Monday, July 07, 2003

"Caesar" miniseries embellishes history

TNT's "Caesar" miniseries was much anticipated and although the history was "embellished" by Hollywood, I appreciated the effort. Of course members of my Imperial Rome group began to share their impressions as soon as Part 1 ended. One observation was that Sulla, played by an ancient Richard Harris, was only in his fifties when he returned to Rome with his legions. Well, not only was Richard Harris too old but the politics and personality of Sulla was all wrong as well. Sulla's "reforms" were intended to restore power to the Senate. He was not a "man of the people" in any stretch of the imagination. He was also ruthless and his proscriptions were brutal but he was not fickle or insane at the time he reentered Rome. He also didn't die while he was dictator and not in the bath (I think the screenwriter got his dictators mixed up). He retired and died about a year later from a liver disorder - probably cirrhosis from drinking too much as a remedy to his terrible skin condition that he contracted in the east. Of course, they also did not portray anything of this bisexual nature either.

Then we come to the issue of Cornelia being portrayed as too old and little Julia as way too old. Caesar's encounter with the pirates was a pathetic attempt at typical hollywood tension instead of the more interesting way that it actually unfolded with Caesar being aristocratic and writing and reciting poetry to his captors then having them executed just as he promised. Of course the ridiculous scene of Pompey "saving" Caesar's life was totally conjured out of thin air. Caesar also joined the army and had served courageously winning the Corona Civica before returning to Rome. The miniseries didn't seem to indicate Caesar had any military experience until he went to Gaul which was ridiculous.

However, despite all of hollywood's blunders in historical film making, I would still rather watch an inaccurate film about the period than much of the outright trash hollywood produces for "the mob". I went to "The Matrix: Reloaded" recently and was actually bored by the long drawn out sequences of kicking, punching, flipping, etc. meant to make the audience marvel at the film's special effects. After all, hollywood had to take 3 1/2 minutes of plot and make it last 2 hours so I guess you have to cut them a little slack!

What I find most disappointing is that Caesar's life - as it was lived - was absolutely fascinating and didn't need any tinkering to make it an absorbing film. I read an article that said Chris Noth commanded such a screen presence as Pompey that the filmmakers decided to plump up his part. This resulted in the Pompey saving Caesar, etc. sequences. I think Noth was quite regal as Pompey too but the resulting effort to showcase his talent ended up detracting from Jeremy Sisto's portrayal of Caesar, who was supposed to be the focus of the work.

I also think the film should have been forthright about Caesar's numerous affairs instead of portraying his relationship with Cleopatra as a modern soap-opera. I think portraying Caesar as a bit of a rascal in this regard would have added more depth to his character. I also don't think Calpurnia would have let his philandering influence her relationship with him. It was common for wealthy men to have mistresses and Calpurnia would have also recognized the political factors in the relationship with Cleopatra. I'm sure she didn't particularly like it but Calpurnia also recognized that as his legitimate wife, she ultimately held the most important position. I think McCullough's portrayal of the situation in "The October Horse" was much closer to the mark.

One member dismissed the series as another victim of bad acting along with "Gladiator". I'm afraid I disagree with the "bad acting" label for "Gladiator" and even to some extent for "Caesar". Russell Crowe's recent performances have impressed me, particularly his work in "A Beautiful Mind" and "The Insider" as well as "Gladiator." I also thought Joaquin Phoenix was excellent as Commodus (He also was outstanding in "Quills" even if the story was a bit bizarre), Connie Nielsen did a great job as Lucilla, and Oliver Reed was most memorable in his performance as Proximo. (I'm glad they were able to preserve his performance even though he died before shooting ended).

As for "Caesar", I agreed with other members that Jeremy Sisto suffered from a lackluster script more than from bad acting. I also found the actor playing Vercingetorix to have quite a screen presence. Of course, I think the Alesia segment was the highlight of the program although the sacrifice of the women and children is not recorded in Caesar's Commentaries. Hollywood must have embellished some of the references such as:

"The matrons begin to cast their clothes and silver over the wall, and bending over as far as the lower part of the bosom, with outstretched hands beseech the Romans to spare them, and not to sacrifice to their resentment even women and children, as they had done at Avaricum. Some of them let themselves down from the walls by their hands, and surrendered to our soldiers." - Caesar's Commentaries, Chapter 47.

"When a great multitude of them had assembled, the matrons, who a little before were stretching their hands from the walls to the Romans, began to beseech their countrymen, and after the Gallic fashion to show their disheveled hair, and bring their children into public view." - Caesar's Commentaries, Chapter 48.