Romeo and Juliet (1968 film)

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Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet 1968 film poster.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed byFranco Zeffirelli
Produced byJohn Brabourne
Anthony Havelock-Allan
Screenplay byFranco Brusati
Masolino D'Amico
Franco Zeffirelli
Based onRomeo and Juliet by
William Shakespeare (1564–1616),
Narrated byLaurence Olivier
Music byNino Rota
CinematographyPasqualino De Santis
Edited byReginald Mills
BHE Films
Verona Produzione
Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
8 October 1968 (1968-10-08TUS)
Running time
138 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$38.9 million[2]

Romeo and Juliet is a 1968 British-Italian romantic drama film based on the play of the same name, written 1591–1595 by famed English playwright / author William Shakespeare (1564–1616).

The film was directed and co-written by Franco Zeffirelli, and stars Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. It won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (Pasqualino De Santis) and Best Costume Design (Danilo Donati); it was also nominated for Best Director and Best Picture, making it the last Shakespearean film to be nominated for Best Picture to date. Sir Laurence Olivier spoke the film's prologue and epilogue and reportedly dubbed the voice of the Italian actor playing Lord Montague, but was not credited in the film.

Being the most financially successful film adaptation of a Shakespeare play at the time of its release, it was popular among teenagers partly because it was the first film to use actors who were close to the age of the characters from the original play. Several critics also welcomed the film enthusiastically.[3][4]


One summer morning in Verona, Veneto, a longstanding feud between the Montague and the Capulet clans breaks out in a street brawl. The brawl is broken up by the Prince, who warns both families that any future violence between them will result in harsh consequences. That night, two teenagers of the two families — Romeo and Juliet — meet at a Capulet masked ball and become deeply infatuated. Later, Romeo stumbles into the secluded garden under Juliet's bedroom balcony and the two exchange impassioned pledges. They are secretly married the next day by Romeo's confessor and father figure, Friar Laurence, with the assistance of Juliet's nursemaid.

That afternoon, Juliet's first cousin Tybalt, enraged that Romeo had attended his family's ball, insults him and challenges him to a brawl. Romeo regards Tybalt as family and he refuses to fight him, which leads Romeo's best friend, Mercutio, to fight Tybalt instead. Despite Romeo's efforts to stop the fight, Tybalt badly wounds Mercutio, who curses both the Montague and Capulet houses before dying. Enraged over his friend's death, Romeo retaliates by fighting Tybalt and killing him. Romeo is subsequently punished by the Prince with banishment from Verona, with the threat of death if he ever returns. Romeo, however, sees his banishment as worse than the death penalty, as Verona is the only home he has known and he does not want to be separated from Juliet. Friar Laurence eventually convinces Romeo that he is very lucky and that he should be more thankful for what he has. Romeo then secretly spends his wedding night together with Juliet and the couple consummate their marriage before Romeo flees.

Juliet's father and mother, unaware of their daughter's secret marriage, have arranged for Juliet to marry wealthy Count Paris. Juliet pleads with her parents to postpone the marriage, but they refuse and threaten to disown her. Juliet seeks out Friar Laurence for help, hoping to escape her arranged marriage to Paris and remain faithful to Romeo. At Friar Laurence's behest, she reconciles with her parents and agrees to their wishes. On the night before the wedding, Juliet consumes a potion prepared by Friar Laurence intended to make her appear dead for forty-two hours. Friar Laurence plans to inform Romeo of the hoax so that Romeo can meet Juliet after her burial and escape with her when she recovers from her swoon, so he sends Friar John to give Romeo a letter describing the plan. However, when Balthasar, Romeo's servant, sees Juliet being buried under the impression that she is dead, he goes to tell Romeo and reaches him before Friar John. In despair, Romeo goes to Juliet's tomb and kills himself by drinking poison. Soon afterwards, Juliet awakens and discovers her husband dead. Juliet refuses to leave Romeo and kills herself by piercing her abdomen with his dagger. Later, the two families attend their joint funeral and are chastised by the Prince.



