But in ourselves.
—Act 1, Scene 2
MGM presents this star-studded Hollywood classic of Shakespeare's drama of political corruption and power. A group of Roman senators suspect Caesar might seize the power of a monarch. Through flattery and deceit, even Caesar's friend Brutus is roped into the scheme. The complex characterizations that make viewers unsure who to root for mark this as one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, and MGM's production brings it to life as one of the greatest Shakespeare films.
Each actor brings remarkable depth to their character. Shakespeare veteran John Gielgud's portrayal of Cassius, the sour and jealous conspirator, brings sensitivity to this otherwise unsympathetic character during the tense final scenes of the film. James Mason is equally brilliant as the honorable but tormented Brutus. But the real break out performance of the film is Marlon Brando in an Oscar-nominated role as Caesar's avenger, Marc Antony. Just watch this clip from the famed "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech.
The vast and historically accurate sets of this film, which won the Oscar for best black-and-white art direction, are old Hollywood at its finest. They are beautiful without asserting their presence over the fine acting. The streets, busy with construction and bustling crowds, create a realistic atmosphere in that classic "cast of thousands" sort of way. One major drawback however, is the long unbroken shots in the early scenes that gave off a stagey vibe.
Like many Shakespeare films, it is true to the text but with substantial cuts. The most noticeable change is the shrinking of Octavius's part. By reducing the role of Caesar's adopted son and cutting out the power-plays between him and Marc Antony, the film minimizes the cracks already appearing in the Triumvirate. We also miss Octavius gradually assuming the name of Caesar—the event that sounds the death toll for the republic the conspirators bloodied their hands to save, and reviles that Caesar's spirit, the spirit of a tyrant, will never die.
This movie is easy to understand and watch. Great for any fan of Shakespeare, Brando or classic Hollywood.
Image source: IMDB