Although the idea of Charlton Heston playing classical roles always inspires trepidation, Heston is quite potent as Marc Anthony in this lusty adaptation of the Shakespeare classic. Instead, it’s the usually impeccable Jason Robards, playing treacherous senator Brutus, who underwhelms. Whereas one might expect Heston’s distinctly American persona to be an impediment in this milieu, his flamboyance fits the grandeur of Shakespearean English; conversely, Robards’ internalized moodiness is too quiet for director Stuart Burge’s muscular approach to the text. Screenwriter Robert Furnival hacked a few passages from the play, shortening the running time and making room for flourishes like an elaborate battlefield finale, but the core of the piece is intact. In 44 B.C., Roman emperor Julius Caesar (John Gielgud) cements his power through military victories, sparking fears among senators like Brutus, Casca (Robert Vaughn), and Cassius (Richard Johnson) that Caesar will seize absolute control. Brutus and his fellow conspirators murder Caesar, triggering a civil war between the conspirators and forces led by Caesar’s best friend, Marc Anthony.
Burge gives the picture a standard sword-and-sandals look, with extras in flowing robes flitting across soundstages crammed with columns and staircases, so the piece doesn’t really take flight until Burge moves onto location for the climactic battle. That said, he builds an insistent pace and employs enough movement in his blocking to avoid filling the screen with long stretches of static talking heads. Plus, with its scenes of assassination and civil unrest, it’s not as if Julius Caesar lacks for inherent drama. Among the supporting cast, the standouts are Geilgud, bitchy and grandiose as a leader drunk on adulation; Johnson and Vaughn, calculating and cruel as men whose ambition trumps their loyalty; and Diana Rigg, sexy and sly as Brutus’ wife. Ultimately, however, the movie hinges on the interplay between Brutus and Marc Anthony. Robards seems uninterested throughout most of the picture, though his performance gains vigor after the assassination, but Heston is on fire from beginning to end. Clearly relishing the chance to play one of the great roles, Heston attacks monologues with the same animalistic energy he usually brings to the physical aspect of his performances, so he’s magnetic even though his performance choices are obvious and simplistic.
Julius Caesar: FUNKY