Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" in the movies: Comparing Franco Zeffirelli's (1968) and Baz Luhrman's (1996) film versions

Examination Thesis, 2002

71 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)


Table of Contents

2 Part I: Theoretics

3 Preliminary remarks, methods and elementary presuppositions

4 The music in Zeffirelli and Luhrmann

5 Baz Luhrmann

6 “Bringing Shakespeare to the masses”: Two popularisers

7 Women’s roles and their design

8 The Nurse

9 Conclusion

10 An outlook

“Beauty is just the frame. Inside it must be the picture.”

(Franco Zeffirelli[1] )



3 Preliminary remarks, methods and elementary presuppositions.

William Shakespeare's works are undoubtedly among the best examined pieces of literature of the world’s written word. Certainly, no other author’s output had to endure more processing and treatment over the course of four centuries than Shakespeare’s. His greatest achievement, the one he was himself probably little aware of, is though, that after the world has changed considerably in these four hundred years, his work is still adored today and considered to be topical. This would hardly be the case, if Shakespeare had not at all times been accommodated to the zeitgeist ’s current gusto: From Shakespeare’s contemporary Elizabethan theatre and its scarce staging possibilities, the emphasising of heroism in following, war-ridden imperialistic times, the presumably outrageous staging of end of 20th century post-modern pop culture, to today’s recollection of a more romantic or idealistic approach - in the end, the audience determines what they want to see. This has likewise always been true for movie adaptations of Shakespeare, ever since the first grainy scraps of film were photographed in the end of the 19th century to the two modern productions of Romeo and Juliet that focus on social and cultural transformations of profound importance in the end of the sixties and in the mid-nineties, which will be the subject of this paper.

This exam paper sets out to analyse and compare the film adaptations of the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who shaped William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” into a tremendously successful movie in 1968 and the, due to its time of release, even more successful, star-studded film created in 1996 by the Australian Baz Luhrmann of the same play.

With all the technical development in the field of movie-making and accurately relating to the fact that our viewing habits have considerably changed in the 28 years between these two films, we have to concede that the two movies could hardly be more disparate as far as aesthetics and cinematic approach are concerned. Still, both share a great deal of artistic and socio-cultural intentions: These are on the one hand, putting Shakespeare’s most youth-oriented play into the context of youth, after it had been staged for all its time of existence, including Shakespeare's own, by actors, who had exceeded their own youth and merely meant to revoke memories of it in the audience. Secondly, the youthfulness should be transported to the audience through a certain quickness of movement and action and this swiftness has to be brought across not only through the cast, the acting, but also by the visuals of camera work, film editing and sound, which means the music and the very voices of the cast and their reading of Shakespeare.

The paper is organised in three main parts, theoretics, application and evaluation. The first part will deal with issues necessary to fully apprehend Shakespearean moviemaking. I will examine the history of it and explain what made the two films discussed herein possible and what eventually led to them. Furthermore, I will depict the two directors’ different backgrounds and how they lead on to their individual styles. I will consider some other films that have paved the way for Zeffirelli and Luhrmann. A chapter is dedicated to the filmic realisation, which will consider the cuts, rearrangements and general approach of the films and their directors. These issues will be confirmed by the secondary literature used herein. The second part will apply these issues to single and in my opinion particularly revealing film-scenes, which will be examined to perceive Zeffirelli’s and Luhrmann’s access to the characters, early and latter scientific reception and how Zeffirelli’s approach might differ due to the times his motion picture was made in and how both may or may not have succeeded in mirroring its times. The second part will thus rely on my interpretation and less on secondary literature. The third part will try to bring these perceptions to a conclusive evaluation. These are subjective and thus liable to objection. They cannot be universally valid, but since I am dealing with art, nothing is.

Luhrmann was obviously firmly affected by Zeffirelli’s work, and moreover used it as a guiding line for his film, which gives rise to the question, if he was merely an epigone, or maybe rather struck by Zeffirelli’s scenic ideas as being plausible and practical. This is a question which I shall seek to respond to, if I cannot answer it, in the progress of this paper. Furthermore, I will try to point out Morris’s[2] dictum, that Shakespeare movies are an art form and a genre in their own right and should not be confused with or compared to a theatrical production of Shakespeare, but have an aesthetic language of their own.

