Friday, 15 March 2013

Top Five Deaths of Julius Caesar



OK, so this one is perhaps a little morbid. And Caesar was a real person who was really murdered, which is not nice and nothing to celebrate even if he was a power-obsessed tyrannical dictator. But somehow the 2056th anniversary of his bloody, vicious death still seems worth commemorating. I'm sure he would appreciate the eternal fame aspect of the whole thing.



5. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)
Famous last words: Et tu Brute? Then fall Caesar.
Et tu Brute... The guilt written all over James Mason's face as he stabs the already dying and blood-covered Caesar is both very well acted and, for me, makes Brutus look essentially cowardly (almost as if he's been persuaded into doing this by peer pressure, rather than believing he's doing the right thing).

The really great set-piece in this film is Marlon Brando as Mark Antony giving the famous 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen' speech, but for someone to give Caesar's eulogy, Caesar first has to die, and the film captures the scene simply and effectively. The black and white visuals and the conventions of the time limit the amount of blood and gore on display, but somehow the streak of blood running down Caesar's face as he approaches Brutus is especially effective and makes him look particularly vulnerable.




4. Caesar, by Alan Massie
Famous last words: Not you, my son.
Et tu Brute... with the twist that here, Caesar is not addressing Marcus Junius Brutus, ex-supporter of Pompey, famous assassin and son of Servilia, but Decimus Junius Brutus, up until this point a staunch Caesarian and one of the main beneficiaries of Caesar's will (after Octavian and Mark Antony, of course). 'Markie' is depicted in a not particularly flattering light in the novel, and although the reluctance to join the conspiracy stays with him, the guilt over betraying Caesar belongs to Decimus, which makes sense, since Decimus was much closer to Caesar. This results in a neat twist on the famous line, combining Suetonius' ambiguous 'boy' (though Suetonius does actually specify Marcus Brutus) with Shakespeare's 'Brute' and thus keeping everyone happy!

Caesar's assassination is the focus of Massie's novel, but takes up very little space in terms of the word count. After an enormous amount of build-up, Casca suddenly stabbing Caesar in the neck, for all their careful preparation, almost seems to come out of nowhere and the whole thing is over very quickly - which is probably pretty realistic. Massie's description of the murder and the body is suitably brutal without needing to go into great detail on either the struggle or the gore - phrases like 'a piece of bleeding flesh' and 'what had been the Perpetual Dictator' briefly but effectively conveying the ultimate metamorphosis of living being into dead body. The decision to focus on Decimus, rather than Marcus, Brutus pays off brilliantly, driving home the emotional resonance of Decimus' turning on Caesar from him being the one persuading Caesar to attend the Senate to him being the last to leave the body. The shock and sense of betrayal the reader imagines Caesar must feel as Decimus stabs him in the chest is that much stronger for the fact that, unlike Marcus, Decimus never fought against him in a civil war and his betrayal was presumably, therefore, more surprising.

3. Carry On Cleo (dir. Gerald Thomas 1964)
Famous last words: Et tu Brute! So dies Caesar. Let me just say these last words to you. Friends, Romans - (Brutus: Countrymen!) I know! Oh, what's the use...
Et tu Brute... After Bilius, Agrippa and Mark Antony's failed attempts to murder him, it's Brutus (with help from the rest of the Senate) who finally succeeds.

Poor Caesar. He spends the whole of Carry on Cleo surviving various assassination attempts and has already given us the immortal lines, 'Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!' and 'I came, I saw, I - conked out' before he is finally offed by a bunch of extras and a bit-part character, having lost his British bodyguard. This is the big payoff for the 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen' running gag, as poor Caesar is denied the chance to display his competence one last time and gives up. I would suggest that he shouldn't worry, as Mark Antony is about to get it right, but since in this version Antony is in Alexandria, busy leaping fully-clothed into Cleopatra's bath, that's probably not the case.

Coin issued by (Marcus) Brutus after the assassination, depicting a freedman's cap (to symbolise Rome being freed from slavery to Caesar) in between two daggers, labelled 'The Ides of March'. Subtle. (Image taken from the British Museum, © Trustees of the British Museum).

