Year of Release: 1968 Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Starring Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, Milo O’Shea, Pat Heywood, Michael York, and John McEnery.
Why is the romance of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet doomed? Yes, their quarreling families do contribute to their tragic end. But an even more important and oft overlooked reason is the wrathful, impatient, and impulsive nature of their families. This nature has been passed on to both Romeo and Juliet from their parents, the heads of the warring families. In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968, the rash decisions of both protagonists are portrayed and emphasized just as much as the conflict between the families. By doing so, Zeffirelli’s film underscores the tragic role that Romeo and Juliet play in incurring their own downfall.
Romeo (Leonard Whiting) first meets Juliet (Olivia Hussey) at a masked ball he impetuously attended to meet his former love, Rosaline. However, when Juliet and Romeo see one another, they instantly fall in love. Considering the quickness and lack of foresight with which they make other decisions, this love at first sight is believable. After Tybalt (Michael York) kills his best friend Mercutio, (John McEnery) Romeo rushes against Tybalt in a swordfight without having a sword. In the play he presumably has his own sword; in the film his family members hand him one. Juliet eagerly grabs for the dial of medication to induce her deathlike state, whereas she could have allowed her father disown her, in which case she would have been free to leave the city and go be with Romeo. She also risks their love being discovered on several occasions by encouraging Romeo to stay with her for longer periods of time. Of course, their most tragic and most rash act is the climax of the film.
All of these actions are in the same spirit of their families. The opening scene is fight caused by the refusal of both sides to let the other one have the final word or blow. The fight is caused by slight aggravations such as tripping someone.
The actors are all convincing. They handle the Shakespearean dialogue very well; it flows naturally from their tongues with properly placed pauses and correct emphases. The decision to cast age appropriate actors paid off in spades. Whiting and Hussey were sixteen and fifteen respectively when the movie was filmed. Both of them capture the passion and impetuousness of the young lovers. The romance, which can seem incredulous in some productions, is believable and realistic here.
The choreography of the dances and of the fights shows a direct influence from the film of West Side Story seven years earlier. At the ball where Romeo and Juliet meet, the girls dance in an inner circle; the boys surround them; they move in opposite directions; and then they dance with their partners. Romeo intervenes in the fatal fight in a very similar way to Tony’s intervention in West Side Story. In both films, the members of both sides advance and retreat as a unit.
Zeffirelli’s sets and costumes are colorful and engaging. The beauty and art of the medieval setting, along with the Italian countryside, is captured with gorgeous cinematography.
Nina Rota composed an lively and romantic score, which is fitting for the young lovers. Interestingly, he gives the romantic theme to Romeo and the bubbly, energetic, frolicking theme to Juliet. This decision is appropriate since Romeo is lovesick and Juliet is a whimsical girl full of vigor. The contrasting themes never completely reconcile, foreshadowing the end of the film. Much of the score is the style of Italian folk song, like his most famous score for The Godfather.
The decision of later Shakespeare films to modernize the setting is not employed in this film, which is refreshing. In my opinion, that has only worked once, and it was only partial modernization. I do not mind modernization if the story is changed and the new work is clearly an adaptation, such as West Side Story. However, I do find it strange when the Shakespearean dialogue and names are placed in a modern day setting. With an authentic atmosphere, impressive camera work, a good score, and incredible performances, Zeffirelli crafted the definitive film version of Romeo and Juliet.
It is also worth mentioning that the film is often shown in high school English classes to students who have read Shakespeare’s play. While it is an excellent adaptation that would certainly help the students understand the plot, the film is best for adult Shakespeare lovers, and possibly similarly minded mature teens. There is a brief scene the morning after Romeo and Juliet have consummated their wedding vows, in which both are briefly shown naked. Juliet refused to do this until they were married, and it was nice to see that respect for marriage and sex in the film. If a teenager has a mature understanding of sexuality, this scene should not be problematic. However, a class of high school students will normally not exercise the necessary maturity and critical discernment.
Content Advisory: Brief post-marital nude scene, fatal swordplay, mild gore, and some veiled sexual dialogue. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with much discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A