Certainly, some of the treatments that Shakespeare’s works had to endure over the course of four centuries were not necessarily for the better, and it is also accurate that some interpretations are today considered to have been mislead, erratic, at their best funny and some may consider specific examples of them, from today’s point of view, to be utterly ridiculous.

An internet site[3] of the Encyclopaedia Britannica provides a range of examples for interpretations that may fall into that register, when we get to hear the ominous readings recorded in the first and second decade of the last century. The foreboding and rather menacing voices of at their time renowned Shakespeare actors sound today, less than a hundred years after the recording, so inconceivably strained in an effort to impress their listeners of the greatness of Shakespeare’s words, that they lose the capability of conviction and to our ears slip off into the realm of ridicule. The audiences of the “Roaring Twenties” surely were riveted to their seats and in sheer rapture at these performances, when we today may shake our heads with a frown, smile in embarrassment, or laugh out in disbelief. It is, as stated above, the zeitgeist’s current gusto, and the audience’s susceptibility, that effects and influences the presentation. In other words, every audience gets the Shakespeare it deserves.

This paper will explain the Shakespeare that a 1968 youth revolt audience of optimistic perspective and the creativity of the “Free love generation”[4] expected and wanted to see. It will on the other hand demonstrate the very different one that a 1996 hedonistic, and perhaps to some extent nihilistic, post-punk, gang-war Generation X favoured, as both films depicts the young Montagues and Capulets in the opening “thumb-biting”-scene and the conclusive brawl in an idealised picture of their times’ youths.

11.2 A glimpse at the history of Shakespearean movie-making, focussing on Romeo and Juliet.

The plays of Shakespeare have been a great challenge to filmmakers, ever since the technique of the moving picture had been invented and the internet server (internet movie data base) provides a list[5] of no less than 482 movies for cinema or television relating to Shakespeare, starting off with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree`s 1899 fragment of King John, depicting in a running time of three minutes the death scene in the end of the play, featuring himself as King John and three further actors. It closes with a Malaysian adaptation by one Nam Ron of Julius Caesar, portraying Caesar as a skinhead and Brutus as an undercover cop, set in the underground music scene of Kuala Lumpur. It is to date still within process of production and therefore remains unreleased for the moment. The list of the internet movie data base encloses, one has to admit, every bit of film that can justly claim William Shakespeare under “writing credits” and thus can also (and does) contain certain specimens that have hardly anything to do with what the name of Shakespeare might allude to.

The first Shakespeare-ish silent movie was made in 1899[6], and until 1912, there were at least 18 different versions of Shakespeare histories, tragedies and comedies. All these were of course still silent movies: The poetry of Shakespeare was limited to intrusive titles, and the actors mouthed the lines inaudibly, with a great deal of posing and gesture, as could have been expected from stage actors who are also today often in jeopardy of over-acting when filmed. This was often not so much useless as rather ludicrous. Of course all films were abbreviated to a point beyond recognition, few of them ran more than 15 minutes. So, it was virtually impossible to comprehend the pieces without being familiar with plots beforehand. But even after the longer running “talkies” were invented (1927), the moviemakers still faced problems that the sound of Shakespeare’s words were unable to solve: The main critique was that any attempt to adapt, cut, treat or even rewrite the original text (or what is today considered to be originally Shakespeare, since no manuscript has survived) would be trying to be better than Shakespeare himself, clearly an act of hubris and at least a sign of severe lack of respect for the sacrosanct Shakespeare as an almost supreme being, or in the revealing words of Albert R. Cirillo (1969: page 71): [...]that poet whom we have made a distant god”. This adapting, trimming, clipping and cutting however is the very processing sine non Shakespeare filming cannot, or should not exist, as the next chapter will prove in more detail.

