Romeo & Juliet (1968) Starring: Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, Milo O'Shea. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Screenplay by Franco Brusati, Masolino D'Amico, Franco Zeffirelli. Based on the play Based on the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (London, ca. 1596, published 1597). Produced by John Brabourne, Anthony Havelock-Allan. Run Time: 138 minutes. U.K. and Italy. Color. Drama, Romance
Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the best known of all of William Shakespeare’s plays. The story of tragic love has its origins dating back to the beginnings of literature. The earliest type of story is Pyramus and Thisbe dating back to Ovid’s (aka Publius Ovidius Naso) poem Metamorphoses first published in 8 AD. (Pyramus and Thisbe would also make an appearance in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)
The earliest version of Romeo and Juliet dates back to the story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, published in 1476. In 1530, Luigi da Porto adapted the story as Giulietta e Romeo and added many of the “modern” items we associate with the story, including the names of the lovers, the rivalry between the Montecchi and Capuleti families, characters corresponding to Shakespeare’s Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris as well as using Verona, Italy as the location.
Matteo Bandello wrote his own version of the story in 1554. His version adds some characters, including the Nurse character, as well as the feud between the families. Bandello’s story was then translated into French by Pierre Boaistuau in 1559. And in 1562, Arthur Brooke faithfully translated Boaustuau in his narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. In 1567, William Painter retold the story again in prose. Shakespeare’s take on the story borrowed from both Brooke’s and Painter’s work, but he added his own dramatic structure and verse.
Written between 1591 and 1596, the play would be his most popular during his lifetime, along with Hamlet and the tragic love story has also been one of his most popular to be adapted to film. There have been over 20 versions of the play made for film and television dating back to Clément Maurice’s French version in 1900. But perhaps the best known version is Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet released in 1968.
Zeffirelli had started as a production designer and had made his directorial debut with another Shakespeare play, The Taming of the Shrew (1967), the best known film adaptation of that play as well. Originally slated to star Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, the film ended up starring Elizabeth Taylor and her then husband Richard Burton, who had put more than a million dollars towards the film’s budget.
After the success of The Taming of the Shrew, Zeffirelli took on another Shakespeare play, Romeo & Juliet. For his second film, Zeffirelli supposedly approached Paul McCartney of The Beatles to play the lead male role. When that didn’t work out, there was a casting call which had 300 actors auditioning over a span of more than three months. From that Leonard Whiting was chosen. For Juliet, Zeffirelli chose Olivia Hussey, whom he had seen on stage in a production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie opposite Vanessa Redgrave. Again, she was chosen over 500 other actresses.
With a production of $850,000, the film was shot on several locations in Italy. The story starts with narration read by perhaps the best known Shakespearean actor of modern times, Laurence Olivier. This prologue pretty much is a spoiler for the play, but that’s how it was written.
In Verona, Italy, there is a long-standing feud between two prominent families, one lead by Lord (Antonio Pierfederici) and Lady (Esmeralda Ruspoli) Montague and the other by Lord (Paul Hardwick) and Lady (Natasha Parry) Capulet. When members of these families meet on the streets it takes very little provocation to turn into an out and out street brawl. It takes the intervention of the Prince of Verona (Robert Stephens) and the threat to execute the leaders of both families to stop things.
Against this background of bad blood, two teenagers, Romeo Montague (Leonard Whiting) and Juliet Capulet (Olivia Hussey), meet and fall madly in love. Later, Romeo stumbles into the garden below Juliet’s bedroom balcony and the two exchange pledges of love.
|Romeo Montague (Leonard Whiting) and Juliet Capulet (Olivia Hussey) meet and fall in love.|
With the help of Friar Laurence (Milo O’Shea), who has been like a father to Romeo, and Juliet’s Nurse (Pat Heywood), who has been the girl’s stand-in mother, the two wed secretly.
|Milo O'Shea plays Friar Laurence who secretly weds the young lovers.|
Unfortunately, not a day goes by before there is trouble. Juliet’s first cousin Tybalt (Michael York), who doesn’t know about the wedding, throws insults at Romeo, who now thinks of Tybalt as family and doesn’t want to fight with him. But Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio (John McEnery), who doesn’t know about the wedding either, takes up arms to defend his friend.
|Tybalt (Michael York) kills Romeo's friend, Mercutio (John McEnery).|
While the duel that ensues starts out as two young men enjoying themselves as they try to best one another, it grows more violent and Mercutio is killed. So lighthearted is the duel that even though Mercutio is mortally wounded his friends think he is acting and do not get help that might have saved his life. Tybalt flees the scene, but Romeo follows and the two get into their own swordfight. Even though Romeo seems overmatched by Tybalt, he does manage to kill him. After one night of passion together, Romeo leaves Juliet and Verona, having been banished by the Prince for the murder.