2. Julius Caesar (dir. Gregory Doran, 2012)
Famous last words: Et tu Brute? Then fall Caesar.
Et tu Brute... Not so much 'fall' as 'get violently shoved to the ground.' Paterson Joseph as Brutus gives a fantastic display of grim determination, his guilt tempered by his conviction that this must be done, played out in the ferocity of his attack on Caesar. It's usual to depict Caesar as badly injured but still staggering around until Brutus stabs him, at which point he goes down (though, given that he gets firmly stabbed in the back first and Roman medicine was limited, I suspect he was doomed anyway) but this version really goes for it - Caesar isn't too bloodied (and we can't see the wound, as it's in his back) until Brutus gets at him, at which point all hell breaks loose.

Is there a spookier way to kill someone off than on a broken-down escalator, with a spooky witch-doctor type caked in clay or white mud of some kind gazing on with a look of 'I told you so'? If there is, I don't know it. As if the abandoned, eerily-lit escalator by itself wasn't X-Files-y enough (escalators have never been the same since 'Tombs'), after the requisite famous last words, as Caesar is thrown to the jagged surface, his face is pushed up against the clear glass side and blood spurts out of his mouth like something from a quarantine episode of a science fiction programme (these nearly always involved people spewing blood, potentially infecting everyone around them. I'm particularly fond of Fringe's 'What Lies Below'). This is an angry, brutal version of Caesar's death and all the better for it - even Caesar himself throws 'then fall Caesar' at Brutus like an accusation, full of rage, rather than the usual resigned horror.

1. Rome, 'Kalends of February'
Famous last words: None. He's been stabbed, like, 20 times. Both lungs are probably punctured.
Et tu Brute... He does give Brutus a really piercing look as he goes down, though. Caesar is definitely a goner before Brutus gets to him in this version, and Brutus' blow is more of a mercy kill, ending Caesar's suffering as much as driving home the final blow.

Freed from the constraints of the ultra-famous Shakespearean lines, this is the gritty, down and dirty version of Caesar's death, to go with Rome's grimier, earthier approach (OK, that's something of a euphemism for 'there's a lot of sex and violence in it,' but it's more than just that). It seems unfair to praise this one for being especially realistic against the other four listed here, since it's a modern production not constrained by 1950s convention, it's a motion picture not a novel, it's made for television and not adapted from a stage production so everything is designed to be captured by the cameras rather than seen by a live audience and it's not a comedy. But even leaving all that aside, this version is exceptionally well done, the tremors taking over CiarĂ¡n Hinds' body as he falls to the floor a gruesomely effective touch. Brutus is a bit wet, perhaps, but then, Brutus is always a bit wet (except when played by Paterson Joseph, who should play Brutus is all adaptations from here on in). Caesar's (and Niobe's) death marked the end of season 1 - the only thing missing from this clip is the equally effective scene from the very beginning of season 2 in which Caesar's slave Posca, seen here being distracted and restrained along with Mark Antony, weeps over his body, probably the one person who will genuinely miss Caesar the most.



More Top Five lists

9 comments:

  1. The choice of Decimus Albinus is a fascinating one. He seems to have been generally considered as Caesar's primary heir until young Ocatvius showed up on the journey back from Spain, even ahead of Brutus. Then along comes this callow youth who just happens to be more closely related to Caesar than anybody else and Albinus winds up in like third rank. He certainly had enough reason to hate Caesar.

    Nobody seems to have used Suetonius' claim that Brutus stabbed Caesar in the groin. It was probably just a target of convenience or soldier's training to go for a big artery, but you could do a lot with it psychologically. Either with the rumors about Caesar being Brutus' father (highly unlikely) or the fact that Caesar had been the long-time lover of Brutus' mother.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Where does Suetonius say Brutus stabbed him the groin?

      Delete
    2. Never mind, RWMG has found it - it's in Plutarch. I'd never really noticed it before, that is quite interesting!

      Delete
    3. Was it Plutarch? I just sort of assumed it was Suetonius, since it sounds like the sort of thing he would report. Psychologically fascinating, though, isn't it?

      Delete
    4. Very! And kind of surprising TV versions don't go for it (but then I'm always surprised they don't show Mark Antony naked at the Lupercalia either)

      Delete
  2. I loved the Rome version! This was fun to read on the Ides...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! :) I loved the Rome version too - brilliant episode, and I love the show

      Delete
  3. 2056th anniversary already? My, how time flies! ;o)

    ReplyDelete
  4. I didn't know about the 1953 version. James Mason playing any role is often the most interesting actor in the lot...

    ReplyDelete

Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...