Julius Caesar (1953): Mankiewicz’ Version of Shakespeare, Starring Marlon Brando, John Gielgud, James Mason

Surprisingly, Shakespeare’s noted play, “Julius Caesar,” gets an intelligent, well-acted, quite fluent rendition in this MGM film, produced by the estimable John Houseman and directed and adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, then riding high on account of his Oscars for “A Letter to Three Wives” and “All About Eve.”
The political saga, which has its share of eloquent, passionate speeches, is suited to the big screen than the stage, or other Shakespearean plays, due to a rich and complex plot and an extremely large number of characters.
Mankiewicz depicts in an equally eloquent manner the ritualistic processions, the political intrigues, the street mobs and the battle scenes. In this, he benefits from Houseman’s experience in staging Shakespearean plays, including the famous modern-dress version of “Julius Caesar” at New York’s Mercury Theatre.
He also can rely on a prestigious cast of both American and British actors, such as John Gielgud, James Mason, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, and other. At the time, there were questions about the casting of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony. The studio feared that the actor might still be perceived as the brute Stanley Kowalski, his most famous role then, in Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” To convince his superiors, Mankiewicz asked Brando to record Antony’s speeches, which he then played to Dore Schary, MGM’s head of production.
Set in Rome in 44 B.C., “Julius Caesar” offers a portrait of political dissension, largely due Caesar (Louis Calhern) appointing himself dictator. Loyal to Caesar is Mark Antony (Bra+ndo), but Brutus (James Mason), an old friend of Caesar’s, is torn between personal feelings and apprehension over Caesar’s curtailing of democracy.
The tale begins on a festival day with Caesar and his entourage make their way to the stadium. On the way, a soothsayer warns Caesar of “The Ides of March” but he is ignored. In the stadium, Cassius (John Gielgud), the chief conspirator in a plot to overthrow the dictator, engages Brutus in conversation and implores him to join his cause. Brutus gradually becomes convinced by the evidence, and the conspirators plan an assassination on the ides of March (the middle of the month).
Brutus agrees to the plot but objects to Cassius’ idea that Mark Antony dies. After the conspirators leave, Brutus’ wife Portia (Deborah Kerr) inquires into his troubles. Meanwhile, Caesar’s wife Calpurnia (Greer Garson), beset with premonitions of disaster, begs him not to go to the Senate. But Caesar, known for his vanity, proceeds, holding that his friends have gathered to offer him the crown of emperor. He then ignores the advice of the soothsayer, leaving unopened a letter from a friend, which mentions the conspirators.
Mark Antony is drawn away from the Senate on a pre-arranged plan, and the conspirators knife Caesar to death. Antony pretends to collaborate with the assassins and receives permission to speak at Caesar’s funeral. In addressing the Roman crowd, he explains that Caesar’s death was necessary in order to curb his ambitions. Antony mounts the platform and shrewdly incites the citizens into vengeance.
The conspirators leave Rome, and Antony, helped by Octavius Caesar (Douglas Watson), seizes control and purges the town of political enemies. As a result, Civil war breaks out. In their camp at Macedonia, Brutus and Cassius quarrel over their differences regarding Cassius’ financial greed. But the two men are reconciled by the news that Portia has committed suicide–she was Cassius’ sister and Brutus’ wife. Cassius yields to Brutus on an important military point and they agree to meet the enemy at Philippi.
The night before the battle, Brutus is visited by the ghost of Caesar, warning that they will meet at Philippi. The troops under the command of Cassius are defeated by those commanded by Mark Antony, and Cassius kills himself with the same dagger used against Caesar. In the battle’s second stage, Brutus and his men are defeated by Octavius, and Brutus asks to be killed. When they refuse, he places his sword in the hands of his servant and drives himself upon it.
Mankiewicz’s scenario is more or less a literal treatment, with no diversions for the sake of visual spectacle and no attempts at contemporary interpretation; in fact, no major lines were added to the original text, which is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays. Mankiewicz’s liberties with the play are more manifest in the fourth act, which brings the story to the climactic Battle of Philippi. The messengers’ text was dropped in favor of the visual depiction of the battle.
Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” has remained a timeless play because it deals with political ambition, greed, and the manipulating of laws for personal gain. Audiences in the 1950s (and later eras) could relate to a tale of dictatorship, abuse of power, and political assassinations—or as Shakespeare put it, “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.”
The film’s production values are highly accomplished. The sets overseen by MGM chiefs Cedric Gibbon and Edward Carfagno, the musical score of Miklos Rozsa and the cinematography of Joseph Ruttenberg, all represent MGM’s professionalism of the highest order.
Marlon Brando, then at his most handsome, proves that he could handle classical text just as easily as modern one, turning a sharp, dark, compelling performance of Mark Antony. His long orations, particularly when he addresses the masses after the death of Caesar (whose body he carries), demonstrate his inventive and persuasive approach to acting.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 5

Picture, produced by John Houseman

Actor: Marlon Brando

Cinematography (b/w): Joseph Ruttenberg

Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Cedric Gibbons and Edward Carfagno; Edwin B. Willis and High Hunt Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): Miklos Rozsa

Oscar Awards: 1

Art Direction

Oscar Context

In 1953, “Julius Caesar” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with “From Here to Eternity,” which swept most of the awards, including Picture and Cinematography, “The Robe,” “Roman Holiday,” and “Shane.”

The winner of Best Actor was William Holden fro “Stalag 17,” and the Scoring Oscar went to Bronislau Kaper for “Lili.”

Mark Antony (Marlon Brando)
Brutus (James Mason)
Cassius (John Gielgud)
Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern)
Casca (Edmond O’Brien)
Calpurnia (Greer Garson)
Portia (Deborah Kerr)
Marullus (George Macready)
Flavius (Michael Pate)
Soothsayer (Richard Hale)
Cicero (Alan Napier)
Decius Brutus (John Hoyt)
Metellus Cimber (Tom Powers)
Cinna (William Cottrell)
Trebonius (Jack Raine)
Ligarius (Ian Wolfe)
Artemiderus (Morgan Farley)
Antony’s Servant (Bill Phipps)
Octavius Caesar (Douglas Watson)
Lepidus (Douglas Dumbrille)
Lucilius (Rhys Williams)
Pindarus (Michael Ansara)
Messala (Dayton Lummis)
Strato (Edmund Purdom)
First Citizen (Paul Guilfoyle)
Second Citizen (John Doucette)
Third Citizen (Lawrence Dobkin)
Fourth Citizen (Jo Gilbert)
A John Houseman Production
Produced by John Houseman.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Written by William Shakespeare, adapted by Mankiewicz.
Camera: Joseph Ruttenberg.
Art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Edward Carfagno.
Edited by John Dunning.
Musical score by Miklos Rozsa.
Running time: 123 minutes.
End Note:
I am grateful to Tony Thomas for providing details about the MGM production.