|And as revenge, Romeo duels and kills Tybalt.|
Meanwhile, unaware that Juliet is already married, her father arranges her to marry the wealthy Count Paris (Roberto Bisacco). To help her avoid the marriage, Friar Laurence prepares a concoction for her that will make her appear to be temporarily dead for forty-two hours. He plans to inform Romeo of the hoax, so the two can meet after Juliet’s burial. Friar John (Aldo Miranda) is dispatched with a letter telling Romeo as much.
|Romeo and Juliet spend one night of passion together.|
However, Romeo’s servant Balthasar (Keith Skinner) witnesses Juliet’s funeral and, not knowing the hoax, goes to inform his master. Unfortunately, he arrives before Friar John and Romeo, reacting to the news, hurries to Juliet’s tomb. Distraught by seeing her dead body, he kills himself by drinking poison. After one last kiss, he dies.
|Romeo doesn't know Juliet's death is a hoax, so he kills himself after one last kiss.|
Friar Laurence arrives after Romeo’s death and just before Juliet reawakens from his potion. Seeing that Romeo is dead, she takes her husband’s dagger and stabs herself in the heart to join him in the afterlife.
|Seeing her husband is dead, Juliet takes her own life with Romeo's dagger.|
The young lovers’ death brings the two families together at a joint funeral and they agree to end their feud.
|The death of Romeo and Juliet bring the two fueding families together.|
When the film was released on October 8, 1968, it was a big success by the standards of the day, earning nearly $39 million at the box office. Reviews were generally positive and the film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, though it would win for Best Cinematography (Pasqualino De Santis) and Best Costume Design (Danilo Donati). Even the soundtrack album would peak at #2 in the Billboard charts in 1969.
No doubt at the time of the film’s release, showing young people close to the ages of the protagonists, rather than already established actors, was applauded and it should have been. While there is nudity, and it is perhaps a little gratuitous, you have to remember the time that it was made. These were not sights seen on American mainstream cinemas at the time. During the 1960’s, with its shift in mores, this film was the right one for the time; pushing the envelope without going too far for the movie-going public.
|There is some nudity, which at the time was still new for a mainstream film in America.|
The film would make stars out of its young leads and they will forever be associated with the roles of Romeo and Juliet. They both have a certain star power that comes with young actors being able to carry a major motion picture. Whiting and Hussey were the reason people came to see the film and their performances are why the movie is still watchable to this day.
For a time, Leonard Whiting would get the pop idol treatment and would be considered a heartthrob to some. Whiting would win the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year, but he would end up only making a handful of films, instead concentrating on his theatrical career. Olivia Hussey would have a longer career, though nothing would approach her initial success as Juliet. They are both reuniting in Social Suicide (2015).
There are other actors of note in the cast, including Michael York as Tybalt and Milo O’Shea as Friar Laurence. York was just starting an acting career that would include film, television, live acting and voice over work. York would appear in Cabaret (1972) with Liza Minnelli, co-star in The Three Musketeers (1973) and its sequel, The Four Musketeers (1974) and star in the sci-fi film Logan’s Run (1976).
Milo O’Shea was best known as a character actor in a career that started as Air Raid Warden in Blackout (1940) and ended with an appearance on The West Wing (2004).
For the most part the movie’s screenplay stays fairly faithful to the source material, though there are some edits made in dialogue, etc., which one would expect with any adaptation, even one of Shakespeare. And it is how much this is like a play that keeps me from really endorsing the movie. Like The Merchant of Venice (2004), this film was made on locations that, at least, resemble the locations where the story would have taken place. But while Venice was shown as a vibrant city, Verona comes off like an empty stage on which the play is performed. I don’t really get the sense of place here that a location shoot should have brought.
Added to that, the voices sound like they were re-dubbed after filming. I haven’t been able to find any information about this production in particular, but it was a common practice to redub voices shot on location. In this case, it’s sort of like watching a Hong Kong kung fu film dubbed in English, but in this case it’s English that they’re overdubbing. All the lip movements synch up, but some of the power of the speeches seems to get lost in the process. As a result some of the acting comes off as a little flat. Again, I don’t have evidence that this is what happened, only that after having seen this film three times now, that is the impression I’m left with.
While I know the intent was to bring the play to life on the cinema screen, there is more to a production than costumes and beautiful cinematography. Having watched several other Shakespeare films recently, including A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Hamlet (1948), Othello (1995), and The Merchant of Venice (2004), this one seems to be the slowest paced and the least involving. Beautiful to watch, the film has not held up well over time.
But to say not to watch this is to like denying you a rite of passage. Ever since this film was released, it has been the go-to movie for new readers of Shakespeare wanting to see the play, but not wanting to wait for a production to be mounted nearby. And the film has been used as a vehicle to introduce the Bard to the masses. The story has been modernized, as in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), but seeing the play in the setting Shakespeare envisioned is probably best for new viewers.
No doubt the play will continue to be adapted and retold as each new generation does its take on the classic tragic love story, but Zeffirelli’s adaptation is, at least for now, the standard bearer by which all future films will be compared.