Five hundred years of experimentation with the Republic as a form of government began to unravel with the life and death of Julius Caesar (100 BCE – 15 March, 44 BCE). His military triumphs in expanding the empire far to the north had won him unparalleled power. He had ambitions for becoming a monarch. His assassination by the Republicans on the Senate floor is the landmark event in clearing the way for Empire. Thanks largely to Shakespeare, this story has been kept before the public through the 20th century. Personally, I find Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to be among the dullest of his plays. It takes a single event and talks it to death.
The only character with any star power in the play is Mark Antony, and he does little more than speak on behalf of the murdered Caesar. Various attempts to pump the play up for movie audiences have depended entirely on the casting of this role. Marlon Brando played Antony in 1953 at the peak of his career. He drew some crowds. Charlton Heston played the role in 1970 and fell on his face. Not to compete with the star, Caesar has typically been portrayed as an aging bureaucrat, which seems unfair and unrealistic.
Julius Caesar (1953) – Brando
A quotation from Plutarch’s Lives establishes that after his defeat of Pompey in the Civil War, Caesar was granted extraordinary powers and earned the mistrust of conservatives in the Senate. The Shakespearean action opens in 44 BCE with some marketplace chatter. Caesar enters the city in a triumphal procession. Marc Antony (Marlon Brando) makes a brief appearance. Caesar is warned to “Beware the Ides of March.” Brutus (James Mason) is not enthusiastic for Caesar’s ambitions. He discusses his concerns with Cassius (John Gielgud). The conspiracy gathers momentum. Significantly, women have no role in this matter except to complain or lament. Caesar is beset with bad omens. Calpurnia, his wife, tries to dissuade him from going to the Senate on the day of the Ides, but pride will not let him stay at home. He gets an opportunity to hold court at the Senate, but is cut down by the assassins among the senators. When the deed is done, the public reacts with fear and unrest.
Brando now steps into the spotlight, carrying Caesar’s lifeless body to the steps of the Senate. He delivers the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech to the restive crowd, wringing maximum irony out of the allegations of Caesar’s “ambition,” and the assassins as “honorable men.” Rome is still a republic and Marc Antony does not attempt to dictate the response of the crowd, but cleverly manipulates them into demanding justice for the murder. This was a watershed moment in Brando’s career, when he proved he could step out of his familiar Method acting style and deliver Shakespeare with force and precision. The great success of the movie had more to do with the public’s fascination with Marlon Brando than their hunger for Roman history.
The rest of the film dissipates with the pursuit of the assassins into Northern Greece. Octavius, Caesar’s nephew, soon to become the first Emperor of Rome, and Marc Antony lead the efforts at finding the culprits. The one advantage of film over stage presentation is that some of the scenes could be filmed on location. The genius of Shakespeare and Marlon Brando have given us a flawed but memorable marker of Rome’s disastrous transition from Republic to Empire.
Julius Caesar (1970) – Heston
A British film with high intentions and disappointing results, this was an attempt to update the movie presentation of Shakespeare’s play with higher production values and color photography. Most in the cast were British actors, with Charlton Heston and Jason Robards providing counterbalancing American energies. Heston plays Mark Antony and Robards plays Brutus. John Gielgud plays Caesar with British gentility. Heston was at the end of his ability to turn his roles into cultural icons, and Robards took a critical drubbing for a flat performance. The film failed at the box office. Heston went on to make a film of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in 1971. It also failed at the box office. See below.
Julius Caesar: His Time Has Come (2003) – TNT
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar portrayed the great man only briefly in the last days of his life, killing him off early in the play. This two-part television miniseries begins the biography of Caesar in 82 BCE. He would have been eighteen in that year, though here he is seen as a young man with a wife and daughter of about eight years. The tyrant Sulla (Richard Harris) takes power in Rome by military coup and Julius comes close to being executed. He survives through a friendship with Sulla’s second in command, Pompey (say Pom-pee). Sulla makes himself dictator of Rome and dies four years later. Pompey steps in to restore the Republic. Young Julius distinguishes himself by his eloquence. He is given command of the legions in Gaul (France). Part 1 ends with him vastly outnumbered by the united Gaulish tribes.
Part 2. Caesar is victorious in Gaul and returns toward Rome with designs on power. He wants to be named dictator but is opposed in the Senate by Pompey and Cato (Christopher Walken). Public opinion sways toward Caesar as the man to “restore sanity to Rome.” He enters the city to accept the crown of dictator. His wife, Calpurnia, has remained loving and loyal. Pompey decamps to Greece and then to Egypt where he is killed in Alexandria. Caesar arrives in pursuit and is handed the head of his old ally. Pompey was also Caesar’s son-in-law, having married his daughter, who died in childbirth. Cleopatra comes to Caesar, not rolled in a carpet, and makes a seductive argument. “Rome is masculine, Egypt is feminine …. make me your queen and East and West will be united. We will be god and goddess ruling the world.” He is persuaded enough to father a child with Cleopatra.
