Blu-ray review: “Julius Caesar” (1970)

“Julius Caesar” (1970)

Drama

Running Time: 116 minutes

Written by: Robert Furnival based on Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Directed by: Stuart Burge

Featuring: Charlton Heston, Jason Robards, John Gielgud, Richard Johnson, Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain, Diana Rigg, Christopher Lee and Jill Bennett

Julius Caesar: “Let me have men about me that are fat; Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights. Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.”

Critical Commentary

Released recently on Blu-ray on the Imprint Label is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” (1970) featuring a British and American cast with very different styles and accents. In fact this version of the Shakespeare play is the last major film that has been produced based on it, however there have been television versions as well as series based on the actual person. This version of the play is not really successful especially when compared to the Marlon Brando starring “Julius Caesar” (1953). 

What almost everyone agrees on, including some of the actors in this version is that it is not a great adaptation with slot of the blame going to the miscasting of Jason Robards as Brutus once one of the key roles. Robards was a quintessentially American actor, gruff, unaffected and unvarnished. As such, he might seem to be a near perfect choice to play Brutus, a character whose name has become synonymous with violence and passionate behaviour. But Robards’ flat, nasal quality is distinctly at odds with the rest of the cast—including, it might be pointed out, other Americans like Robert Vaughn and Richard Chamberlain—and when combined with a really peculiarly somnambulistic performance style, Robards is a very weak link in an otherwise at least marginally commendable (and at times, much more than that) cast.  

It’s difficult to believe that the director of “Julius Caesar”, Stuart Burge, could have a more negative experience than his previous Shakespearean adaptation “Othello” (1965) where Laurence Olivier played Othello in blackface. He also adopted an exotic accent of his own invention, developed a special walk, and learned how to speak in a voice considerably deeper than his normal one. However his performance was and the movie is very good, although possibly not as great as the Welles version. In “Julius Caesar”, Burge does a passable enough job recreating Imperial Rome with a minimum of effort, as well as opening the film up with some good location work in the second act especially which helps to establish a sense of scope. And one simply can’t do better than John Gielgud as Caesar, although as with many of his performances, especially his later ones he acts like he is elderly and apart from every other character, in opposition to the way he is actually written or performed by others as extremely ruthless.

In terms of Charlton Heston his actual performance is more pleasing especially if you were expecting the Heston of old, he brings some seriousness to the role of Mark Antony and in his way anchors the performances as well the film itself. Heston always had his own particular acting gravitas, which frankly sometimes worked against him in roles not well suited to that sort of overt seriousness, but here it serves him very well, establishing a nicely nuanced tug of war between his character and Gielgud’s. The supporting cast, save for Robards, is quite good, especially Richard Johnson as Cassius. Diana Rigg is also quite lovely if not especially tragic Portia. 

But nothing can really overcome Robards in this film, not only because of Robards’ failures in terms of performance and flat speaking style, but for the very reason that so much of the drama in Shakespeare’s version of historical events hinges on Brutus’ crisis of conscience. This role needs an actor who viscerally presents the inner struggle of Brutus as he attempts to come to terms with exactly how he feels about Caesar and the “new world order” that the erstwhile “dictator for all time” seeks to impose on Rome. Unfortunately in Robards’ hands, it often looks like Brutus simply couldn’t care less what happens, and that means the audience never really does, either.

Technical Commentary

Video

“Julius Caesar” is presented on Blu-ray with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1. This is generally a fine looking release, one with relatively few damage issues in the source elements, but with some anomalies that videophiles will want to be aware of. As with virtually all Imprint releases, no digital tweaking of any kind seems to have been done, and this is in fact a fairly grainy looking presentation all around.

Audio

“Julius Caesar” features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix that suffices surprisingly well for this film, offering Shakespeare’s immortal text in a clear and precise fashion. Fidelity is excellent, but dynamic range is relatively limited.

Special Features

  • 1080p High-definition presentation on Blu-Ray
  • Audio commentary by Cinema Retro’s Lee Pfeiffer and film historians Paul Scrabo and Tony Latino
  • Film critic Matthew Sweet on Julius Caesar
  • Author Neil Sinyard on Julius Caesar
  • Et tu, Burge? – interview featurette with the original Production Crew including production manager Denis Johnson, Jr., make-up artist Christopher Tucker, grip David Cadwallader, production accountant Maurice Landsberger and assistant director Nicholas Granby
  • Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
  • Audio English LPCM 2.0 Mono

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s