30 June 2003 | rmax304823
Caesar must go forth.
I'm glad I watched this because my knowledge of Roman history is so spotty that I learned something from it. I knew Caesar crossed the Rubicon but didn't know when, or why it was important. I knew Caesar was assassinated, and that Cato fell on his sword, and Cleopatra seduced Caesar and all that, but that's common knowledge. I didn't know that Cato falling on his sword had anything to do with Caesar's triumphant return to Rome after defeating the Roman army under Pompey. I'd never been entirely clear who Pompey was, for that matter, except that it was the name of a Roman general and a slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their vacation and also the name of John Wayne's assistant in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence".
So this pulled a lot of things together for me, as history. If I had a problem with it, it was that I had a tough time keeping the characters straight. They weren't frequently enough called by name. And since most of the faces were unfamiliar the problem was even more acute.
I did recognize Richard Harris, looking absolutely GREAT in his last film role, all white and withered and glowing with inner strength and with nastiness. And Chris Noth I recognized from the early episodes of "Law and Order." He did pretty well as Pompeii, although his speech had a Brit accent that tended to come and go. Christopher Walken was both recognizable and rememberable as Cato. He's a surprisingly versatile actor. Valeria Golena was also a familiar face as Calpurnia, Caesar's second wife. (I never knew he had a first one. See what I mean?) And -- triumph of all triumphs -- I finally learned how to pronounce the name of Vercingetorix, the Arverni chieftain who led the Gauls. Speaking of him -- VercinGETorix, that is -- the actor who plays him, and whose name I don't have the opportunity to look up at the moment, gives what is for me the best performance in the movie. He is a brave, self-sacrificing, and dignified man (for a Barbarian) and the actor captures all these attributes, and has a sympatico face to boot, though by no means a handsome one. As portrayed here, if he had just been born in Gaul two millenia later, I could visualize him in an inexpensive suit dining on medallions of beef in some unpretentious bistro, with a glass of Château Neuf du Pape, using the continental knife and fork technique. As it is, he gets his head lopped off.
The story is a little confusing though. I suppose you can't stuff all of Caesar's life story into a few hours. But I missed the final confrontation between Caesar's outnumbered army and Pompey's in Egypt. We see Caesar leaving Rome with a determined expression, and the next thing we know he and his men are in Pompey's tent at Pharsalus. We are also told that Pompey's head was chopped off by the Egyptians at Alexandria, whereas some sources claim it was done by traitors among Pompey's men. It is also not entirely clear to me why some of these guys are considered military geniuses. We only get to see a single map. Pompey leaves Rome early in Part I and returns a hero. Okay. What did he do that was so hot? And we see Caesar defeat a horde of Gauls. He must have done more than that, but what? A few more maps, or exposition in some other form, however clumsy, might have helped.
It's also not made clear enough that Caesar committed an illegal act, a surprise for a guy who is shown to be so fair and compassionate and, if not exactly self-effacing, at least no egomaniac. Rome was a Republic, ruled by the Senate. It was governed by laws. The Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome or else be declared a traitor. By Roman law no general could bring his forces into Italy proper without the consent of the Senate. The border of Italy was the Rubicon and Caesar took his legions across it in defiance of the Senate, saying, "The die is cast." Hearing this, Pompey and some of the Senate took off for friendlier climes because Caesar by this time had a huge force with him. When he entered Rome, what was left of the Senate appointed him dictator. End of the Republic. That wasn't very nice, was it?
Oh, and another thing -- I always thought that when a Roman general returned from a victory, trailing prisoners and booty, a slave stood beside him in the chariot whispering to him, "Remember, thou art mortal," just so he didn't get any ideas like Caesar did.
I wish some of the performances had been better. Many of them are pretty weak, Mark Antony in particular. And Brutus seems too young for the part, and he's the one who looks "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." In fact, he really IS pale and sweaty and a nervous wreck.
The Roman Empire finally fell apart, as everyone knows, but as it split up, there were still a lot of leaders or would-be leaders claiming direct descent from Gaius Julius Caesar. They were with us until just recently. The Tsar (or Czar) of Russia bore the title of Caesar, which is where the Russian word comes from. In Germany, "Caesar" became Kaiser, as in Kaiser Wilhelm.
Too bad we didn't get more of Caesar's accomplishments, or a better look at his weaknesses -- after all, he allowed himself to be appointed dictator without trying to reconstitute the Senate -- and there was that business with Cleopatra, a political opportunist if there ever was one. Still, it's worth watching. It's an interesting historical tale.