Edmond O’Brien has a go at Louis Calhern. Image: TCM

One of the mandatory books we studied in high school was William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Our poor English teacher. She had a time of it, trying to engage us in Shakespearean language, hoping we’d be enthusiastic about the politics or the drama – or anything at all.

Yours truly viewed this exercise as a Necessary Evil, as in: What’s the least amount of work to ensure a passing grade?


One day our English teacher wheeled in a cart; there was to be a movie. “Not Julius Caesar!” we groan-whispered to a friend who, incidentally, seemed unperturbed by this and every other ridiculous assignment.

The film began, and it was a Surprise: A gorgeous 1953 black-and-white MGM production, with credible sets and costumes, and actors who made the antiquated language come Alive.

We were smitten. “Shakespeare knows his stuff,” we marveled, even though we were loathe to admit the movie was having its intended effect.

In fact, Julius Caesar remains our favourite Shakespearean play, and it’s largely due to the cast in this 1953 film.

Conspirators plot to kill Caesar. Image: hdencode.org

You know the story of Julius Caesar, that savvy militarist and political leader who consolidated his power to become Dictator-for-Life in 49 BC, only to be assassinated by multiple conspirators in 44 BC.

The folks at MGM knew how to cast this film, and even unexpected casting choices, such as character actor Edmond O’Brien, are pitch-perfect.

Louis Calhern plays the titular Caesar, and his short time on screen leaves a long shadow. His Julius Caesar is smart and capable of affection, but he’s also arrogant. He often refers to himself in the third person, as though he is so Grand he dare not address himself colloquially.

“Caesar doth no wrong,” he says, without a trace of irony. “I am constant as the morning star.”

The shrewd Cassius, conspiracy instigator and influencer, is played by John Gielgud, in somewhat distracting hair. Gielgud reveals his character’s jealousy for Caesar with delicious disdain. Gielgud-as-Cassius is shrewd enough to convince conspirators to join the coup d’état by telling them Caesar’s death will fulfill their personal objectives.

He’s mostly concerned, though, with his own goals. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” he says, “that we are underlings.”

The Brutus to whom he speaks is played by James Mason. Mason gives us a conflicted man who participates in the assassination not out of envy, but because he genuinely believes Rome ought to be free of Caesar.

The Master of Method acting, Marlon Brando, plays Mark Antony, the avenger of Caesar’s death, a man every bit as cunning as Gielgud’s Cassius.

There is a crucial moment when an indignant Brando, addressing an unsympathetic audience at Caesar’s makeshift funeral, publicly presents the leader’s corpse. He points to each wound in the body and names every person involved, as if he knew Who stabbed Caesar Where. This magnificent bluff sways the crowd – They’re out for blood now! – and civil war ensues.

As you can see, Shakespeare’s play is rich with Motive and Ambition and Revenge, which makes it a timeless political analysis.

Marlon Brando: No one’s getting away with murder today! Image: IMDb

Julius Caesar is not big-budget, splashy MGM fare. It was shot in toned-down black and white for two reasons: (1) the sets were recycled from the film Quo Vadis (1951) and audiences would know it; and (2) producer John Houseman wanted this film to have a “newsreel” texture, since the subject of dictatorial leaders was still a Hot Topic in 1953.

The film, shot in 35 days, was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture but not, alas, for Best Director. However, it did win an Oscar for Best (black-and-white) Art Direction.

Shakespeare’s works have been adapted to film numerous times, and we always appreciate how well-suited his works are to the Big Screen. Yet none of the films we’ve seen have the same place in our heart as this version of Julius Caesar.

What are some of your favourite Shakespearean film adaptations?

This post is dedicated to Marilyn.

Julius Caesar: starring Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando, James Mason. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz & William Shakespeare. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1953, B&W, 120 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

28 Comment on “How Hollywood Taught us to Love Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: Shamedown #5: The Wrecking Crew – Taking Up Room

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