The opening of both versions of this piece sets the president for what follows, the Luhrman version perhaps more so than Franco Zefferelli’s attempt. They display glimpses of what is to come, drawing the viewer deeper into the story.
The amalgamation of multiple ‘Big Close Ups’ and bird’s eye shot, as well as the incorporation of a masterful music score, serve to create a genius piece of cinematic production for the opening scene. Not only that, but the scenes presented in the shots are chosen specifically to give an uninformed viewer an insight into the turbulent nature of this story; to settle any misgivings the audience may have at the mention of Shakespeare. A male viewer would certainly breath a sigh of relief at the sign of someone getting shot at. Luhrman has chosen to include the Chorus, a popular theatrical device of the Shakespearian era taken from famous Greek tragedies, in the form of a newsreader from a news program, which is an image very familiar to the intended audience. The Chorus uses the original text, superimposed over flashes of gangland violence, to create a subtext that becomes embossed on the viewer’s interpretation of the rest of the film. As opening sequences go, this one could be considered a masterpiece of modern cinema.
Franco Zefferelli has not invested as much importance in the opening of his production. He has instead decided to go with a theme to suit the mode of his film. The hazy, sweeping, classical view of a Renaissance Italian city, presumably constructed on computer from paintings and the like, would appeal to the traditional theatre-goers who packed the cinemas to see this film. The Chorus is present, but only in the faceless guise of a narrator. An audience already familiar with the original text would be disappointed with anything less.
The Market Place – Act 1, Scene 1
The opening scene in the Luhrman version is set in a typical U.S petrol station. It is a busy and open area, much like the market setting portrayed in the original script. This is typical of Luhrman’s cinematic adaptations that run throughout the film; modernising the original setting without losing the feeling of authenticity. A market square in modern America would only confuse the audience. In the Zefferelli version, the director has tried to replicate the setting and atmosphere of the original, using a typical market square from the time that the play was written; this would seem to the audience as a more ‘realistic’ version of the original text. At the start of the scene in the Luhrman version we see the first of our families, the Montagues. They seem like typical American youngsters having fun in their car with some rather loud hip-hop music blaring. They pull into the petrol station, all smiles and arrogant gestures, displaying all the stereotypical mannerisms of noisy youths. All seems well until the second family arrives, the Capulets.
At this point the music changes to something more befitting the OK Corral, supposedly to imply imminent violence. They far outclass the Montagues, bedecked as they are in suave Latino smoking jackets and gold chains typical of Italian cartel members; somehow sinister when compared to the garish and colourful Montagues. This is a good way of showing the stark differences between the two families. Both groups of young men carry large calibre pistols, which shows that neither group are familiar with friendly conversation. However, in the Zefferelli version when we see the Montagues and Capulets enter the market square there mannerisms and character representations are not dissimilar; they both seem to display the same calm sophistication that chivalry dictates. The only thing separating them is the difference in family livery; the Capulets wearing black and blue and the Montagues wearing yellow and red. The costume design is accurate of what people wore in the time the play was written, with men in tights, frills and bicorns aplenty. The music score is more background ballroom than sinister melodrama.
In the first scene of the Luhrman version there is only limited reference to the original script, with little speech being used, but is accurate to the original script. Such lines as when Abra, a Capulet asks the question “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” and Sampson, a Montague replies, “I do bite my thumb, sir”. This small slight initiates a gunfight between the two families, for neither side can let the implied insults stand. We see that the rivalry between the two families is so strong that only a small exchange of petty quarrelling is needed to start the fight. The use of movement in this scene is fast and furious as the action switches from person to person as they fire their guns, the camera zooms up to each of the main characters and then freezes as text is used to introduce each person, when the screen is released, the action reverts to it’s previous pace. The fight seems to be a parody of a Western, with bullets bouncing off metallic objects at humorous moments. Tybalt’s appearance tilts the fight into an altogether more frightening prospect. He seems to delight in the bloodshed, not merely accepting is at a part of life as his counterparts do. The deliberate ignition of the petrol fire is evidence of his psychotic nature. The token movie bad guy, it would seem.
