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 the was ripe for a film version that subverted every tradition the 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.
Instead, audiences was treated to a remarkably faithful rendering of Shakespeare’s play right down to the costumes and setting of Renaissance-era Italy.
Except that for the first time on film the titular teenage lovers were actually played by teenagers 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 is provided through extensive montage sequences, but this cinematic device does not make Romeo and Juliet hopelessly dated like so many other movies stuck in the 60s.
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 buttocks than the context in which those buttocks are bared. It can be argued that the single greatest concession to the spirit of ’68 which 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 actual verse proving that Romeo and Juliet were sexually active. One need only realize that Juliet is just as naked as Romeo beneath those sheets on the bed in which they lie when looking for evidence that they have been sexually active in the film.