A real curiosity, David Bradley's low budget 1950 film of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is impressive in a lot of ways, and though its ambitions aren't up to the level of its abilities, fans and scholars of The Bard and early American independent cinema will find much to like.
The first of Shakespeare's five great tragedies, Julius Caesar is a psychological study of Brutus's (also Bradley) conflicting loyalty, sense of duty and honor to Rome and toward Caesar himself (Harold Tasker). Brutus reluctantly joins a group of conspirators, plotting Roman senators who, swayed by Cassius (Grosvenor Glenn), are convinced that Caesar plans to turn Rome into a monarchy/dictatorship. As predicted by an ancient soothsayer, during the Ides of March they jointly assassinate Caesar at the Capitol.
But Caesar's loyal Mark Antony (Charlton Heston), in Shakespeare's famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech, shrewdly turns public opinion against the assassins, and after allying himself with Caesar's grand-nephew, Octavius (Bob Holt), later Augustus Caesar, plots to drive Brutus, Cassius and their followers out of Rome.
Bradley's highly unusual production was shot around 1949 in 16mm format for about $15,000. The film did apparently receive some theatrical release on the growing art house circuit, and its relative success may have inspired the equally unusual 1953 MGM production with Marlon Brando (as Antony) and James Mason (as Brutus) that likewise found some success in art theaters.
Bradley's film was shot in Chicago, notably in and around the Museum of Science and Industry where that building's neo-Roman architecture provided the low-budget film sets worthy of Samuel Bronston. Because these were public places, the filmmakers had to avoid shooting at angles that would reveal automobiles and other modern conveniences, and this results in a kind of severe visual style - extreme close-ups, arch angles, utilitarian locales - one that at times somewhat resembles Dreyer's famous silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927).
Bradley and cinematographer Louis McMahon (Violent Midnight, Captain Celluloid vs. the Film Pirates) exhibit a lot of imagination throughout, such as their wonderfully abstract visualization of Calpurnia's nightmare-premonition of Caesar's murder, a sequence that even incorporates some stop-motion animation.
The performances are inconsistent, however, and even many that are okay come from actors with incongruously strong Midwestern accents. Bradley himself isn't compelling in that notoriously difficult part of Brutus, though it's easy to see Heston was going places fast in his role as Antony. Besides Heston only Bob Holt (later a prolific voice actor) and an unbilled but instantly recognizable Jeffrey Hunter appear to have gone onto bigger and better things.
Bradley, later a film history teacher at UCLA, subsequently had a very odd career. After Julius Caesar he directed a well-regarded noir for MGM called Talk About a Stranger but then didn't make another film for six years, AIP's low-budget Dragstrip Riot. He then directed portions of a movie eventually released as They Saved Hitler's Brain though Bradley's footage, shot under the title Madman of Manoras, was filmed much earlier.**
Video & Audio
VCI's Julius Caesar was reportedly first released by Brandon Films, but credits on this version appear to date from a 1976 reissue with "Willlow Company" listed as presenter. Visually, the transfer looks very good, especially given its 16mm source. There's some damage and the contrast fluctuates, but all-in-all it's better than one would have expected. The sound is another matter, sounding like it was lifted from a scratchy 78rpm record. The lack of clarity may be inherent to the original production (a la Welles' Othello) but it is distracting. Very wisely, VCI has opted to include optional (yellow) English subtitles, which helps viewers with Shakespeare's text as well as a tool to sift through the mediocre sound recording. The DVD is not region-encoded.
VCI has a reputation for lavishing a lot more attention on their animated menus than on the films and transfers, and Julius Caesar is no exception. What's billed as a photo gallery has been so overly-manipulated with animation, tinting, and flashy lighting effects that you can hardly see the photos at all. Really. Similarly, text biographies of Bradley and Heston, as well as an analysis of Antony's funeral speech by Texas Tech professor Sue H. Hosterman are nearly ruined by similarly presenting them in form that's anything but reader-friendly. The pages swoop through the air and must be read before the next sheet flutters into view. Faster/slower readers will find this very frustrating. What's billed on the DVD case as a promo trailer is actually an ad for VCI's peplum titles.
With Heston's later, 1970 film of Julius Caesar announced by Paramount in 16:9 format but now MIA, and with MGM's 1953 version due out later this year, VCI's release of Bradley's version is well-timed and, for the curious, definitely worth a look.
**The IMDb lists both films with 1963 release dates but I suspect Madman may date back to the late-1950s while the new scenes for what became They Saved Hitler's Brain may have been filmed as late as 1968 or so.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.