Franco Zeffirelli and Olivia Hussey while filming Romeo and Juliet in 1967


It is often rumored that Franco Zeffirelli considered Paul McCartney of The Beatles for the role of Romeo. Although Zeffirelli does not mention it in his autobiography, McCartney provided plenty of details on this account (including meeting with Olivia Hussey and exchanging telegrams with her) in his co-written autobiography. [5]

The director engaged in a worldwide search for unknown teenage actors to play the parts of the two lovers. Leonard Whiting was 17 at the time, and Olivia Hussey was 15, and Zeffirelli adapted the play in such a way as to play to their strengths and hide their weaknesses: for instance, long speeches were trimmed, and he emphasized reaction shots.[6]

However Zeffirelli's young leads were already experienced actors: Leonard Whiting had been the youngest member of the National Theatre, and had played The Artful Dodger in Oliver! on stage. Olivia Hussey had studied for four years at the Italia Conti Drama School, and had starred opposite Vanessa Redgrave in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the West End.[7]

Laurence Olivier's involvement in the production was by happenstance. He was in Rome to film The Shoes of the Fisherman and visited the studio where Romeo and Juliet was being shot. He asked Zeffirelli if there was anything he could do, and was given the Prologue to read, then ended up dubbing the voice of Lord Montague as well as other assorted roles.[6]


Zeffirelli filmed his Romeo and Juliet shortly after completing work on his 1967 film The Taming of the Shrew, and had learned from his experience on that project that it was better not to include speeches made redundant by his vivid images.[8] He played around 35% of Shakespeare's script, enhancing the focus on the two central characters and making them more sympathetic, while simplifying their roles to make them less tricky for his young leads to play.[9] He tellingly juxtaposes the betrothal of Juliet and Paris with the Capulets' crumbling marriage.[9] Yet the film is often noted for its zest for life and for love: the former epitomised by John McEnery's Mercutio, the latter by Leonard Whiting's Romeo.[9]

In contrast to Renato Castellani's 1954 version, Zeffirelli highlighted Romeo's positive relationships with the Friar, Balthazar and Mercutio. The way in which Mercutio physically collapses onto Romeo after the Queen Mab speech, and again when mortally wounded, has been credited with introducing homosexual overtones into the public perception of their relationship.[9]

Zeffirelli's handling of the duel scene was particularly praised,[10] and his device later adopted by Baz Luhrmann. Taking his cue from Benvolio's speech ending "For now these hot days is the mad blood stirring"[11] Zeffirelli depicts the dry, oppressive heat of the little town where (in Anthony West's words) "men seek to kill each other to relieve their exasperation at having nothing better to do".[12] The duel is presented as bravado getting out-of-control: the youths baiting one another, half-teasingly. Critic Robert Hatch described Tybalt and Mercutio as like "a couple of neighbourhood warlords, vaunting their courage with grandstand high jinks, trying for a victory by humiliation, and giving no strong impression of a taste to kill."[13] The scene increases sympathy for Michael York's Tybalt (often played as a bloodthirsty bully on the stage) by making him shocked and guilty at the lethal wound he has inflicted.[14]

Like most screen directors of the play, Zeffirelli cut the duel with Paris,[15] which helps to keep Romeo sympathetic to the audience.[16]

A particular difficulty for any screenwriter arises towards the end of the fourth act, where Shakespeare's play requires considerable compression to be effective on the big screen, without giving the impression of "cutting to the chase".[17] In Zeffirelli's version, Juliet's return home from the Friar's cell, her submission to her father and the preparation for the wedding are drastically abbreviated, and the tomb scene is also cut short: Paris does not appear at all, and Benvolio (in the Balthazar role) is sent away but is not threatened.[18]

Filming locations[edit]

Set in a 14th century Renaissance Italy in varying locations:[19]


The film earned $14.5 million in domestic rentals at the North American box office during 1969.[20] It was re-released in 1973 and earned $1.7 million in rentals.[21]

Famous film critic Roger Ebert (1942–2013), for the Chicago Sun-Times has written: "I believe Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made".[22]

Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 'Fresh' score of 94% based on 36 reviews, with an average rating of 7.9/10; it is accompanied by the consensus: "The solid leads and arresting visuals make a case for Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet as the definitive cinematic adaptation of the play.".[23]

The film courted controversy by including a nude wedding-night scene[24] while Olivia Hussey was only fifteen.[25]

Nino Rota's Love Theme from the film, with the original lyrics (which had been drawn from several Shakespeare plays) replaced to become the song "A Time For Us", became a modest international chart hit.[26]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Academy Awards ("Oscars")

Golden Globe Awards

BAFTA Awards

Other accolades for Romeo and Juliet included the David di Donatello and National Board of Review awards for Best Director for Zeffirelli, as well as appearing on the National Board of Review's Top Ten Films list for 1968.


