American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Romeo and Juliet" is always said to be the first romantic tragedy ever written, but it isn't really a tragedy at all. It's a tragic misunderstanding, scarcely fitting the ancient requirement of tragedy that the mighty fall through their own flaws. Romeo and Juliet have no flaws, and aren't old enough to be blamed if they did. They die because of the pigheaded quarrel of their families, the Montagues and Capulets. By writing the play, Shakespeare began the shaping of modern drama, in which the fates of ordinary people are as crucial as those of the great. The great tragedies of his time, including his own, involved kings, emperors, generals. Here, near the dawn of his career, perhaps remembering a sweet early romance before his forced marriage to Anne Hathaway, he writes about teenagers in love.
"Romeo and Juliet" has been filmed many times in many ways; Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard starred in the beloved 1936 Hollywood version, and modern transformations include Robert Wise's "West Side Story" (1961), which applies the plot to Manhattan gang warfare; Abel Ferrara's "China Girl" (1987), about a forbidden romance between a girl of Chinatown and a boy of Little Italy, and Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" (1996), with California punk gangs on Verona Beach. But the favorite film version is likely to remain, for many years, Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 production.
His crucial decision, in a film where almost everything went well, was to cast actors who were about the right age to play the characters (as Howard and Shearer were obviously not). As the play opens, Juliet "hath not seen the change of 14 years," and Romeo is little older. This is first love for Juliet, and Romeo's crush on the unseen Rosalind is forgotten the moment he sees Juliet at the masked ball: "I ne'er saw true beauty until this night." After a well-publicized international search, Zeffirelli cast Olivia Hussey, a 16-year-old from Argentina, and Leonard Whiting, a British 17-year-old.
They didn't merely look their parts, they embodied them in the freshness of their personalities, and although neither was a trained actor, they were fully equal to Shakespeare's dialogue for them; Anthony Holden's new book William Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Genius contrasts "the beautiful simplicity with which the lovers speak at their moments of uncomplicated happiness," with "the ornate rhetorical flourishes which fuel so much else in the play"--flourishes that Zeffirelli severely pruned, trimming about half the play. He was roundly criticized for his edits, but much that needs describing on the stage can simply be shown onscreen, as when Benvolio is shown witnessing Juliet's funeral and thus does not need to evoke it in a description to the exiled Romeo. Shakespeare, who took such wholesale liberties with his own sources, might have understood.