Classic Film Review: A “Romeo and Juliet” (1968) Shakespeare Could have Called his Own

It was a hit when it was first released and nominated for four Oscars, winning two. But Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish, period-perfect and bracingly young “Romeo and Juliet” wasn’t universally loved.

Critics decried its “bowdlerized” Shakespeare, the dewy inexperience of its teenaged leads.

The first filmed “Romeo and Juliet” to dare to cast truly age-appropriate leads, filmed in sunny Tuscany (not Verona, in Veneto) with a colorful Medieval setting, was a bracing, breathless take on a play long served up by overaged stage actors. As such, it is a movie whose luster grows with the passage of time.

Franco Zeffirelli became the official heir to Laurence Olivier’s lifelong passion for popularizing Shakespeare on the big screen (a passion he shared with Orson Welles). Olivier passed the baton by giving the film its narration, and dubbed a couple of voices in the soundtrack for Zeffirelli, who had just filmed a boozy, bawdy, brawny and sexy “Taming of the Shrew” with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.

In the years that followed, others reconnected the play with the heightened emotions and headstrong, limited-life-experience stakes of youth in the first blush of love. Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” moved the violence and heat to a modern setting with some success. But the Italian creator of operatic spectacles on stage and screen – the Mel Gibson “Hamlet,” a decent “Jane Eyre,” the weeper remake “The Champ” and “Endless Love” were his — reset the tone and the bar for Shakespeare adaptations to follow with this lush, romantic and violent melodrama.

Watching it now, with its bloody Montague and Capulet brawls on cobblestone streets inside an old, stone-walled city, its stunning Oscar winning costumes and glorious Oscar-winning cinematography, you can see that bar rising, with only the big screen Shakespeares of Kenneth Branagh (“Henry V” and “Much Ado About Nothing” particularly) challenging this one in terms of sheer beauty and lived-in realism.

It’s studied and polished and yet feels impulsive, with the characters swept along by a story driven by hormones and ancient grudges beyond the control of the mere mortals, especially our love-at-first-sight lovers.

How young were Hussey and Whiting? Fifteen and sixteen. The two stars, whose ensuing careers didn’t measure up to this heady head-start, filed suit about being sexually exploited (the film has a lone scene of barely-glimpsed nudity) in January, 55 years after its release.

The title characters excuse the inexperience of the leads, who give this film its enthusiasm and breathlessness. But acting careers were made, then and now, by the showy violence of Tybalt. Young Orson Welles made his name on the stage in the part of the sword-fighting, feud-fueling hothead of the Capulet clan. Michael York, tanned and dark and dangerous here, explodes off the screen in a performance of such fencing fury that he found himself all but typecast for a while.

We should all be so lucky as to be “cast” as a swordsman in Richard Lester’s glorious “Three Musketeers” movies.

Tybalt’s the play’s purest punk, the swordsman who would rather fight than exchange witticisms with his Montague counterpart, the scalding, tipsy Mercutio (the wonderful John McEnery).

“Consort? What, dost thou make us minstrels? If thou makes us minstrels, look to hear nothing but discords. Here’s my fiddlestick!”

Milo O’Shea brings a hint of Irish wit and soul, and some priestly CYA fear, to Friar Laurence.

And Pat Heywood‘s effusive, doting turn as Juliet’s nurse amuses, charms and touches the heart.

Yes, the extensive dialogue of the stagebound play has been trimmed. Thank heavens. We’ve all seen what the unexpurgated — almost every word from every preserved “version” of a Shakespeare script — looks and sounds like, thanks to Branagh’s overly-faithful “Hamlet.”

The action is chaotic and the settings lend so much “as it happened” authenticity to everything that no Romeo since should dare climb anything but a real Italian tree to reach that balcony.

“But soft; what light through yonder window breaks? It is my lady! O, it is my love. O that she knew she were.”

There have been a few screen “Romeo and Juliets” since Zeffirelli’s, but the one or two that took a chance at being period pieces haven’t come close to this one. Most filmmakers have recognized that its a comparison they don’t want to risk, that its safer to attempt this timeless tale in verse in modern settings. But even Baz Luhrmann had trouble giving Leo and Claire the heedless, hormonal and heartbreaking hunger of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1960s film, the gold standard this “tale of woe,” and as Olivier hoped, a time-tested film testament of the timelessness of the Immortal Bard.

Rating: PG, violence, a moment of nudity involving teens

Cast: Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, Michael York, John McEnery, Pat Heywood and Milo O’Shea, narrated by Laurence Olivier.

Credits: Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, scripted by Franco Brusati, Masolino D’Amico and Franco Zeffirelli, adapted from the play by William Shakespeare. A Paramount release on Amazon, Tubi and PosiTV.

Running time: 2:18


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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