Two releases of the score of the film, composed by Nino Rota, have been made.[27][28]

"Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet" The film's love theme was widely disseminated, notably in "Our Tune", a segment of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)'s disc jockey Simon Bates's radio show. In addition, various versions of the theme have been recorded and released, including a highly successful one by Henry Mancini, whose instrumental rendition was a Number One success in the United States during June 1969.[29]

There are two different sets of English lyrics to the song.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Thom Yorke cites the film as one of the inspirations for the Radiohead song "Exit Music (For a Film)", which was written specifically for the ending credits of the 1996 film William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Said Yorke, "I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13, and I cried my eyes out, because I couldn't understand why the morning after they shagged, they didn't just run away. The song is written for two people who should run away before all the bad stuff starts. A personal song."
  • Kevin and Paul go to see the film in the episode "Wayne on Wheels" in season three of The Wonder Years.
  • Celine Dion referenced this film, in particular the "hand dance" scene, in the video for her 1992 single "Nothing Broken but My Heart".
  • Japanese manga artist Rumiko Takahashi referenced the Zeffirelli film in two of her manga and anime works. In one episode of Urusei Yatsura, devious troublemaker Ryoko Mendou invites the series' male protagonist, Ataru Moroboshi, to have a "Romeo and Juliet" rendezvous with her, and wears a dress based on Hussey's from the film. Later, Takahashi's Ranma 1/2 featured a storyline in which the lead characters, Ranma Saotome and Akane Tendo, are cast as Romeo and Juliet in a production of the play at their high school. Takahashi designed Ranma and Akane's costumes for the play with Whiting and Hussey's outfits in the Zeffirelli film in mind.[30]



  1. ^ Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England, Stein and Day, 1974 p399
  2. ^ "Romeo and Juliet, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved 29 January 2012.
  3. ^ Adler, Renata (9 October 1968). "Movie Review – Romeo and Juliet (1968)". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 March 2012.
  4. ^ Ebert, Roger (15 October 1968). "Romeo and Juliet". Chicago Sun Times. Archived from the original on 21 December 2007. Retrieved 9 March 2012.
  5. ^ Paul Du Noyer. Conversations with McCartney. New York: The Overlook Press. pg.: 138–139
  6. ^ a b Landazuri, Margarita "Romeo and Juliet (1968)"
  7. ^ Brode, pp. 51–2; Rosenthal, p. 218.
  8. ^ Brode, p. 52
  9. ^ a b c d Tatspaugh, p. 141
  10. ^ For example, by Anthony West of Vogue and Mollie Panter-Downes of The New Yorker, cited by Brode, pp. 52–53
  11. ^ Romeo and Juliet III.i.1–4.
  12. ^ Anthony West in Vogue, cited by Brode, p.53
  13. ^ Robert Hatch in The Nation, cited by Brode, p.53
  14. ^ Brode, p.53
  15. ^ Romeo and Juliet V.iii.49–73
  16. ^ Brode, pp.54–55
  17. ^ Jackson, Russell "From play-script to screenplay" in Jackson, Russell "The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film" (Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-521-63975-1) p.30
  18. ^ Jackson, p.30
  19. ^ Liner notes (back cover) from Romeo & Juliet: Original Soundtrack Recording, 1968, Capitol Records ST 2993
  20. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1969", Variety, 7 January 1970 p 15
  21. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1973", Variety, 9 January 1974 p 60
  22. ^ Ebert, Roger (15 October 1968). "Romeo and Juliet". Roger Ebert. Retrieved 17 January 2014.
  23. ^ "Romeo and Juliet (1968)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 17 January 2014.
  24. ^ Romeo and Juliet III.v
  25. ^ Rosenthal, p.220
  26. ^ Buhler, Stephen M. "Musical Shakespeares" in Shaughnessy, Robert (ed.) "The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Popular Culture" (Cambridge University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-521-60580-9) p.156-7
  27. ^ "Romeo & Juliet: Nino Rota: Music". Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  28. ^ "Nino Rota Romeo & Juliet Soundtrack HDtracks high resolution audiophile music downloads". 1999-12-04. Retrieved 2012-03-07.
  29. ^ Bronson, Fred (1992). Billboard's Book Of #1 Hits (3rd ed.). New York, New York: Billboard Publications, Inc. p. 255. ISBN 978-0-8230-8298-8.
  30. ^ The storyline spans chapters 74 through 77 of the manga and episode 39 of the anime titled Kissing Is Such Sweet Sorrow! The Taking of Akane's Lips.

Further reading

External links[edit]