On the streets of Rome, comic actors parody the love affair with humor about the fecundity of Egypt. Caesar pursues Cato to a fortress at Utica in North Africa. Cato takes his own life. The unstoppable Caesar returns to Rome with Cleopatra. We do not see either of them enter the city. Calpurnia is not amused. There are rumors that Caesar would be king. When he goes before the people in the Forum, Cleopatra holds their baby. He says he would not be king, but the people should have a king whose manhood embodies their collective identity. As the Ides of March approach, the ritual murder becomes inevitable. In the end, it is the wronged Calpurnia who runs to Caesar, dying alone on the Senate floor. A legend says that fifteen years of civil war followed the death of Caesar. Not one of the conspirators died a natural death.
Rome (2005 – 2007) – HBO/BBC
This miniseries ran for two seasons with twenty-two episodes. The time frame spans only the last two years in the life of Julius Caesar, until his death in 44 BCE. The fictional frame involves two adventurous young men, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, and provides occasions for them to participate in the historical events of the time. There are fictional women in their lives as well, and plenty of opportunities for sex and violence. It is the two adventurers who deliver Cleopatra to Caesar on his arrival in Alexandria. This is background material. If your interest is in the scenes of ancient Rome, look behind the actors for well-researched settings. Often, the HBO formula is a good fit for depicting the early decadence of Rome. Young Octavius (resembling Doogie Howser) is on hand. He will become Emperor in 27 BCE.
If you looked for Cleopatra in Egypt, you were, I hope, directed to Rome. There are no movies about Cleopatra that shed much light on the history and culture of Egypt. There are, on the other hand, many movies set in the few years it took for the Romans to arrive in Alexandria and wrest Egypt from the seductive embrace of its last Pharaoh. When Cleopatra lost her kingdom, 3000 years of its ancient history effectively came to an end. Over the last 2000 years, she has become the preeminent figure of historical legend.
There are two notable early film treatments of the Cleopatra story in my archive. Cleopatra: The Romance of a Woman and a Queen (1912) is a gem from the infancy of the film industry. It dates to the time before the rise of Hollywood, and was filmed along the Hudson River in New York. Produced in the style of theatrical pantomime, the fictionalized narrative is merged with the real-life story of Antony and Cleopatra. There is not much reliable history here but the vintage silent film makes it feel almost as if it was made 2000 years ago. As I write, this movie can be found on YouTube. Cleopatra (1917) was a blockbuster film for its time. Made with elaborate sets and costumes (however brief), it was a vehicle for the daring Theda Bara in the title role. Later judged to be obscene by Hollywood code enforcers, all copies of the film were destroyed.
Claudette Colbert plays the title role in this Cecil B. DeMille production. It is a black and white epic, with the De Mille flair for choreographed spectacle. Colbert is a very able Hollywood temptress and carries her assignment with confidence, though she lacks a Mediterranean quality. The actor who plays Caesar is classically strong in his role, and it is interesting to note his tone of dismissive superiority in the scenes after Cleopatra rolls seductively out of the rug. The Queen of Egypt returns to Rome with Caesar, and follows his chariot in a triumphal procession through the city. She is carried on a large litter. She luxuriates in a bath while Caesar goes to the Senate on the Ides of March.
Back in Alexandria, there is even more DeMille spectacle as Cleopatra lures Antony to his doom. She flirts with the idea of poisoning him to get back in the good graces of Emperor Augustus. The epic battle at Actium, fought on land and sea, is dispensed with in a brief and somewhat clumsy montage. Egypt is lost. Colbert dies with a regal dignity while Anthony dies slowly with too much dialogue.
Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
A British film version of the 1901 play by George Bernard Shaw, this is an uncomfortable mix of stage drama and epic moviemaking. Vivien Leigh plays a flirtatious Cleopatra, bringing along a little too much baggage from her signature role as Scarlett O’Hara. Claude Rains plays a believable Caesar, who had the strength and character to defeat the Gauls, write a book about it, and become dictator of Rome. Action scenes vie for screen time with scintillating conversational dialogue. Shaw has Caesar burn the Library of Alexandria. An Egyptian noble laments that what is burning is the memory of mankind. “Let it burn,” says Caesar, “it’s a shameful memory.” He plans to build a new world. Modern historians suggest that the famed library may have burned on four possible occasions. The fire caused by Caesar was only the first of them. The film was poorly received at the British box office, but it enjoyed some popularity in the US.
After she finished filming A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, Vivien Leigh joined with her husband, Laurence Olivier, for a theatrical tour of two alternating plays, Antony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare and Caesar and Cleopatra by Shaw. Their reputations suffered for it.
