In retrospect, the most daring film released in 1968 was not Rosemary’s Baby or Night of the Living Dead or even 2001: A Space Odyssey. The major theatrical release that most bucked the conventions of the year 1968 almost certainly has to be director Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.
For an adaptation of one of the most familiar plays in the history of stage drama released just a little over a year after Bonnie and Clyde hit theaters, Zeffirelli’s film is almost shockingly straightforward and free from the kinds of gimmicks that the tragedy all but requires to sustain interest today. Perhaps never before had the young audiences for whom the film was targeted been so well primed and pumped for a version that blew all expectations of stodgy costume period pieces out of the water. After all, it had been less than a decade since West Side Story had successfully transformed the tale of young lovers from feuding families into a multiple Oscar winner with singing and dancing across an urban landscape. If ever the time was ripe for a film version that subverted every tradition that centuries of performances had established, it was the year of the White Album, the assassination of MLK and RFK, and Captain Kirk kissing Lt. Uhura. Audiences were treated to a remarkably faithful rendering of Shakespeare’s play right down to the costumes and setting of Renaissance-era Italy.
The one major milestone for the film was that for the first time on the big screen, the titular teenage lovers were actually played by teenagers, ones with whom those teens making up the target audience could identify much more readily than the 30-something year old actors cast in previous versions. Romeo is first introduced in a manner that was quite consistent with the “flower children” suddenly popping up all over the place, while Juliet seems to reflect the very decade of the 1960s by evolving from naïve conservatism into full-on rebellion against the traditions established by her elders. As is the case with way, way too many movies made in the 1960s, much of the details left out of the script are provided through extensive montage sequences, but this cinematic device does not make Romeo and Juliet hopelessly dated like so many other movies stuck in that decade.
And then, of course, there is the scene revealing Romeo’s naked backside. What was most revolutionary about this scene actually has less to do with bared skin than the context in which that skin is bared. It can be argued that the single greatest concession to the spirit of ’68 that the filmmakers made in Romeo and Juliet is the decision to show that free love was hardly a brand new idea. One has to look long and hard to find evidence in Shakespeare’s verse proving that Romeo and Juliet were sexually active. But one need only realize that Juliet is just as naked as Romeo beneath those sheets on the bed in which they lie to find evidence that they were sexually active in the film.
In the end, Romeo and Juliet (1968) was a huge box office success, earning a total of $38.9 million off of a budget of only about $850,000, making it the 6th highest grossing film of the year. It additionally earned $14.5 million in domestic rentals at the North American box office in 1969, and another $1.7 million in rentals when it was re-released in 1973. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes rates the film as "Fresh," with a score of 97% based on 34 reviews and an average rating of 7.8/10. This score is accompanied by the consensus review: "The solid leads and arresting visuals make a case for Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet as the definitive cinematic adaptation of the play." To this day, this version of the film is the one most commonly shown to high school English classes as the more or less faithful recreation of Shakespeare's beloved tragedy.