This Rough Magic: Shakespeare on Film

By Barber, Lester E | Literature/Film Quarterly, Fall 1973 | Go to article overview

This Rough Magic: Shakespeare on Film


Barber, Lester E, Literature/Film Quarterly


Charles W. Eckert, Focus on Shakespearean Films. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972. $2.45.

Grigori Kozintsev, Shakespeare: Time and Conscience. Translated from the Russian by Joyce Vining. New York: Hill and Wang, 1966.

Charles Eckert's pastiche of reviews and articles about Shakespearean films is an exception among anthologies of criticism, a readable collection which I found hard to put down once I had begun to read. The variety of approaches and styles among the essays is pleasing, as is the uniform, good-natured enthusiasm for their subject. Eckert whets the reader's interest even more by stage-managing a challenging, but rarely heavy-handed debate between those filmmakers and critics who feel that faithfulness to the Shakespearean text is the crucial measure of a film's worth and those, on the other hand, who expect an exciting Shakespearean film to be an imaginative recreation of a play's spirit, presented unapologetically in the language of the cinema.

The book's format, a chronological arrangement - three introductory essays to start off, followed by one or more articles on the "major" Shakespearean films of the sound era, from A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1935 to Chimes at Midnight in 1966 - might seem mechanical but for the variety which quickly manifests itself. An article by Ian Johnson, reprinted from Films and Filming for April 1964 leads off appropriately. Its approach is historical, so that it introduces the reader to most of the films for which Eckert subsequently reprints essays, as well as laying initial stress on the debate which has already been mentioned and quickly surveying at least two kinds of Shakespearean films which Eckert has deliberately not investigated further: silent films such as Dimitri Bukhovetsky's 1922 Othello and distant adaptations of Shakespeare like Delmer Daves's Jubal, a 1955 Western, following in part the story of Othello. Johnson's survey is balanced by a speculative, theoretical study by Henri Lemaitre which argues that Shakespeare had a "pre-cinematic desire to show," rather than a purely dramatic desire to say. Shakespeare's poetry and structures are an "imaginary cinema" of metaphoric images and montage effects. Lemaitre's controlling thesis is that there are ". . . secret rapports between the worlds of Shakespeare and, at the least, a portion of the world of cinema, that alone can explain how assiduously, and at times successfully, the cinema has demonstrated its infatuation with Shakespeare . . . ."

Some of the most appealing essays in the collection can best be described as "appreciations" of the great work of certain masters of the film. These appreciations range from the polished essay by James Agee on Olivier's Henry V, to a fascinating set of excerpts from the diary which was kept during the filming of Orson Welles's Othello by Michéal MacLiammóir, the lago of that film. This diary gives exciting glimpses into the filming habits and the personality of the director/actor whom MacLiammóir calls at one point "bright-winged old gorilla." Indeed, the greatest masters of the Shakespearean film are probably still Olivier and Welles, and it seems appropriate that the work of these artists is strongly celebrated in this book. Of the approximately one hundred and twenty pages devoted to discussions of particular films, Eckert gives seventy pages to Olivier and Welles. Whether the proportions are just or not, few readers will object once they have read the essays.

A second kind of film criticism represented in this anthology is the "reading" or interpretation, a close analysis of film and play. The two examples which impressed me most with their detail, balance, and insight were Paul Jorgensen's study of Castellani's 1954 Romeo and Juliet and Constance Brown's analysis of Olivier's Richard III. In his "Introduction," Eckert singles out Ms. Brown for special praise, saying, "I her] extended analysis of Richard III is unique in this volume. …

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