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Julius Caesar On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's great political tragedy

Main image of Julius Caesar On Screen

Thought to have been written in 1599, the annus mirabilis that also saw the creation of Henry V, As You Like It and possibly Hamlet, Julius Caesar has long been one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, not least thanks to its accessibility both as a text and in terms of the large number of productions on stage and screen. Based on Plutarch's Parallel Lives, via a 1579 translation by Sir Thomas North, it depicts the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman emperor Caesar and the subsequent upheaval, with Shakespeare meticulously delineating both the political and personal motives of the participants.

As with the other major tragedies, Julius Caesar has provided source material for a great many British film and television productions. Filmed versions of the play had been made in the US (1908) and Italy (1909), though the first British film version dates from 1911. Made by F R Benson for the Co-operative Cinematograph Company with Guy Rathbone as Caesar, Benson himself as Mark Antony and his wife Constance as Portia, it is now thought to be lost. However, given its date of production, cast and a reported length of 990 feet, it is highly probable that it was very similar to Benson's film of Richard III - i.e. a selection of scenes from a filmed stage production linked with scene-setting intertitles featuring short excerpts from the original text.

In 1926, DeForest Phonofilm filmed part of the play (d. George A.Cooper) to highlight their then-new synchronised sound system. As with the Benson production, it does not appear to survive, though if it was made along the lines of the same company's The Merchant of Venice (d. Widgey R. Newman, 1927), it probably consisted of a short extract from a single scene. Further individual scenes were staged for the cinema in 1945 (Act III Scene II, the Forum scene, for Famous Scenes from Shakespeare, d. Henry Cass) and 1953 (the tent scene, for The World's A Stage, d. Charles Dean).

There has only been one British feature film of the complete play, though the 1953 Hollywood version (US, d. Joseph L. Mankiewicz) did at least feature several British actors in the cast, notably James Mason (Brutus) and John Gielgud (Cassius). This was a significantly more successful production, both artistically and commercially, than Stuart Burge's 1970 effort, which cast Gielgud as Caesar alongside a similarly international cast that included Charlton Heston (Mark Antony), Jason Robards (Brutus), Robert Vaughn (Casca), Diana Rigg (Portia) and Jill Bennett (Calpurnia). Robards came in for most criticism for his stiff recitation of the lines, though Heston injected some passion towards the end.

For all its nods towards the epic, Julius Caesar is most effective when played as an intimate chamber piece, so it is not surprising that television has proved a rather more fruitful medium. Adaptations date back almost to the start of British television history: scenes from the play were aired on 11 February 1937, and on 24 July 1938, Julius Caesar formed the basis of what was most ambitious television Shakespeare production to date, a 141-minute modern dress adaptation directed by Dallas Bower (who would work with Laurence Olivier on the 1944 Henry V). Like virtually all television productions of the era, it was an unrecorded live broadcast and has not survived, though critics of the time were impressed. The cast included Ernest Milton (Julius Caesar), Sebastian Shaw (Brutus), Anthony Ireland (Cassius), D.A.Clarke-Smith (Mark Antony) and Carol Goodner (Calpurnia), who were reassembled three days later for a live 'repeat'.

The 1950s saw three BBC broadcasts, starting with a full production on 25 February 1951 (repeated 1 March) directed by Leonard Brett and starring Patrick Barr (Brutus), Walter Hudd (Julius Caesar), Anthony Hawtrey (Mark Antony), Margaret Diamond (Portia). On 5 September 1955, scenes from the concurrent Michael Benthall theatre production were aired, and a further full-length adaptation was shown on 5 May 1959, directed by Stuart Burge with Eric Porter (Brutus), Robert Perceval (Caesar), Michael Gough (Cassius) and William Sylvester (Mark Antony).

The following year, Ronald Eyre adapted the play into four weekly half-hour episodes aimed at schools and given appropriate timeslots (2.05pm followed by a repeat the next day at 11.05am), the first being shown on 8 November 1960. To make it even more accessible, it echoed the 1938 broadcast in that it was updated to a modern setting, with Caesar flanked by motorcycle outriders and military communications conducted by radio. The cast included Michael Goodliffe (Brutus), Ralph Michael (Caesar), John Laurie (Cassius), James Maxwell (Marc Antony) and Wilfrid Brambell, two years before Harold Steptoe made him famous, as the Soothsayer.

The next BBC production of the play, in 1963, reverted to a classical setting, and formed the middle three episodes ('The Colossus' tx. 24 May; 'The Fifteenth', tx. 31 May; 'The Revenge', tx. 7 June) of the ambitious Spread of the Eagle, a nine-part adaptation of the three major Roman plays (the others being Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra) in a similar vein to producer Peter Dews' history-play saga An Age of Kings (BBC, 1960). However, the plays were less suited to the miniseries treatment, not least because they offered few overlaps, and just one character (Mark Antony) appearing in more than one. He was played by Keith Michell, with other key roles taken by Paul Eddington (Brutus), Barry Jones (Caesar), Peter Cushing (Cassius) and Jane Wenham (Portia).