Apart from these earliest attempts which can be considered as belonging to the “experimental level of Shakespeare-ish cinema”, there were Sir Lawrence Olivier’s lauded films of the forties and fifties, among them the classics Henry V of 1944, Hamlet of 1948 and Richard III of 1954. After these majestic, sublime and at times certainly lofty performance screenings, Hamlet in sinister black and white, Richard III in stark Technicolor, that were rather theatre-on-screen than unconstrained cinematic interpretations, there soon came the productions of the American Orson Welles, such as Macbeth, likewise rolled in 1948 and Othello, 1952, both black and white, with their similar approach. As Robert Hapgood rightly claims in his article „The artistry of Franco Zeffirelli“ in Boose, Bart (eds) (1997), page 85: “Try as he would to be cinematic in his directing and acting, Olivier often fell between the two stools of theatre and film.” The same can be said for Orson Welles. Both director-actors and their films had this one common thing to say: Shakespeare on film is but a means to an end, but it cannot be the end, which must and will always remain the stage. Douglas Brode (Brode, 2000: page 5) quotes Orson Welles, who was quite frank about it. Welles said: “You can’t put a play on the screen. I don’t believe in that.” The idea, that Olivier and Welles could themselves one time belong to a yet to define genre of “Shakespearean Film” or even the possibility of an existence of such a genre hardly crossed their minds. With all their excellence in Shakespeare-stagecraft, they were doing rather a stage version of Shakespeare on film, but not Shakespearean film, failing to acknowledge the distinctions of the stage, their stock in trade, and the screen and thus seemed to have been content with reproducing inherited and established theatre conventions and traditions in this new medium that indeed would have given them the possibilities to develop and refine the audience’s appreciation for Shakespeare. They either lacked the inventiveness or the cinematographical skills and in the effect, they seemed to bother little with exploring these new possibilities to their limits, thus transporting Shakespeare off his “unworthy scaffold”[7] into a new time and technique.

The scope of film was by then maybe too much the Saturday night amusement of leisure as that it could have been considered art pour l’art, with the accomplishments of artistic filming of the twenties and thirties forgotten and forlorn after the atrocities of World War II and the achievements of what is now known as film noir still to come in future years. Hollywood produced light comedies, whodunit -thrillers and stereotypical and at times blatantly racist Wild West-movies in enormous quantity and appalling quality, according to the rules of the free market. Some of these rules are essential to prevent the worst flaw of any film production, i.e. being boring to the viewers. The basics, such as rapid movement of plot and certain filming techniques were certainly adopted for the better by Zeffirelli, who had managed to rid himself of the slower tempo of theatre, for which he had been working before but which simply cannot work in the movies.

His first great film project, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, may still have suffered from some of these mistakes, that theatre people are prone to make, when starting into film. He was however not the first to shoot a Hollywood-financed version of Romeo and Juliet for the “big screen”, nor was it the first ever Romeo and Juliet on film, as Brode’s book “Shakespeare in the Movies” (2000) portrays[8], the source of this chapter’s information. The two earliest scraps of film are lost, one shot by the French Georges Melies, and a burlesque of it by Thomas Edison. Until as early as 1916, there were at least eight adaptations, an exact number cannot be given, since there is no telling how many are lost and have never reached a greater audience. Brode claims that Romeo and Juliet has been filmed more often than any other play, Shakespearean or otherwise” (Brode (2000): page 45) and considers the first “ambitious version” an Italian one, Giuletta e Romeo (1911), shot on location in Verona by Gerolamo Lo Savio, and he states that “such incidents as the Capulet’s party and Verona street fight were lavishly staged” (Brode (2000): page 42-43).

The first full length Hollywood production however is a film shot in 1936 by director George Cukor for M-G-M, which Cirillo (1968: page 70) in his early and concise appreciation of Zeffirelli's work[9] dismisses as “an extremely dull movie”. His argumentation claims that it is a “museum performance”, because “nearly every line was [...]literally filmed and reverently pronounced by mature actors.” As Brode’s work (page 44-45) tells us, Leslie Howard as Romeo was at the time of filming no less than forty-five years old and his counterpart Norma Shearer as Juliet was thirty–two, the latter having thus apparently seen some more than the original change of fourteen years[10]. Cirillo (op.cit.: page 70) goes on to explain that it was “obviously regarded as a museum piece in one of Hollywood’s occasional, ceremonious bows to ‘culture’”. Expectably, Brode (2000: page 44) describes the acting as “awkwardly stylised theatrics”.

Renato Castellani’s 1954 Romeo and Juliet (Verona Productions) is for Brode a film, that managed to change the face of the industry “drastically” (op.cit.: page 48). Shot in “breathtaking color photography and stunningly capturing Italian locales” (Brode, 2000: page 49), it was finally the first to have Romeo and Juliet played by actors, who at least came near to the Shakespearean ideal of still innocent youth: Actress Susan Shentall as Juliet was nineteen, Laurence Harvey as Romeo was at the time of shooting twenty-five. He eventually went on to substitute James Dean, who was scheduled to appear in Nelson Algren’s Walk on the Wild Side and Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, but died an untimely and brutal death in 1955 in a car crash[11], restraining him from shooting more than the three films East of Eden (by Elia Kazan), Rebel Without a Cause (by Nicholas Ray) and Giant (by George Stevens), with which he had established for the first time a new image of a youth that refused to pursue their parents’ way, which is of course also a key issue of Romeo and Juliet.

