Being a recently retired university professor, I have chance now to reflect back on my life at the impressions and influences that people and events have had on my life. I suppose it is an act of self–indulgence that retirees are prone to experience when the treadmill of a working life comes to an end.
Having lived as a teenager through the 1960s, I was aware at that time that attitudes and social culture were rapidly changing, although I was unaware (until I became a university student in the early 1970s) as to what were the catalysts for that change.
Franco Zeffirelli’s movie production of Romeo and Juliet, made in Italy in the summer of 1967 and released in 1968, made a lasting impression upon me. It was a gateway into English literature, an opening through the dense, impenetrable language of Shakespeare that a 15-year old could not otherwise understand. The lines of the play were edited, and the many deletions were replaced with visual imagery and music, which instantly conveyed actions, thoughts and emotions, which would otherwise have taken hundreds of Tudor-English words to express in convoluted rhythms and sentence constructions. It daringly expressed the idea that pictures and music can speak as loudly and as eloquently as Shakespeare’s words. To the purist, it was sacrilege. To a cinema packed with teenagers, it was an eye-opening revelation.
It also symbolises something of the progressive social changes that were taking place in the 1960s. The movie was a joint British (BHE Films) and Italian (Verona Produzione; Dino de Laurentils Cinematografica) production, and was distributed by Paramount Pictures. The British element in this project was important, because in Britain at that time, a sexual revolution was taking place. The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (the Wolfenden Report) resulted, in July 1967, in the abolition of the criminal law against adult gay acts conducted in private. The official censorship of theatrical performances was abolished by the Theatres Act in July 1968, and thus permitted nudity on the stage.
Against this background, the Zeffirelli movie production of Romeo and Juliet in one sense follows a conventionally straight-line interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, notwithstanding some curious cuts to a number of scenes. It does not follow the avant-garde trend of the 1960s, as exemplified, for instance, by Peter Brook’s King Lear (1962) – “flat, white setting, combining Brecht and Oriental theatre” – Kenneth Tynan, Observer, November 11th, 1962.
Nevertheless, Zeffirelli does break with tradition by introducing two previously unknown teenage actors, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, who were directed by Zeffirelli “to be themselves” and not act as American-style method actors. This not only produced raw, adolescent emotion throughout the mainly young cast, but also gave rise to the now famous bedroom scene, the natural innocence of nakedness, which, from a movie production point of view, was breathtakingly challenging. It is to the credit of the British Board of Film Censors, under the chairmanship of Lord Harlech, that the scene was not edited out. In the light of twenty-first century British attitudes against the filming of child nudity, one wonders whether such a scene would be permitted by today’s film censors.
Nevertheless, a movie should not be judged or remembered solely on the basis of one scene alone. It deserves a far more detailed analysis.
The starting point for that analysis is not, perhaps surprisingly, the finished movie product itself, but rather the shooting script that gave rise to it. As an important and essential tool to understanding the director’s intentions, as a co-author of the script, the document is exceedingly scarce and difficult to obtain. Indeed, the eminent academic, Russell Jackson, when writing his seminal work Shakespeare’s Films in the Making (Cambridge, 2007) was only able to obtain a copy by borrowing Leonard Whiting’s personal copy of the script.
In my own case, I was rather more fortunate. I discovered an original copy at a bookseller, who had previously purchased it twenty years earlier from Charles Traylen, the bookseller based in Guildford, Surrey, England, who had bought the library of the late Sir Walter Oakeshott, the former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, from his executors in 1987. It had originally been presented by Zeffirelli to Sir Walter on his visit to see the filming of the balcony scene in September 1967. A margin note made and initialled by Sir Walter against the dialogue recorded this event. The title page to the shooting script is signed by Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, Franco Zeffirelli, Richard Goodwin (associate producer) and Sue Huskisson (production secretary).
Very few people will have had chance to see and read a copy of this, and as a resource, it will be referred to from time to time in this database to help explain the background to what has been filmed, and especially those scenes that were the subject of director’s cuts.
© Peter Hibbert and the Romeo & Juliet 1968 Movie Database, 2018.