Essential: ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)
When Franco Zefferelli made this film, he made Shakespeare more accessible to modern audiences. It wasn’t the first cinematic version about the great star-crossed lovers, nor would it be the last, but its timeless qualities set it apart. Primarily remembered for its realistic casting (earlier productions used much older actors to portray the teenaged leads) and remembered for on-location filming in and around Rome, it remains highly regarded nearly fifty years after Paramount first released it.
Critic Roger Ebert called it an exciting adaptation. The opening sequence certainly contains a great deal of excitement and nicely establishes the mood. Immediately we see the youth of two rival Veronese families (the Capulets and Montagues) engaged in a street brawl that has escalated in the blink of an eye from an insult to a sword fight. But the disturbance ends, and our heroic Romeo (Leonard Whiting) makes his entrance in a more subdued and romantic moment. Then we glimpse sweet young Juliet (Olivia Hussey) in her home environment. Even someone with no prior knowledge of the proceedings can figure out they will fall in love.
But the basic scenario is somewhat contrived. We have to ask why in all these years of living in the same small city they never noticed or head about each other before the party scene. And what’s caused their initial love-at-first-sight to be so overpowering is not explained either. Is it because they find something in each other absent within their own families? Of course, the first kiss they share is quite special. Yet it lacks the type of psychological dimension we see in Hamlet, so the tragicness that should be there right from the beginning is largely absent.
Juliet’s cousin Tybalt is of course the villain of the piece/peace. Though if you think about it, Shakespeare’s need to present a tragedy is what brings the pair to eventual ruin. In the meantime we’re poised to root for the antithesis of happiness, because rooting for this couple and their hysterically dramatic ending is the same as rooting for trouble and misery. Other things work against the text. Romeo and Juliet as literary figures are now so casually a part of our common culture that it’s easy to overlook how extreme and violent their story is. Though one can never overlook the sheer impossibleness of it all– especially after Tybalt’s death.
Shakespearean scholars may not like to point out the other plot holes– at least in Zefferelli’s telling. For instance, there is no explanation given for Juliet’s sudden decision to marry Paris. Viewers know she cannot marry Paris if she is already wed to Romeo, and she is just going along with the idea to prevent hostilities with her father. But it’s not explained how she convinces her parents she’s changed her mind and is now willing to be Paris’ wife.
Also during the funeral procession at the end, we are not told how Romeo has been forgiven for his crimes. He did take the law into his own hands when he killed Tybalt, and it would keep him from being honorable in the eyes of the prince, even if the Capulets were able to understand why he did it. Then there’s the fact we’re never told much about why the Capulets and the Montagues are feuding in the first place. Is this all just an old-fashioned turf war, or were there other killings in the past that needed to be avenged? The backstory is not at all properly fleshed out.
The crypt scene and the funeral seem kind of rushed to me. Zefferelli spends too much time presenting the courtship and showing the gang activity in the streets (no doubt influenced by WEST SIDE STORY) that he is forced to speed up the the last two acts of the play in order to get everything in before the movie ends. When it’s over, the experience leaves us with a somewhat unoriginal conclusion. I’m not sure if it’s Shakespeare’s main idea or Zefferelli’s that love is forever. And in a fool’s paradise it has the effect of a dagger to the heart.
ROMEO AND JULIET can be streamed as part of the Amazon video service.