefit of more time and technological progress. The only other issue is the misleading nature of the trailer, which suggests it is an action film. However, the movie is slowly paced with a theatrical tone instead.
Mark Antony addressing the masses after Caesar’s death SOURCE: Empire Online
It is still worth watching though, particularly because most films set in this period are so poor. In the 1960s ancient Roman movies became long epics interested in the spectacle over any substance. These films are nice to look at, but they grow tiresome quickly. Julius Caesar (1953) is the opposite. It is in black and white so there is less of a spectacle, but the political conflicts hold your attention. Though the film is not entirely accurate, it is closer to reality than recent antiquity films like 300 or Gladiator. It often feels like films in ancient Rome or ancient Greece are reduced to stereotypes with costumes and catchphrases at the centre of the film. Fortunately, this one takes the historical events seriously by analysing individual motivations and telling a serious historical story. All the actors clearly wanted to deliver intense performances to capture the audience’s attention.
For a film that was made in the early 1950s it is one that holds up tremendously well.
For a film that was made in the early 1950s it is one that holds up tremendously well. This may be because the story is so timeless. As the United States of America relies on many ancient Roman governmental practices, the issues of division and authoritarianism are still relevant. Shakespeare also relied on Roman historians Plutarch and Suetonius for much of his story. Because of this, the plot feels realistic because it is rooted in the realities of Roman politics. Furthermore, the actors make their characters feel like real people that lived in history. This is an issue in other antiquity films where the characters are often cartoonish or rooted in fantasy. I would recommend this movie to people interested in Roman history, Shakespeare, political science, and psychology. It is worth renting on YouTube for only £3.49.
Written by Robert Savage
Robert Savage is a history graduate from the University of Kent, living in the fine city of Norwich. Once described by a friend as a ‘speed obsessed freak who likes cheese’. He enjoys travel, motorsports, writing, and films.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.