Director Castellani and his cinematographer Robert Krasker, who had before been working with Olivier in his three Shakespearean movies, managed to seize impressive Italian Renaissance styles, creating “breathtaking tableaus [ sic! ]” from as many as ten Italian cities, “untouched by time” (op.cit.) to successfully evoke the Renaissance notion. But the most important feat of his film is, that here, a director of a Shakespeare play succeeded for the first time to “not only employ the camera to translate a play into [...]cinema” [my emphasis], but actually subvert “Shakespeare’s text to the tenets of moviemaking as well”, as Brode (2000: page 50) says. These were, in other words, no longer theatrical mannerisms on the screen, but the play taken off the stage and rendered into another language: the language of film. This was something neither Olivier nor Welles ever achieved, as weighty as their magnificence in Shakespearean acting has been and still is in the record of their films.

What is more, and another first in Shakespeare filming, is the director’s perception of himself. He was no longer a vicarious agent to the theatre, but has emancipated himself from it to something altogether different: As a director he had done hardly less than what the composer Giuseppe Verdi had done, when he transformed Shakespeare’s Othello into his opera, as Brode justly states. This act of inventiveness and innovation made the director no longer just an “interpreter of Shakespeare” (op.cit.: page 50.), but he had become a cinematic artist in his own right.

This came at a cost, and the price to pay was the text. The grandeur of the Italian scenery and the Renaissance costumes might have given rise to the hope that clippings would not be overestimated, but the movie lacks important lines of the Balcony-scene, the better part of the droll humour of the Nurse and other characters of that nature, the entirety of the Queen Mab-speech, of course the Apothecary-scene[12] and moreover, Castellani and his screenwriters took strange liberties in rearranging and even rewriting the plot, such as having Romeo stab himself, generally degrading Mercutio to a “bit player” (op.cit.: page 50) and including a scene for Friar John to explain his delivery failure of Friar Lawrence’s letter.

The critique Castellani’s film had to endure was quite predictable. It was “scorned at in England” and “savagely attacked” for the deficient and indeed chopped dialogue, but also for the “throwaway approach” the remaining words were treated in, as Brode reports (2000: page 50).

It seems even in this critique and of course indeed more so in the overall significance of the film to be the direct predecessor of Franco Zeffirelli’s film of 1968, except that he took things to a greater extreme, or was more bold in his ardour for the medium and the material, and was still successful, because the times had changed so much from Castellani’s mid-fifties to the student-revolts of ’68.

Zeffirelli’s actors were even younger, Leonard Whiting as Romeo was sixteen years old when filming began and Olivia Hussey, a stunning Juliet, was only fifteen. Zeffirelli also shot on location in Italy, utilising the medieval architecture of Tuscania, Pinza and Gubbio for local colour. Castellani’s 1954 Romeo, Laurence Harvey, obviously bore a “striking similarity to James Dean” (Brode, 2000: page 51). By that, Castellani willingly or unwillingly embedded into his film a sign o’ the times, a label of youth culture, making it easier for young people to relate to it. Zeffirelli did much the same, when he depicted his 1968 Romeo as a “flower child”, as Brode observed[13], paying thus dues to the “Free Love generation”[14]. Zeffirelli’s cinematographic approach and his self-confidence as a director exceeded Castellani’s and he, too, cut the Apothecary-scene, but left Mercutio’s part undamaged (albeit shortened, as he would abridge any other character’s lines), and indeed pushed him into the limelight.

