Vintage Movies: “Julius Caesar”

MAGNET contributing writer Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’20s through the ’80s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

Julius Caesar (1953, 120 minutes)

Directed by Joseph Mankiwiecz (All About Eve, Guys And Dolls) and with an impressive cast that includes Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, Greer Garson, Edmond O’Brien and Deborah Kerr, Julius Caesar is one of the most watchable examples of William Shakespeare ever brought to the large screen.

To celebrate the first anniversary of emperor Julius Caesar’s defeat of Pompey to end a bloody civil war in 45 B.C., many citizens of Rome have draped statues with scarves and feathers. Unhappy with this practice, Flavius strips the raiment from an effigy, saying, “These feathers plucked from Caesar’s wings will make him fly an ordinary pitch.”

Two Roman senators, Brutus and Cassius, contemplate a more drastic solution to the ambition of their emperor. “He doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves,” says Cassius (Gielgud), the more fiery of the two. A deeper thinker, Brutus (Mason) has not slept since Cassius dared to propose the assassination of the emperor. “Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma, a hideous dream,” says a troubled Brutus.

As Caesar (Louis Calhern) enters the marketplace, a blind soothsayer utters a dire prophesy, “Beware the Ides Of March.” It is the day Caesar is to be offered the crown of perpetual sovereignty he has refused three times before. Noting Brutus and Cassius speaking together furtively, Caesar remarks to his closest ally, Mark Antony (Brando), “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.”

Once they have agreed to do the deed with five co-conspirators, Brutus and Cassius discuss whether to also kill Antony. “Let us be sacrificers, not butchers,” says Brutus, urging that only Caesar be targeted. “Let’s kill boldly but not wrathfully. Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods, not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.” Caesar decides to accept the crown from the Senate after brushing aside his wife’s fears. “Cowards die many times before their death,” he says. “The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Caesar is murdered that morning with clinical precision, stabbed once by each of the seven men before collapsing near a statue of Pompey. Arriving too late to help his emperor, Antony surprisingly shakes the bloody hand of each of the killers before they depart. Only then does he reveal his true feelings, kneeling before the corpse of his friend: “Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers. Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice cry, ‘Havoc!'” Mark Antony will speak at Caesar’s funeral, and he knows precisely what he must say.