Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Crossing the Rubicon… Gaius Julius Caesar (1914)

Based on a true story by William Shakespeare… or something like that, this is a suitably huge take on the life of Julius Caesar featuring something like 20,000 extras and a significant number of horses. Directed by Enrico Guazzoni it represents one of the pre-war highlights of the silent Italian epic along with the same director’s Quo Vadis from 1912.

It doesn’t quite have the ground-breaking bravura of the previous year’s Cabiria but it is impressive none-the-less with densely-packed tableaux, crowded set piece battles and extensive location shooting. As grand gestures go it’s pretty darned grand as befits the man who put the imperial into Rome. The Caesar on display is a man who believes in the nobility of his countrymen and who proves his worth through a breath-taking sequence of military victories having been forced to leave corrupt Roman society.

Amleto Novelli
He’s such a noble leader you have to wonder why there were so many senators willing to contribute to his eventual downfall but they get theirs and far more rapidly than the insurrectionists at the time. Was Guazzoni supporting the right of contemporary Italy to spread out into empire along with Germany, France and Britain? They were there first after all… and whilst every jaded democracy looks back with fondness at their past glories, pasts don’t come much more glorious than Italy’s: for Gaius Julius Caesar… think King Arthur but real and with a much broader remit.

Amleto Novelli and Irene Mattalia
Young Caesar (Amleto Novelli – who was Vinicius in Quo Vadis) is in love with Servilia (Irene Mattalia) and the two share illicit trysts as her family do not approve of their liaison. Her father Cato (Augusto Mastripietri) has promised her to another, Marcus Brutus (Antonio Nazzari), an ally of the Roman dictator Sulla. They are from Rome’s old established families whose republicanism is a self-perpetuating oligarchy that looks after nobility and wants the populace kept in place… in the film any way.

Lovely lighting in this scene don't you think?
Caesar is spotted leaving their meeting place and Cato forces Servilla into agreeing marriage with Marcus Brutus in order to protect Caesar. Caesar is incensed but there is no way out especially as he falls foul of Sulla and is only rescued by the intervention of the Vestal Virgins.

He has to leave Rome and goes off to serve in Asia leaving Servilla to marry Marcus Brutus in misery especially as she is carrying her lover’s child. She tells Marcus who swears to turn the boy against his father… In reality Brutus was not Caesar’s son (his father was Marcus Junius Brutus the Elder) although his mother was indeed Servilla who did later become Caesar’s mistress.

Brutus is turned against his father
It is a long seven years before the dictator dies and it is safe for Caesar to return to Rome, and when he does he is welcomed back by all but the “optimates” who want to protect the status quo. Sadly these now include his young son who has been bought up to believe in the Republic and to hate Caesar’s “populaire” approach.

Caesar is not without friends in his places and he earns a position that see him elected as Consul for southern Gaul in charge not just of the lands but also the army that occupies it. Caesar begins to show stunning vision and leadership and moves his men northwards to expand the Roman territory still further. He ended up being the first Roman to conquer Gaul and also the Germanic lands beyond the Rhine and a hostile, damp island floating in the North Sea.

Under siege
The Gallic Wars are shown in summary form and represented best by the Battle of Alesia in which Caesar’s forces overcame the numerically far superior forces of the mighty Vercingetorix (Bruto Castellani) through discipline and strategic innovation. Fighting his foes on two fronts Caesar had his men dig lethal traps in front and behind whilst also fortifying their position.

Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar
Caesar returns to Rome controlling all of Gaul but with feelings running high in the Curia Hostilia – the senate meeting house – where Cato leads demands to remove Caesar’s consulship. The famously-loyal Mark Anthony walks out in disgust.

Brutus leads the senate delegation to Caesar’s camp with demands to disband his legion and to accept the loss of his consulship… The soldiers try to kill Brutus but Caesar stops them but Brutus does not express gratitude calling him an enemy of the Republic… which is factually exact.

Crossing the Rubicon
Caesar has little option but to press on into Rome and he drives his army onwards crossing the river Rubicon, the border to Rome, declaring Alea iacta est! (The die is cast!).

Enjoying a triumphant return to Rome, Caesar takes the treasures of Saturn’s Temple to feed his troops – Saus populi suprema lex! (The good of the people is the highest law!)

His former ally and one-time son-in-law, Pompey (Ignazio Lupi) has gone over to the Republican cause and as Consul provides the opposition but he flees Rome for Greece (Albanian in this film…) berated by Cato and Brutus for being too hesitant…

But Caesar defeats Pompey’s army – his army was smaller but used to victory, battle-hardened and confident in themselves and their charismatic, tactically brilliant leader. Brutus is captured and fears for his life but Caesar tells him he wants him alive for the good of the fatherland and he wants him to rule the lands he captured in Gaul.

Pompey sails off to Egypt, where he is killed at the order of King Ptolemy (Cleopatra’s brother) but Caesar is not pleased… every Roman life is sacred especially that of a former friend.

The Senate
Rome receives the victor with a huge parade celebrating his many conquests… This is a stunning sequence involving many thousands of extras, stretched out over a long procession that takes well over three minutes to snake its way past the camera… I was reminded of the entry of Caesar into Cleopatra in the 1963 film and this sequence was undoubtedly an influence on so many later depictions of Rome…

The big parade...
Caesar is named dictator for life and the establishment reaction spreads… Brutus is pulled back in and agrees to lead the rebellion. Then comes the Ides of March… Caesar is warned but he doesn’t want the Senate to be guarded by his soldiers as enemies. His end comes as the old guard begins its last stand… the age of empire was about to begin and Caesar’s nephew Augustus would soon rule as Emperor.

As for Julius, as the film makes clear, he lives on as immortal history whilst those who conspired against him are forgotten… All that is, save for the man who he may well have viewed almost like a son in his final moments with Roman historian Suetonius claiming he said something like You too, child? as opposed to et tu Brute? as Mr Shakespeare suggests. Others report, however, that he said nothing at all…

Gaius Julius Caesar is one of the last of the Italian silent spectaculars and it remains enjoyably paced – it has to be to cram all of the above narrative into just over two hours! Yes the camera movement is minimal and stately but what it shows are a succession of often striking compositions, notably when Caesar stands silhouetted in blue against a deep red setting sun: the majesty of the lost art of tinting.

The film doesn’t appear to be available on home media but you catch it in reasonable quality on YouTube.

The golden age of tinting...

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