11.3 Shakespeare’s theatre-drama as a film version: Pro and contra.

Ever since the first filmmakers have undertaken ventures to take Shakespeare off his “unworthy scaffold” and onto the screen, the critics have been many and they often were scholars who simply considered the movie as a means of entertainment not appropriate for the high culture of Shakespeare. To them, a movie theatre was a place unsuitable for “the Bard”, because for them, a correlation with burlesque, fraudulent, “cheap” amusement was inevitable. The film was no place for serious enlightenment, if one may allow the oxymoron. The movie as a medium had many presuppositions and even prejudices to cope with and one can still today hear critics claiming that Shakespeare wrote for nothing but the stage and cannot have so much as thought of anything else, because it was not even invented. Undeniably, there is truth to this argument. But as Cirillo’s article “The art of Franco Zeffirelli and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet” (in: TriQuarterly, 1969: page 69-70) rightly asserts, it is often a “failure on the critic’s part to realize the different demands of the different mediums” [ sic ]. And, what is “a virtue in one medium is not necessarily a virtue in the other” and critics have to acknowledge that theatre traditions cannot and more often than not should not be expected from the screen, if a film wants to keep its credibility.

Douglas Brode’s book “Shakespeare in the Movies” (2000) offers a singular answer to the question if Shakespeare should be filmed at all, because he could not have written for anything else but the stage: In Brode’s introduction, he compares Shakespeare with Leonardo da Vinci, who, centuries before modern technology would have permitted it, invented something as improbable for his times as a helicopter. Shakespeare did something similarly off-key, when he wrote his plays, which decidedly have left behind the credo of the Aristotelian drama with its unity of time, space and plot. Brode (2000: page 6) writes: “When Gentle Will sat down to write, his unit of construction was the cinematic scene, not the theatrical act”. Besides the somewhat irritating zeal to de-mystify William Shakespeare by referring to him as “Will” and adding the capitalised adjective “gentle” to furthermore reassure all too intimidated readers, he means to promote the idea that Shakespeare’s style of writing resembled more that of a movie playwright than many of the dour critics would like to appreciate. He had no concept of any of his plays being subdivided into acts and scenes. These are additions of later publishers. Shakespeare just added scene to scene, with the only divisions given being characters entering or leaving the stage, which was often enough even announced by the actor’s last lines of speech in a scene, lest the audience would have been in jeopardy to lose track with the action. The very scarceness of the Elizabethan stage made it possible and his poetical skill and style gave him the chance to quickly change locations, time, even plot to subplot, provided an actor would make that clear in his character’s speech for the audience to follow by actively taking part in the performance by means of using their imagination.

Another argument of Brode’s in this context is that there were probably no or only few rehearsals, impossible for the theatre but quite common in moviemaking. The composition of the audience was at times a “grotesque mix” of intellectuals and people off the street. The text was thus probably rather a loose guiding line, than the rigorously institutionalised formula that some scholars would like it to be today and Brode suggests (op.cit.: page 5), that the text was thus very much subject to the interpretation of the actors who took liberties in highlighting scenes and discarding others in reaction to any specific audience. In my opinion, this is nothing worse or better than what is done today, when a movie director decides which scenes to cut and which to keep, keeping an eye at his audience.

Shakespeare’s audience was in Brode’s opinion only interested “in a bloody good time” and he was the “bravura crowd pleaser”, and with his plays “filled with murders, sexual transgression, ghosts, and witches”, they resemble today’s blockbusters more than anything else in the theatrical world and Brode has no objection to compare Shakespeare to Hollywood’s top director Steven Spielberg (op.cit.: page 5). This comparison is in my opinion insupportable. Spielberg’s financially eminently successful films often hover between explicitly photographed violence in long shot and close-up and heart-wrenching kitsch on the verge of schmaltz, mixed with an American patriotism a European (or an Asian, or an African, for that matter) sometimes might find hard and even embarrassing to watch. Where Shakespeare and his theatre had to rely on the varying imagination of the individual viewers, Spielberg often victimises the viewer to voyeurism.

But it is in Brode’s opinion easy and commercially promising to film Shakespeare, because he largely wrote what a movie-going audience still expects to see today. This relates specifically to the point stated in 1.1 of this paper claiming that Shakespeare had at all times been adopted to the current zeitgeist. The language Shakespeare has used is decisively different, though.

