Filmsite Movie Review
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
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Romeo and Juliet (1968) is Florentine director Franco Zeffirelli's beautiful modern interpretation of Shakespeare's enduring, classic yet tragic love story of "star-crossed lovers." Filmed on location in Italy, it was the most commercially successful Shakespeare film and its most entertaining, refreshing and natural rendition - a passionate celebration of young love.

The film won four Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography (Pasqualino De Santis), and Costume Design (Danilo Donati), winning two Oscars - Best Cinematography and Costume Design. Nino Rota's evocative musical score, including a period ballad "What is a Youth" (with lyrics by Eugene Walter) was un-nominated.

The earlier 1936 MGM, George Cukor-directed version of the film Romeo and Juliet (1936) with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, cast two much older and mature actors for the lead roles. Two other films of Shakespeare's story, versions of the Prokofiev ballet, were: Paul Czinner's balletic version of Romeo and Juliet (1966, UK) with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, and Renato Castellani's 1954 British-Italian version Romeo and Juliet (1954, It./UK) (with Laurence Harvey and Susan Shentall as the lovers). The Shakespearean tale was recently remodeled with a radical, MTV-style and rock soundtrack in Baz Luhrmann's unconventional William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996), starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the young lovers in a late 20th century setting.

[Note: The story was refashioned in director Robert Wise's and Jerome Robbins' West Side Story (1961) as a tragic tale of conflict between two warring rival NYC gangs, with Richard Beymer (as Tony) and Natalie Wood (as Maria). Sixty years later, director Steven Spielberg filmed an adaptation of the original 1957 Broadway musical production (it was his first musical) as West Side Story (2021), starring Ansel Elgort (as Tony) and Rachel Zegler (as Maria).]

With brilliant forethought, Zeffirelli gambled by filling the two starring lead roles with two young unknown and fresh-faced teenage actors: 15-year old Olivia Hussey as the stunningly beautiful, dark-haired Juliet (just a few years older than Shakespeare's Juliet - a "fortnight and odd days" from 14), and 17-year old, slender and blue-eyed Leonard Whiting as Romeo. It retained the exciting feuding scenes between hot-headed members of the opposing families, the ineffectual but well-intentioned Friar Laurence, Juliet's bawdy Nurse, and the double-suicide of the youths. Laurence Olivier served as the uncredited off-screen narrator.

Although much of Shakespeare's dialogue was cut for the film (including much of Juliet's potion speech in Act IV, Scene 3, and the death of Paris in Act V, Scene 3) and some of the renditions were garbled, it appealed to the youthful, counter-cultural generation of the late 60s with its realism, the passion of the lovers, the brief nudity of the couple on their wedding night (morning), and its contemporary feel. The film's reinterpreted modern message, coupled with youthful, idealistic, yet strong-willed and rebellious heroes heralding dreams of peace, love, and freedom, have made the two lead characters representative, anti-establishment icons.

Plot Synopsis

The opening prologue sets the scene, outlines the action of the play and the ongoing, bloody feud which has broken out between two important families in Renaissance Verona, the poignant premonition that "star-crossed lovers" [Romeo - son of the Montague family, and Juliet - daughter of the Capulet family] will die by the tragedy's end, and the reconciliation of the two bitter, warring families.


Two households both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny.
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.

Act I, Scene 1:

In the city of Verona, Gregory (Richard Warwick) and Sampson (Dyson Lovell), two House of Capulet servants with red, yellow and white costumes, walk in the marketplace - armed. There, they see Abraham (Ugo Barbone), servant to the senior Montague, and Balthazar (Keith Skinner), servant to Romeo Montague. As the Montague servants pass, Sampson bites his thumb, and spits. After a short period of jokes, deliberate antagonist talk and ribald humor, the Capulet servants spoil for and provoke a fight. The two sides begin to scuffle with drawn swords. Shouts and cries of "Capulet!" are heard as they fight. Benvolio (Bruce Robinson), nephew to Montague and friend to Romeo, enters and tries to stop the fight: "Put up your swords. You know not what you do. The Prince hath expressly forbid this bandying in Verona streets." An impetuous, rash, and furious Tybalt (Michael York), Lady Capulet's fiery nephew, arrives with his kinsmen, ready to brawl with Benvolio whose sword is unsheathed: "What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues and thee." Tybalt lunges at Benvolio, slashing his eye, and the feud is fueled again. Other Capulets and Montagues are summoned to the fighting by the ringing of church bells.

The arrival of the governor or Prince of Verona (Robert Stephens) and his men is signalled by a fanfare of trumpets. He scolds both families for disturbing the peace of the town three times. The penalty for further fights and violations of the peace shall be death:

Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace, throw your mistempered weapons to the ground...And hear the sentence of your moved Prince. Three civil brawls bred of an airy word, by thee old Capulet, and Montague have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets. If you ever disturb our streets again, your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace. For this time all the rest depart away. You, Capulet, shall go along with me. And Montague, come you this afternoon. Once more, on pain of death, all men depart.

