In ancient Rome, under the direction of Cassius (Richard Johnson), several members of the Senate conspire to kill Julius Caesar (John Gielgud), believing that his death is the only way to preserve the Republic. Even Caesar’s longtime friend, Brutus (Jason Robards), is brought into the conspiracy. Unfortunately for the conspirators, after Caesar’s murder, Mark Antony (Charlton Heston) gives his famous speech asking the Romans to lend him their ears and the Roman citizens turn against Caesar’s murderers and instead look to Antony and Octavius (Richard Chamberlain) to lead them.
This was the first adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play to be filmed in color and the assassination of Caesar was portrayed much more graphically than in previous productions. By the end of the attack, Caesar has been stabbed so many times and there’s so much blood on screen that it doesn’t seem like he should even have the strength to say, “Et tu, Brute?” Despite the then-modern innovations, this version still feels creaky and stiff. When Caesar makes his appearance on the Ides of March, all of the conspirators actually stand in a neat line while Caesar enters the Senate. When Mark Anthony and Brutus make their speeches, the extras playing the Roman citizens looked bored and disinterested.
For most viewers, the appeal of this version of Julius Caesar will be for the cast, which was considered to be all-star in 1970. Along with Gielgud, Robards, Heston, Johnson, and Chamberlain, the cast also features Robert Vaughn as Casca, Christopher Lee as Artemidorous, Jill Bennett as Calpurnia, and Diana Rigg as Portia. Surprisingly, it’s Jason Robards, the Broadway veteran, who struggles with Shakespeare’s dialogue, delivering his lines flatly and without much emotion. Meanwhile, Charlton Heston steals the entire film as Mark Antony, nailing Antony’s funeral oration and proving himself to be much more clever than the conspirators had originally assumed. (Of course, Mark Antony was the Charlton Heston of his day so I guess it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Heston is perfect in the role.) I also liked Diana Rigg’s performance in the small role of Portia and Robert Vaughn’s devious interpretation of Casca.
Though he plays Caesar here, John Gielgud previously played Cassius in the 1953 version of Julius Caesar, the one with James Mason and Marlon Brando. That is still the version to watch if you want to see the definitive adaptation of Julius Caesar.