The wide awake responsiveness that the scarce and stripped stage of Elizabethan theatre demanded of its audience is another reason why the film as a medium is not a crutch for people too lazy to read Shakespeare, but much rather a very usable vehicle granting a film-director an interpretational independence that movie-goers can take advantage of: When a soliloquy in a Shakespearean film is acted out in a public circumstance, it might become implausible and even laughable, as Brode’s example of Cassius in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar (1953) shows (Brode, 2000: page 7). Actor John Gielgud as Cassius walks a street of Rome loudly speaking to himself, unintentionally conveying a doubtful state of mind. However, the soliloquy could in a movie also be a voice-over and Brode appropriately suggests, that it can work then very well. Moreover, the imagination as a means of dramatisation is a tool that not only Shakespeare used, however involuntarily, but also great filmmakers of today: The most dramatic moments come to life in the mind of the viewer by not showing the knife hitting the body in Alfred Hitchcock’s memorable shower scene from Psycho (op.cit.).

Pilkington supports the notion of a film having means to offer that the stage could not by stating that “performance texts” (by which he means film) are regarded “as useful resources with dimensions and possible explications often unavailable from printed sources” and carries on to ironically and mockingly declare the theatre “superior to – because more Shakespearean than – film”, before he rightfully concludes that this “old prejudice” “is breaking down as a result of recent insights” (in: Pilkington, 1994: page 163).

To sum it up, it is safe to say that although film and stage must not be confused and their distinctive demands always be kept in mind, there is no persuasive argument against filming Shakespeare's plays, as not only the sheer abundance of these films go to show, but also the substantial commercial success they have. We have to admit that a director will bear a certain responsibility to the text and its poetry, but with all artistic freedom granted, no director, I would like to assume, would willingly mess up his or her initial interpretation based on the personal artistic inspiration to flaw the expressiveness of the film. There is art to be created in the direction of a Shakespeare movie and apparently, if the film is any good, audiences obviously seem to like it, even if dour critics and grim scholars do not.

12 Outside and inside the movies

12.1 Paving the way and West Side Story.

The ingenious and innovative French film director François Truffaut (1932 – 1984) once thoughtfully said:

Die Jugend von heute entdeckt sich selbst in James Dean. Weniger aus den gemeinhin bekannten Gründen, der angeblichen Freude an Gewalttätigkeit, Sadismus, Hysterie, Pessimismus, Grausamkeit und Schmutz, sondern aus ganz anderen, viel einfacheren und alltäglichen. Sie heißen: Scham vor Überschwang. Reges Phantasieleben. Moralische Reinheit, die mit dem bürgerlichen Sittenkodex nichts zu tun hat und gerade deshalb besonders rigoros ausgeprägt ist. Ein Rauschgefühl, halb Stolz, halb Bedauern, selbst außerhalb der Gesellschaft zu stehen. Die Weigerung sich einzugliedern und der gleichzeitige Wunsch nach Gemeinschaft.[15]

As mentioned in 1.2, Dean was decidedly more than another Hollywood beau. Truffaut sees him as an outstanding, characteristic beacon for a generation, which in the nineteen-fifties for the first time ever refused to pursue their parents’ way unquestioned. Dean portrayed in his three films (all of which were made in one year, 1955, the year of his death) a reflection of a youth that was suffering inexplicably from things inherited by the parent generation, causing great frustration and disorder and Truffaut supportably understands that the logically ensuing exclusion and alienation from the parent generation is not wholly and unconditionally welcomed and embraced, but also very irritating to the youth.

James Dean’s bitter tears of frustration in Nicholas Ray‘s Rebel Without A Cause were not cried because his parents wouldn’t love him, but because they loved him too hard, thus causing “Jimmy Stark” (Dean) to turn away from them. As vain or trivial as it may sound, these things are of course also a key issue of Romeo and Juliet. Furthermore, Loehlin in his article Baz Luhrmann’s Millennial Shakespeare (in: Burnett, Wray, 2000, page 122) sees in the threefold constellation of Dean, his female counterpart Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, the suffering outcast, as “a variation on the Romeo / Juliet / Mercutio triangle”. He also observes a striking and most stunning similarity in tone and cadences between DiCaprio’s outcry “Then I defy you, stars!” and Dean’s “You’re tearing me apart!” from Rebel Without A Cause and admits a possible unconscious coincidence (Loehlin, 2000, page 122).

These films and others like The Wild One (1954, by Lázló Benedek), starring the young and lean Marlon Brando, paved the way for Zeffirelli and others that came before or after him, like Baz Luhrmann. They were the mirror of and helped to establish in the youth (and sympathetic and sensitive adults) of the mid and later century a receptiveness for the “problem” of growing up as a process of emancipation. After these films, nothing was the same anymore and a return to the state of things before was unthinkable. The rise of rock'n'roll–music and its fashion at the same time as another and even more direct outlet and stimulus of emotion did nothing to regenerate the fug of post-war cosiness.