As the crowd disperses in the aftermath of the brawl, Lady Montague (Esmeralda Ruspoli) bandages the hand of one of her kinsmen. She asks for information about the whereabouts of her son Romeo, whom she has not seen. Benvolio describes how he saw Lady Montague's sad, love-sick son walking before dawn by himself underneath the grove of sycamore. [In the early part of the film, his unrequited love for Rosaline is not made obvious.] After a solitary Romeo (Leonard Whiting) appears, he notices wounded men being carried about:

God's me, what fray was here? Yet tell me not for I have heard it all. Here's much to do with hate and more with love.

Act I, Scene 2:

The Capulet hall is being prepared for festivities, as Lord Capulet (Paul Hardwick) returns from speaking to the Prince about the recently imposed sanctions on his family for feuding: "...but Montague is bound as well as I, in penalty alike, and 'tis not hard, I think, for men as old as we to keep the peace." Count Paris (Roberto Bisacco) agrees with him that it should be easy to uphold the peace, but is more interested in his own "suit" - his desire to wed Juliet, Capulet's almost 14 year old daughter whom he is courting. Juliet's doting, indulgent father maintains that she is still too young to marry, and Paris is urged to wait two more years until she will be "ripe to be a bride":

But saying o'er what I have said before, My child is yet a stranger in the world. She hath not seen the change of fourteen years. Let two more summers wither in their pride, 'ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.

Although Paris argues: "Younger than she, are happy mothers made." Capulet suggests that if Paris can win Juliet's consent and heart, Capulet will not oppose their marriage: "The earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she. She is the hopeful lady of my earth. But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart, my will to her consent is but a part." Paris is invited to a party ("an old accustomed feast") to be held that evening.

Act I, Scene 3:

In Lady Capulet's (Natasha Parry) chamber, she asks for her talkative, vigorous, and grossly humorous old Nurse (Pat Heywood) to call Juliet, her daughter. The Nurse swears by the purity she had when she was a twelve-year old that she has called Juliet, but the girl hasn't responded: "Now, by my maidenhead at twelve years old, I bade her come. Where is the girl, Juliet...Juliet! Where is the girl? Juliet!" The camera zooms in the courtyard to a window where Juliet (Olivia Hussey) obediently responds and is framed: "How now, who calls?" In her mother's presence, after a long reminiscence about how long she has known Juliet and the family, the Nurse wishes that she will live long enough to see Juliet marry: "God mark thee to His grace thou wast the prettiest babe that 'er I nurs'd. And I might live to see thee married once, I have my wish." Since that is the topic which Lady Capulet wishes to broach, she urges her shy, sweet, and innocent daughter to consider marrying potential husband Paris - who will be present at the evening's party:

Lady Capulet: How stands your disposition to be married?
Juliet: (humbled) It is an honor that I dream not of.
Nurse: An honor, were I not thyne only Nurse, I would say that hadst sucked wisdom from thy teat.
Lady Capulet: Well, think of marriage now, younger than you, here in Verona, ladies of esteem, are made already mothers. By my count I was your mother much upon these years that you are now a maid.
Nurse: Oh yes, I remember...
Lady Capulet: ...thus then, in brief, the valiant Paris seeks you for his love...What say you? Can you love the gentleman?...Speak briefly, can you like of Paris' love?
Juliet: I'll look to like, if looking liking move. But no more deep will I endart mine eye, than your consent gives strength to make it fly.

Act I, Scene 4:

A group of torchbearers and playful masked entertainers/gatecrashers, along with Romeo, Mercutio (John McEnery) (a relative of the Prince), and Benvolio, make their way toward Lord Capulet's party in disguise. Romeo asks what excuse (or "apology") they should give for their entrance, and Benvolio replies that they don't need one: "Let them measure us by what they will. We'll measure them a measure and be gone. Come, knock and enter, and no sooner in, but every man betake him to his legs." After Romeo mentions a sleeping dream that he had, Mercutio delivers his fanciful, imaginative Queen Mab speech about "the fairies' midwife," who knows about the waking and sleeping, troubling dreams of men. She is no bigger than a figure carved in an agate ring stone. And she is drawn by tiny creatures in a cart made from various parts - long spinners' legs, grasshopper wings, spider's webs, and watery beams of moonshine - they pull her across the bridges of sleeping men's noses. When she rides "through lovers' brains," they dream of love. Whomever she visits, they dream of their greatest desires. If she rides over ladies' lips, they dream of kisses. But she also can be angry and mischievious, causing soldiers to be startled awake in the midst of real battle - "sometimes she driveth o'er a soldier's neck and then dreams he of cutting foreign throats, of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades, drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes; and being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two, and sleeps again." Queen Mab can put knots in horses' manes - a foreboding omen. "The hag" has also taught women to bear the weight of men - and children. When Romeo accuses Mercutio: "Thou talk'st of nothing," he assents that he feels a hollowness in his own brain:

True, I talk of dreams; which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy; which is as thin of substance as the air, and more inconstant than the wind who woos even now the frozen bosom of the north, and being angered puffs away from thence, turning his side to the dew-dropping south.

