This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of
the release of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo
and Juliet. The movie was a sensation when it came out in 1968, spurring
ticket sales in the millions and becoming one of the top-grossing features of
the decade. One reason the film made so much money was due to the number of
people who returned for a second or even fifth viewing. It seemed audiences
just couldn’t get enough of the story about those two star-crossed adolescent
lovers from old Verona. The movie’s memorable music score, composed by Nino
Rota, also became a best seller. The album quickly went gold and was later
repackaged in a beautiful deluxe box set that included the entire movie
soundtrack, along with two handsomely produced companion booklets.
was something about the film, for all its shortcomings, that many found almost hypnotic.
I’ll fess up and admit I was one of these people. I didn’t actually see it
until the 1970s when it was still being trotted out in theaters in order to
squeeze out extra profits for the studio. I was a teenager at the time and was
more into flicks like Billy Jack and
the Bond films than stories about people who lived hundreds of years ago and
spoke in rhyming couplets. The only Shakespeare I had read was in class, the
substance of which I found nearly indigestible.I did know something about the movie since one my English teachers had
once played a portion of the soundtrack for us in class. However, apparently
not having much else to do that summer evening, I decided to take a stroll down
the street to our local movie palace and buy a ticket.
The first thing I noticed about the film was
how rich in color it was. From the very beginning, following the smoky prologue
spoken by Laurence Olivier, everything is drenched in bright primary colors.
Things got off to a rousing start with the scene of the bloody brawl in the Verona
marketplace between those two wild and crazy families, the Montagues and the
Capulets. (I hadn’t realized until then that it was possible to be a real badass
and still wear red and yellow striped tights with pointy soft leather shoes.) Soon
the cops arrive (the prince and his soldiers) to break up the fracas and issue
a stern warning to all those who would disturb the civil peace in the future. Immediately
following this we get our first look at Romeo (Leonard Whiting), a handsome
love-sick youth with a shaggy haircut. He talks dreamily of some girl he’s got
a crush on, but then comes to his senses at seeing one of the wounded being
carried away. Meanwhile, back at the Capulet palace, Juliet’s father (Paul Hardwick) is coyly negotiating the
marriage of his daughter to a young man named Count Paris (Roberto Bisacco). The first time we see
Juliet (Olivia Hussey) she’s running through the house like a kid at play.
All this is interspersed between scenes of
Juliet and her bawdy, fun-loving nurse (Pat Heywood) talking to the girl’s mother
Lady Capulet (Natasha Parry)
about marriage and things, immediately followed by a night scene of Romeo and
his friends on a soliquious pub crawl through the deserted streets of Verona.
Later that same evening Romeo and his mates crash the Capulet masquerade ball. The ball scene is among the highlights of the film. It is here
Zeffirellireally shows his stuff,
combining visual pageantry with an almost obsessive attention to detail.
Everything about this sequence is highly choreographed, from the beautifully
composed dance scenes (“the moresca!”) right down to the fastidious arrangement
of the candles and platters of fruit (Zeffirelli had studied art and architecture in his student days). Absolutely nothing is left to chance. In the hands of a less gifted
visual director, and Zeffirelli was nothing if he wasn’t visual, all of this might
have come off as too showy and distracting. However, here the effect is just
the opposite. The viewer almost feels as if he or she is present in the scene,
seductively pulled in as we are by the sensuous whirl of warm colors, voices
and melodious music. All of it lovingly captured by the gifted eye of cinematographer
Pasqualino De Santi who was awarded an Oscar for his efforts on the project.
Clearly, the ocular accoutrements of this particular production are as
essential to its success as the words of Shakespeare himself.
Real-life husband and wife Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland made numerous films together. Among them: "Breakout", a 1975 film that was shot quickly in order to capitalize on Bronson's soaring popularity with "Death Wish". The crime thriller was lambasted by critics but performed very well indeed at the boxoffice. Click here for review.