Such were the circumstances that allowed an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet which was maybe closer to the author’s intention than anything before, as far as youth appeal was concerned. When Leonard Bernstein adapted the play to create his musical West Side Story in 1957 (the film was made four years later, in 1961) he extracted the action from Verona and took it to his contemporary New York City. He transposed it into the youth conflict of ethnical distress between a gang of European ancestry and another gang of Hispanics, Puerto Ricans, to be precise. He thus altered basic points, but the all important feature of lovers obstructed by their society remained.

It is noteworthy in this context, that this “tribal” conflict is also to be found with Luhrmann, who sets his Romeo + Juliet in a nondescript Southern moloch and its ethnic tensions (apparently in Florida, as Brode [2000: page 55f] claims: “Verona Beach, Florida. Despite the Miami look, the film was shot in Mexico City, with additional work in Veracruz”). His young Montagues (except for Romeo) are all of a pale complexion, blond or, for greater effect, additionally bleached blond and even pink, and apparently European-American. They wear luridly colourful, open shirts, which give them a gaudy, carefree tint. His young Capulets (except for Juliet) however all have a southern distinction, black hair slicked back, black clothes, leather, high heeled boots and they wear tight fitting waistcoats and quite a lot of silver jewellery. Their clothes were designed by the famous Italian fashion designers Dolce&Gabbana. Tybalt smokes small, dark cigarillos. All these features give them a malignant air. It is dubious whether Luhrmann here really took a leaf out of Bernstein’s book, but at any rate, it is not uncritically acceptable to depict the one group that the audience already has the least sympathy for, due to its role in the drama, so unfortunately stereotypical. One can imagine voices from less moderate contemporaries, who might want to detect here encouragement for racial prejudice against Hispanics, although Luhrmann cannot seriously be accused of wanting to convey any such thing. Leonard Bernstein’s Puerto Ricans in West Side Story are undoubtedly a lot more positive in their presentation.

The gang wars this highly stylised musical film of 1961 shows have little to do with Luhrmann’s film or even the much older and therefore less violence-prone film of Zeffirelli, as far as the action is concerned. Both Zeffirelli and Luhrmann seek an approach that is less artificial and more realistic than a dance musical could be. Bernstein had no intention of portraying an actual street fight, when he has the two opposing gang members circle each other with their switchblade knives in dancing steps to a threatening and catastrophe foreboding music. It is however a predecessor and certainly has been a source of inspiration for Zeffirelli, when he conceived his duelling scene of Tybalt and Mercutio. Brode (2000: page 53) aptly states, that they operate their rapiers just like switchblades, and fight teasingly, as modern street kids would do, in “bravado gone bad” (op.cit.).

In Bernstein’s “dancing cum fighting” scene, we are also presented with one more image of Zeffirelli’s film, that he probably got from thence. In West Side Story the two fighters and the two gangs accompanying them circle around, moving in two concentric rings. The duelling scene of Tybalt and Mercutio is much the same. Both Rothwell (1999: page 136) and Cirillo (1969: page 87) thirty years before him have detected this motif in Zeffirelli’s film in many scenes. The dancing scene at the Capulet’s Ball has this, and so does Mercutio’s bawdy jesting with the Nurse, when he gets up under her skirt on the piazza. At the Ball, we hear a young man singing the song “What is a Youth?” seeing him standing in a circle pattern decoration in the floor tiling design.

Another influence West Side Story probably had on Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet could be the easy, swift, dance-like movements, he has his young and vital actors play in. Right from the beginning, we see no shifty youths, but they always move with great agility: When Sampson “bites his thumb” (I.1) at Abraham, they and Gregory as well as the bystanders are shown moving about, rather than standing still, as the dangerous situation and the alleged fear they all share would suggest

Brode (2000: page 53) is right in saying that Zeffirelli was “highly influenced by West Side Story. I believe it would be unjust to neglect other films, which have paved the way before Bernstein.