The following year, the just-launched BBC2's first Shakespeare broadcast consisted of an adaptation of Michael Croft's famous 1960 National Youth Theatre production that was screened on the Bard's 400th birthday, April 23rd 1964. Another modern-dress production (Julius Caesar holds the record for such treatments on television), its irreverent approach was best summed up by its nickname, the 'Teddy-boy Caesar', and the jazz session that opened the production, though the critical consensus was that it was a bold and powerful conception that worked surprisingly well. John Vernon directed the television version.

The next traditional (and first colour) television production of the play was featured in the BBC's Play of the Month slot on 13 April 1969 in a version directed by Alan Bridges and starring Robert Stephens (Mark Antony), Frank Finlay (Brutus), Maurice Denham (Julius Caesar) and Edward Woodward (Cassius). A conservative but effective reading of the play, it saw Stephens in particularly fine form with a memorably rabble-rousing rendition of the "friends, Romans, countrymen" speech.

The BBC Television Shakespeare tackled Julius Caesar relatively early in the cycle. Broadcast on 11 February 1979 partway through the first series, this was also a traditionally-staged production noted for its intelligent direction (by Herbert Wise who had established his credentials for Roman drama with the BBC's I, Claudius three years earlier). It starred Keith Michell (Mark Antony), Richard Pasco (Brutus), Charles Gray (Caesar), David Collings (Cassius) and Virginia McKenna (Portia). The accompanying Shakespeare in Perspective documentary, shown the same evening, was presented by Jonathan Dimbleby.

Surprisingly, given the play's popularity over the previous decades, this was the last full-length television adaptation to date, though the BBC's Shakespeare Shorts series broadcast Act III Scene I (the assassination scene) on 26 April 1996. The multiracial cast included Felix Dexter (Cassius), David Morrissey (Brutus) and Patrick Robinson (Mark Antony).

The adaptation for Shakespeare: The Animated Tales (BBC tx. 30/11/1994) turned out to be one of the most coherent and successful examples of this series of 26-minute truncations, and would make an ideal beginners' introduction. Leon Garfield's adaptation intelligently filleted the text to preserve the essential passages, interspersing his own modern-dialogue narration to clarify the wider political and historical issues. Director Yuri Kulakov brought Shakespeare's text to vivid life, his images (achieved through traditional cel animation) dominated by recurring motifs of stone, fire, blood and thunder. Statues flicker momentarily into life, a scroll turns into a hissing serpent, the conspirators shadow their faces in shroud-like sheets, the dead Caesar's red cape liquefies and seeps down the walls of the Forum during Mark Antony's speech, and at the climax of the final battle the great Roman eagle splits into a dozen carrion crows. The voices included Joss Ackland (Caesar), Frances Tomelty (Calpurnia), David Robb (Brutus), Hugh Quarshie (Cassius), Jim Carter (Mark Antony) and Peter Woodthorpe (Casca).

Two intriguing variations on the play were unveiled in 1973. The Shakespearean horror-comedy Theatre of Blood (d. Douglas Hickox) opens with critic George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) pursued and stabbed by an army of vagrants on what turns out to be the Ides of March, the first of many similar murders committed by disaffected actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price). More substantially, Heil Caesar (BBC, tx. 12-26/11/1973) was a modern-dress modern-dialogue rewrite of the play, updated to an unnamed present-day regime that's about to switch from democracy to dictatorship unless Brutus and his conspirators act to prevent it. John Bowen's script wittily updates Shakespeare's language, and also draws clear (if unnamed) parallels between the events of the play and what had been happening in various European and Latin American countries in the then-recent past. Originally made as a three-part children's television series, its reception was such that it was given a peaktime repeat as a single 90-minute drama.


1911, d. F.R.Benson (truncation)
1926, d. George A. Cooper (excerpt)
1945, d. Henry Cass (excerpt for Famous Scenes from Shakespeare)
1953, d. Charles Deane (excerpt for The World's A Stage)
1970, d. Stuart Burge

BBC, tx. 11/2/1937 (excerpts)
BBC, tx. 24/7/1938, d. Dallas Bower
BBC, tx. 25/2/1951, d. Leonard Brett
BBC, tx. 5/9/1955, excerpts from Michael Benthall stage production
BBC, tx. 5/5/1959, d. Stuart Burge
BBC, tx. 8 - 29/11/1960 (4 parts), d. Ronald Eyre
BBC, tx. 24/5 - 7/6/1963, Spread of the Eagle, parts 4 ('The Colossus', tx. 24/5), 5 ('The Fifteenth', tx. 31/5) and 6 ('The Revenge', tx. 7/6), d. Peter Dews
BBC2, tx. 23/4/1964, d. John Vernon (from Michael Croft stage production)
BBC1, tx. 13/4/1969, Play of the Month, d. Alan Bridges
BBC2, tx. 11/2/1979, BBC Television Shakespeare, d. Herbert Wise
BBC2, tx. 30/11/1994, Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, d. Yuri Kulakov
BBC2, tx. 26/4/1996, Shakespeare Shorts

Other References
Theatre of Blood, d. Douglas Hickox, 1973
Heil Caesar, BBC, tx. 12-26/11/1973 (3 parts)

Michael Brooke

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Thumbnail image of Julius Caesar (1969)

Julius Caesar (1969)

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Thumbnail image of Julius Caesar (1979)

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Thumbnail image of Spread of the Eagle, The (1963)

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