Compared to that potential bloodbath Zefferelli’s fight scene appears almost friendly. The two families embark on a sword fight after a similar, although less heated, exchange. The fight may not be as action packed as the previous version, but is no less amusing as we see the whole fight moving into the courtyard, where everyone in the picture has their swords drawn and brawling amongst themselves in a genial sort of way. The camera work is much less sophisticated, with most of the shots being provided from the horizontal axis, which rules out any close-ups. The two families in this version seem calm and composed and the rivalry doesn’t seem to be as serious or intense as we see in the Luhrman version. The calm music does not add to the impression of a serious rivalry; more an afternoon of sport. At the climax of the violence Zefferelli has the Prince riding in on a horse (which is accurate in that he would enforce the law at the time that the play was written) to discipline the duellers. Luhrman chose to use the modern day equivalent of a prince, a police Captain, in his version. This is effective because there are no equivalent to a prince in modern day cities so Luhrman has used the next best thing; a figure who has the power of life and death over all who live in his domain. The only figure who, in effect, has nothing to fear from either family.
The Fight – Act 3, Scene 1
The fight scene is probably the most insightful point in the play, as it displays the primal instincts that drive all the principal male characters in both versions. Luhrman’s scene begins with Mercutio, Benvolio, and some Montague servants relaxing on the beach after a long day. Their manner is one of rakishness and playful intent. The accompanying music is classically orientated, which adds a slight melodrama to the scenario. Tybalt and his fellow Capulets’ appearance has everyone but Mercutio, the everlasting joker, extremely nervous. By now the audience has the impression that the Montagues are perhaps not as ruthless and violent as they would wish. Once again the score changes towards something more serene, which is disconcerting in itself. Mercutio taunts Tybalt, trying to break his confident air by appearing comical and effeminate.
It works, and Tybalt is provoked into responding in his usual violent way. The confrontation is very reminiscent of the Jets/Sharks ‘rumble’ in West Side Story, where Riff and Bernado square up to each other. A rail camera provides some disorientating shots as the pair circle each other onto the increasingly violent sand. The testosterone-fuelled pair would surely have come to blows had the unfortunate Romeo not appeared. His appearance induced an ‘eye of the storm’ calmness in the score. Tybalt will not be satisfied with Romeo’s pleadings; indeed, Romeo’s pacifying words provoke bitter violence from him as he takes it as an affront to his pride, whilst his disgust in Romeo’s grovelling is obvious. The ancient shell of a theatre under which Romeo keels over adds a certain reminiscent poignancy to the scene. When Mercutio intervenes to save his friend, and delivers his own well placed blows, he receives an unconvincing fatal wound from Tybalt with a piece of windshield as the music climaxes. Tybalt, shocked at the deed he had just committed, turns tail and runs with a mask of uncharacteristic shock on his face.
Zefferelli has events sequenced differently; the swordfight between Mercutio and Tybalt holds no more malice than a friendly conversation to begin with. Mercutio exchanges flippant witticisms with Tybalt as if they where mere friendly acquaintances. He displays some of the jester-like qualities that Luhrman extenuates, though in a more sociable manner. It is when Romeo, who has offended Tybalt so grievously, appears that Tybalt reverts to his hard and vicious persona. His strokes become sweeping and better aimed, and he really seems to be intent on injuring someone. Indeed, it is his misplaced thrust at Romeo’s unprotected back that skewers Mercutio. We know this was unintentional by the look on his face, and his sudden flight from the scene.
In both version Mercutio takes his own demise in a similar fashion; laughing all the way to the bitter end. The modern representation goes to his grave accompanied by a simmering orchestral flourish, whereas Zefferelli’s Mercutio passes away with a faint whimper of strings. It is a testament to his character in both versions in the dramatic way in which he plays down his wound, making his friends believe it is a mere scratch, but barbing his jokes with the pain he quiet blatantly suffers. The Luhrman version effectively harnesses the power of pathetic fallacy in the form of rain pouring from the heavens, framing Romeo’s tortured expression. A deadly mixture of pain, anger, suffering and rage pass across his delicate features as all his sorrows boil in the cocotte of his soul.
Without sounding too chauvinistic and stereotypically male, I found the Zefferelli version of this play tediously artsy and lacking in appeal. I realise that I don’t fall into the target audience for this production, which is probably why I found watching it decidedly painful and confusing. The acting was impossibly wooden and lacking in emotion, the camera work was terrible and the score was almost identical throughout; far too heavy on the mandolin. By comparison the Luhrman version was pure genius. Despite it not being one of my all-time favourite films I still found is a pleasure to watch. The production was outstanding, as you would expect from a film with such a big budget, and the star-studded cast provides some of the most critically acclaimed performances of their careers. The multitude of gunfights, car chases, explosions and brutal murders also lifted my esteem for this film high above its tawdry counterpart. The film has been penned, directed and edited to appeal the people of my generation, and I feel that it does just that. It may not contain the scripted values of the original text, but it packages the tale of love, loss and tragedy that is Romeo and Juliet into something altogether easier to comprehend.