12.2 The music in Zeffirelli and Luhrmann.

The function of music in a film is always the one of a commentator, that suggests and supports the emotions the plot and the actor’s lines should convey. The most apparent differences between Zeffirelli’s film music and Luhrmann’s is, that Luhrmann uses a soundtrack that mainly consists of a selection of pop music songs by different groups, whereas Zeffirelli had a musical script written for the film by one particular composer, Nino Rota.

Contemporary pop music film-soundtracks of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet included such fine examples as Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider of 1969, that successfully conveyed the image of independence and deliverance seeking drop-out, tune-in motorbikers. It had, however, much earlier beginnings with Rock Around the Clock (1956), by Fred F. Sears starring the rock’n’roll-pioneer Bill Haley. Of course, Zeffirelli’s film could not have worked with contemporary pop music, as the whole approach of it left no other way than a pseudo -Renaissance soundtrack. Jorgens dismisses Nino Rota’s efforts, and especially the song sung during the Capulet’s Ball “What is a Youth?” for being “sickly sweet” (Rothwell, 1999: page 133), others, like the influential Albert Cirillo, praise it: He considers “every aspect of the film [...] extraordinarily enriched by Nino Rota’s musical score, which contributes to the effect by providing a kind of sonic coloring and punctuation that are complemented by the color photography itself” (Cirillo. 1969: page 90-91), thus in his opinion, sound and visuals seem to undergo a symbiosis, a mutual interdependence.

This is not the case in the much more complex choice of music that Luhrmann favoured. His soundtrack combines the most diverse musical styles and often seeks to juxtapose the visuals for effect. In the opening brawl-scene, when a gas-station encounter of the Montague servants with the Capulet servants is escalating into an apocalyptic conflagration, the viewer is exposed to a dramatic opera aria (Richard Wagner’s Liebestod, from Tristan und Isolde), mixed to the front and overlaying the explosions and screams with its sheer loudness. An opera would in any other context be taken for high culture, here it is the commentator of chaos and destruction. In most other scenes, Luhrmann seeks to meet his peer’s predilection for pop. This is very strikingly so, when Romeo runs to Friar Lawrence to arrange his marriage to Juliet, the morning after the balcony-scene. His overjoyed and exhilarated state is expressed in the music by the notorious Swedish punk rock group “The Wannadies” bashing out an anthem for Romeo’s exuberance (You And Me Song). This alliance of film and music has for some bands been so lucky, that they have managed to much exceed their fame with it. The Swedish retro-pop/easy listening-band “The Cardigans”, who eventually wrote a song for the film, whereas it is customary to use an outtake, had a massive hit all over the world with Lovefool, a song used in the film to commentate on the precarious love of Romeo.


[1] In the: Architectural Digest 41, 1984: 34. Here quoted after Hapgood, 1997: page 89

[2] Morris, Peter. Shakespeare On Film. Canadian Film Institute/Institut canadien du film. Ottawa: 1972

[3], last visited 6th October 2002.

[4] Brode, Douglas. From: Brode is listed there as “Brodie” [sic!] Last visited: 27th Sept. 2002

[5] last visited: 6th October 2002

[6] by „Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, [who took] his theatre company out of the theatre in order to film a brief extract from King John [...]“ Burnett, Wray (eds), 2000, page xiii.

[7] Shakespeare was apparently himself not quite content with the possibilities his Elizabethan theatre could provide, as the Prologue of Henry V tells us.

[8] Brode (2000): page 42-51.

[9] Cirillo (1968): „The art of Franco Zeffirelli and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet “.

[10], that neither Shakespeare’s Juliet lived to see.

[11] As far as known, his head was severed off by the windscreen of his Porsche Boxster, when he hit a crash barrier at a high velocity.

[12] The Apothecary scene seems to meet the fate of removal in many productions, not only on the screen, but on the stage as well. Brode notices (2000: page 56) that it is “cut from Zeffirelli and most versions”.

[13] See also: Footnote 2.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Quoted from Lindenberg, 1981: page 22.

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Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" in the movies: Comparing Franco Zeffirelli's (1968) and Baz Luhrman's (1996) film versions
University of Trier  (English Department Trier)
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Shakespeare, Romeo, Juliet, Comparing, Franco, Zeffirelli, Luhrman
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Bodo Heil (Author), 2002, Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" in the movies: Comparing Franco Zeffirelli's (1968) and Baz Luhrman's (1996) film versions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" in the movies: Comparing Franco Zeffirelli's (1968) and Baz Luhrman's (1996) film versions

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