Revellers and Benvolio remind everyone that they will be late to the party. As he dons his mask and pauses before proceeding to the party, Romeo adds a premonition of real evil that he senses may occur, something that may end in his "untimely death," (a reference to the future meeting with Juliet at the party, their 'star-crossed love,' and their subsequent deaths):

I fear, too early, for my mind misgives some consequence, yet hanging in the stars, shall bitterly begin his fearful date with this night's revels, and expire the term of a despised life closed in my breast, by some vile forfeit of untimely death. But He that hath the steerage of my course direct my sail.

Act I, Scene 5:

As a jovial host, Lord Capulet meets and welcomes the entering guests and the masked Montagues. He fondly remembers the times ("'tis gone") when he came to masked dances and courted fair ladies with "a whispering tale." Romeo lifts his mask and watches the dancers. During a marvelously-choreographed sequence of dance, he is immediately startled, entranced, and smitten by the lady Juliet engaged in a hand dance, poetically and rapturously praising her as white and pure among darker objects - as a jewel in the ear of a black Ethiopian, or a snowy dove among black crows:

Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright. It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night. As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear; beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear. So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows, as yonder lady o'er her fellows shows. Did my heart love till now? Forswear it sight, for I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.

Tybalt overhears Romeo's voice and suspects that the young man is a Montague who has come to "scorn at our solemnity" during the Capulet feast - he reacts with ill-temper and anger. A genial and indulgent Lord Capulet dismisses the uninvited guest Romeo as "a virtuous and well-managed youth." He restrains and cautions Tybalt ("a saucy boy") to "take no note of him" in his house - and he rebukes him ("He shall be endured!"). Tybalt fumes and is prepared to fight. Romeo responds to Lady Capulet's call for "the moureska!" A young boy named Leonardo sings "What Is A Youth":

What is a youth? Impetuous fire.
What is a maid? Ice and desire.
The world wags on.

A rose will bloom
It then will fade
So does a youth.
So do-o-o-oes the fairest maid.

Comes a time when one sweet smile
Has its season for a while...Then love's in love with me.
Some they think only to marry, Others will tease and tarry,
Mine is the very best parry. Cupid he rules us all.
Caper the cape, but sing me the song,
Death will come soon to hush us along.
Sweeter than honey and bitter as gall.
Love is a task and it never will pall.
Sweeter than honey...and bitter as gall
Cupid he rules us all.

After circling around the perimeter of the crowd during the song, Romeo takes Juliet by the hand from the opposite side of a pillar, and speaks his first words to her alone - to tell her of his passion. She responds in equal measure as they sensually press their hands together in a famous scene. With metaphoric, religious imagery, they speak of a holy shrine, pilgrims, devotion, saints, prayer, faith, and sin - terms that bespeak the sacramental nature of their passionate love:

Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand this holy shrine, the gentle sin is this: my lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth the rough touch with a gentle kiss. (He attempts to kiss her hand)
Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, which mannerly devotion shows in this; for saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch, and palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss. (They place their palms together)
Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips are things to use in prayer. (She demurely turns away)
Romeo: Oh...O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do; they pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair. (They interlock their hands)
Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take. Thus from my lips by thine, my sin is purged. (They kiss)
Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took?
Romeo: Sin from my lips! O trespass sweetly urged! Give me my sin again. (They kiss again and Juliet sighs)

When Juliet's Nurse calls her away to her mother, Romeo asks the Nurse to identify the young girl he loves, and learns that Juliet is of the rich house of Capulet ("...he that shall lay hold of her shall have the chinks.") It is a harsh, burdening blow to hear that she is the daughter of his family's leading enemy - Romeo realizes the grave nature of his love and the indebtedness of his life: "O, dear account! My life is my foe's debt." As the guests leave, Juliet asks her Nurse to inquire about her newfound love. After speaking to Tybalt, she returns with the disheartening news that Romeo is "of the House of Montague." Juliet despairs, stricken by the ironic fact that she is in love with the only son of her family's greatest enemy:

My only love sprung from my only hate, too early seen unknown, and known too late! Oh! Prodigious birth of love it is to me that I must love a loathed enemy.

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