Cleopatra resides in the late 20th century imagination primarily in the form of Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 blockbuster film, Cleopatra. Taylor, as the fated Egyptian Queen, seems trapped in her legendary beauty, and forced to parade herself as a trophy of the reigning powers. Richard Burton, who was to marry Taylor in 1964, likewise, seems caught in a web of his own passion and ambition. Rarely has a movie so thoroughly mirrored the lives of its stars. The paradox of this picture is that it was number one at the box office for the year, yet it failed to earn back its investment and nearly bankrupted the studio. The reviews were decidedly mixed, but the public could not get enough of the scandalous love affair between the two stars.
Rex Harrison plays a mature and commanding Julius Caesar with rather too much British wit. Roddy McDowell plays Octavian, soon to become Augustus Caesar, as a whimpering and ineffectual child of privilege. Once again, Hollywood relies on British actors for the core classical characters. Elizabeth Taylor’s Americanized inflections are out of place.
The action begins with Caesar/Rex pursuing the defeated general Pompey to Alexandria, capital of Egypt. He is presented with the severed head of Pompey. Cleopatra appears later that evening rolled in a carpet. The banter between Caesar and Cleopatra owes something to Bernard Shaw. There is verbal jousting and no immediate sex. Cleopatra calls herself Queen of Egypt, though the title is disputed. Much is made of her identification with the goddess Isis. Caesar is more concerned with the threat posed by Cleopatra’s little brother, who has massed an army in the desert. Soon there is a destructive battle in the city.
When the Library of Alexandria burns, Hume Cronyn, as a trusted minister, recites a brief catalog of the losses, including works by Aristotle and the Greek playwrights. Cleopatra is pertly indignant, and Rex treats her as if she were Eliza Doolittle. The relationship grows into something like love. She reads Caesar’s accounts of his battles in Gaul. Together, the lovers visit the tomb of Alexander the Great, a translucent sarcophagus. She beseeches him to carry out the destiny of Alexander. She tells him that she is pregnant and will bear him a son to fulfill the legacy of “one world” united under Caesar’s sword.
Caesar remains in Alexandria until his son is born. His mother names the boy Caesarion. He departs for other campaigns, making his way eventually back to Rome to face Calpurnia, his disappointed wife. The Senate makes him dictator for life. Cleopatra’s triumphal entry into Rome on a giant black sphinx, preceded by international dancers (Hollywood choreography by Hermes Pan), is a spectacle unlike anything that actually occurred. She has her son, Caesarion, at her knee. The people of Rome are mad for her. Everyone, including Calpurnia and Antony, is greatly impressed. Only the senators are suspicious; and the Shakespearean plotting begins. The Ides are not far off. Caesar dies in a swirl of visions played across Cleopatra’s face. She flees from Rome after a brief exchange with Antony. It is the first time we have seen them together, more than halfway through the movie.
Antony rides to Greece in pursuit of Caesar’s assassins, and Cleopatra surprises him by arriving on a fabulous royal vessel, like a float in the Rose Bowl Parade. Each of them makes a stab at playing hard-to-get and in the end, they fall into bed. Their fate is sealed. The tempestuous romance of Anthony and Cleopatra swings back and forth between Rome and Alexandria. Their opposition to the rising power of Octavian (Roddy McDowell) ultimately leads to the naval battle at Actium. Octavian is the victor, though he acts like a sniveling child, and Antony is humiliated. This is not the stuff of Hollywood heroism. Back in Alexandria, Cleopatra makes a desperate effort to restore Antony’s courage and sends him out to face the advancing army of Octavian. Once again he is put to shame, and returns to Alexandria with no alternative but to fall upon his sword. He dies in the arms of the woman who unmanned him.
Roddy McDowell marches into the city looking like Oliver Twist. When word of Antony’s death reaches him, he is called upon to perform the Shakespearean task of declaring that few within the sound of his voice could hold a candle to such a man – but the histrionics are hollow. There is a talky exchange between Octavian and Cleopatra full of false promises; and then a long scene in which she prepares for death. A basket with the fatal serpent is brought to her. Octavian rushes to the tomb to find her laid out in splendid funeral array. The End.
Antony and Cleopatra (1971) – Heston
This is the only Hollywood movie made from Shakespeare’s play. Charlton Heston adapted the play, directed the movie, and played the lead. Be assured, in this version, Antony is the lead. Cleopatra is played by the very attractive but little-remembered Hildegarde Neil. She has a British elegance and is miscast in this role. If approached with low expectations, this is not really a bad Shakespeare film, though Heston weights it down with his trademark bombast. Pleasing to the eye, it is Shakespeare half way between Hollywood and the Elizabethan stage and it loses something on both counts.
This late 20th century version of the Cleopatra legend is notable, if for no other reason, for its contemporary casting of the characters. This is Cleopatra for the youth market. And why not? She was twenty-two when she seduced Caesar, though she was almost 40 when she ended her life with Antony. She is played by Lenor Varella, a twenty-six-year-old Peruvian actress. British actor Timothy Dalton, a former James Bond, gives us, at last, a hard and vigorous Julius Caesar. Marc Antony is played by Billy Zane. At times, the acting level has the quality of a high school play. Caesar dies at precisely the halfway point in the movie and much is lost.