For the Ides of March: Several Cinematic Caesars

Ah, the Ides of March! When several Roman Senators slew Caesar rather than see him crowned king and the Republic laid waste. The act only led to more chaos, civil war and Empire anyway, leaving you to wonder if there isn’t a scientific law that rules mankind, a law more inviolate than politics. Are we herd animals, that want to be ruled by a strong leader? Or creatures of reason, prone to complex social organization and cooperation? At times we seem to be both. At others we pendulate between the two. In recent times we seemed in danger of reverting to our ancestral tribal ways, but it’s beginning to look like we may able to avoid it. We shall see. At any rate, the lessons of history are there for us to study, although we all appear to draw different conclusions.

Complicating interpretation is the fact that Caesar was extremely able and gifted: not just a military genius, but a political and literary one, as well. It must have been tempting to give him maximum power to make Rome supreme among nations. Thus the character of Caesar and his story have always been compelling to theatrical audiences, and the topic is an evergreen one, always applicable to contemporary conditions in one way or another. Shakespeare’s play on the subject is the most famous telling, although there have been others. Most of the great English actors of bygone centuries have acted in the play, although the great ones usually play the Senators Brutus or Cassius or Marc Antony, which are better roles. Caesar, like Janet Leigh in Psycho (!), is killed early, making the part a potentially flashy star turn but less of a role to sink one’s teeth into. And there have been famous American stage versions, as well. An 1864 production of Julius Caesar was the one and only occasion when the three Booth brothers, Edwin, John Wilkes, and Junius Jr. all acted in the same play. And then there was Orson Welles’ groundbreaking 1937 Mercury Theater production, which reimagined the story in contemporary Fascist terms. Sadly, he never had the chance to put that on film, as he did with several other Shakespeare plays. But Caesar has enjoyed his time on the silver screen. Here are some notable actors who portrayed him.

In 1908 British-American actor Charles Kent played Caesar in a 12 minute Vitagraph version overseen by J. Stuart Blackton, one of numerous Shakespeare adaptations he did that year. The film also features Maurice Costello and Florence Lawrence. It’s available on Youtube, you can watch it right now!

The incomparable Warren William played him with melodramatic gusto in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra. Claudette Colbert was an arch and wonderful Cleopatra!

Claude Rains played him in the 1945 Technicolor British adaptation of the Shaw play Caesar and Cleopatra. At 5’7″, Rains was one of the few men to play the dictator who was actually the correct height. As written by Shaw, Rains makes him a bit of lovable scamp and rogue, puckish, with a twinkle in his eye, always pulling the leg of Cleopatra (Vivien Leigh), whom he conquers, mentors, and beds. But then she turns the tables.

In 1950 a man name Harold Tasker played Caesar in the first sound version of Shakespeare’s play, a low budget 16mm film made by drama professor David Bradley. Charlton Heston, an old friend of Bradley’s played Marc Antony, and future star Jeffrey Hunter was a supernumerary.

Ironically, though Orson Welles didn’t bring Julius Caesar to the screen, his old producing partner John Houseman did. The 1953 Hollywood version is an all-star affair directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, with the Method Actor Marlon Brando as Marc Antony (the film’s chief gimmick), with John Gielgud perfectly cast as Cassius, James Mason as Brutus and several other well known stars. Caesar is — interestingly — undertaken by old Hollywood hack Louis Calhern. It’s inspired and eloquent, if ahistorical, casting. Calhern looks great in toga and sandles, but is nothing physically or temperamentally, like the real Caesar. But his casting says something. Casting an old melodrama villain, known for playing shifty ambulance chasers and the like, stresses Caesar’s nature as an untrustworthy politician. And something about him being part of the old Hollywood studio establishment, once dashing, but now going to seed, makes him seem like deadwood that’s got to be cleared away. It’s a bold choice that works.

The events of the 1960 picture Spartacus (the Third Servile War) take place 30 years prior to Caesar’s assassination. In the context of this story, he is a young army officer, played by John Gavin. 

Rex Harrison is excellent in the well known, bloated 1963 epic Cleopatra. He’s probably the first screen Caesar I came to know. Probably because of My Fair Lady, I always impose a Shavian quality on this Caesar, and mix it up with Shaw’s play (although Harrison did later play Caesar in the play as well). As in the Shaw play, Harrison’s Caesar toys with Cleopatra, but this version also seems to stress the virtuous Caesar, the wise ruler, and a creature of the Republic, less decadent than the Egyptian Queen. He’s also a vulnerable middle aged man wooing that queen (Elizabeth Taylor). Marc Antony (Richard Burton) will be the second moth to fly to her candle.

John Gielgud, I think, must be the worst of all stage and screen Caesars, not because he is bad (he is never bad), but it’s just bad casting. He’s a natural Cassius, “lean and hungry” in Shakespeare’s words. Yet he was cast as the title character in a 1970 film of the Shakespeare play, and in a 1971 stage production. Gielgud has nothing of military strength about him. Try as he may he could not, like Olivier, fake machismo. In that regard at least Larry had it over Gielgud (and indeed Olivier did play Caesar onstage in the Shaw play). Casting Gielgud here, I think stresses Caesar’s age and infirmity. This version also features Charlton Heston, Jason Robards, Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain and Diana Rigg

In a 1979 version of the Shakespeare play, Charles Gray, best remembered as Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever (1971) and the narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, plays Caesar.

There was a TNT mini-series about the life of Caesar in 2003. None other than Jeremy Sisto (Law and Order, Six Feet Under, Clueless) played the title role! Also in the cast, Richard Harris, Christopher Walken, and fellow Law and Order alum Chris Noth. Sisto always vaguely like a lost little boy to me — hard to imagine him as the battle-hardened and determined Caesar!

Ciaran Hinds, from the HBO series Rome (2005-2007) is probably my favorite screen Caesar. He seems the most accurate in conception, the most well rounded, catching all the facets of this complex, often self-contradictory character. He is somewhat vain, egotistical and thus (fatally) susceptible to flattery despite being a military, political and literary genius. But he is also so wily a tactician that he is able to constantly catch the other Roman schemers unawares. Also his physical type seems better — mature, but not elderly, physically strong but vulnerable . It doesn’t hurt that he actually looks more like a Latin than all those English thespians who’ve stepped into the role. The dialogue’s not Shaw or Shakespeare but it is well researched and conceived. I really enjoyed this show.

Anyway, as we say the story is evergreen. Only last year, the Public Theater’s revival of the Shakespeare play caused an international stir by retelling it in modern terms, making the Roman Tyrant look and act very much like a certain U.S. President. Would that it were ever thus.