I believe that the (1961)‘West Side Story’ film version of Romeo and Juliet is superior to the later version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ directed in 1968 by Franco Zeffirelli. Jerome Robbins, the director of ‘West Side Story’, having a different aim/ representation of Romeo and Juliet has used various effective techniques to produce his film – which I consider to be more successful. Robbins chose it to be a transformation of Romeo and Juliet & not the original play from Shakespeare, but that’s not the only reason, if it is one, to acknowledge it as superior to Zeffirelli’s film.
Each director has used divergent ideas in their techniques, so different yet only to provoke from their audiences the same response. Therefore to determine which film is superior, you would have to consider those techniques. These range from visual techniques, such as theme, symbolism and colour, to auditory techniques which are just as significant as the filming techniques (types of camera shots and location of filming). Finally the most crucial factor shall be discussed – the audience response. It is the evaluation of the director’s success in achieving his purpose and the main reason why I have determined ‘West Side Story’ to be superior.
To elucidate my arguments I will be using three scenes from each film for easier comparison. Gathering a conclusion from any three scenes would be quite biased, therefore I have chosen the main scenes of Shakespeare’s story. These major scenes cannot be omitted, even in the film, because without them the story wouldn’t be able to advance. This makes sure that those scenes & comparison points were of equally high importance in both films (despite each director having a different theme or idea). The first scene would be the fated meeting of Romeo and Juliet (dance scene).
The second would be ‘Mercutio’s death’ and the third is the ‘Crypt scene’. The techniques used in these three scenes of both films will be noted and compared to each other. Location of filming was important to support the theme, mood and genre; West Side Story was a transformation of Romeo and Juliet adapted in the 1950’s context of America, therefore it was set and filmed in New York. Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet was completely based on Shakespeare’s original play; hence it was filmed in Italy. Both films could be classified as tragedy, romance and comedy as well. WWS however was also a musical.
The representation of Romeo and Juliet directly affects the rest of the scenes. As Zeffirelli had chosen to do a dominant representation of Romeo and Juliet, his locations were strict. The ‘Fated meeting’ was played at the Capulet’s party, ‘Mercutio’s death’ was played out in the town square – in Shakespeare’s play it was indicated that it was in some public place – and the ‘Crypt scene’ was played truly in the tomb of the Capulets. WWS definitely couldn’t have used the same type of locations for America in the 1950’s. The dance, where Maria and Tony meet, is held in some public hall and was not organised by the ‘Capulets’. Mercutio’s death’ was played at night in some secluded area with high fences. There was no crypt, but that did not mean there was no crypt scene. The scene was located somewhere on the streets, where it made better sense to have security guards prowling and meeting ‘Paris’, since ‘Juliet’ does not die in this film. Both films had advanced filming techniques, such as the use of establishing shots to portray the neighbourhood (in WSS) and the city, long shots to show the relationship between objects and people and close shots (though they were rare) to show precise actions.
In WWS, close shots were used mainly on Maria and Tony to show their reactions on meeting. Their dazed facial expression was the focal point as they first sight each other in the ‘dance scene’. ‘Mercutio’s death’ was filmed in mostly medium shots, even when the wound was inflicted and the ‘Crypt scene’ didn’t have many close shots either (there may have been a few). Though close shots may have captured the moment of grief, perhaps the intended climax had already been reached and therefore the falling action needn’t be delayed. Zeffirelli also used close shots to hold and emphasise the moment.
The close shots intensified the mood greatly. Upon meeting Juliet, Romeo’s smiling face was in a close shot deeply contrasting the preceding close shots of his gloomy appearance. Mercutio’s wound was shown in an extreme close-up, to the audience a few moments before the surrounding characters realise. (It was shown from Mercutios’s viewpoint as the pain became evident). Mercutio insists them that the wound was enough to kill and he needed a surgeon at once, but no one realises that he isn’t fooling around til it was too late. The close-up shot that was used in this scene, made the audience feel the grasp of fate.
It intensified the fact that the tragedy could have been avoided so easily (if only the wound had been seen by the others), yet fate was unchangeable as if it was set in stone. Zeffirelli’s crypt scene was shown in medium and long shots. The long shots showed the fear and vastness that Romeo saw in Capulets’ tomb; the fear that he’d discover his love’s death was true and the inferiority he felt without the presence of Juliet’s life. Even though both films were made in the same decade, Zeffirelli’s film was produced well afterwards so it was in better colour. But the technology gap wasn’t wide; WWS wasn’t poor in technology.
In Maria’s and Tony’s meeting, the background faded into an obscure mist, focusing on only the couple. It created a timeless scene and showed that the couple were in their own world completely ignoring those outside of it, until they were pulled apart by their ‘families’. WWS had also used smooth colour transitions between scenes. For example, as Maria was dancing in her room before the dance and ‘fated meeting’, the background flashed orange, then red, then yellow and etc. eventually merging and becoming the dance scene. Mercutio’s death and the Crypt scene were filmed at night, in dark open streets or confined communal areas.
The dark colours in both locations foreshadowed that what happened here would be risky with life-valued sacrifices. The darkness of the crypt scene made me feel that the tragedy had truly ended. The last of the consequences (for defying your superiors; government authority/guardian) had been faced and with the dawn of next morning there would be a rebirth of something worthwhile for its troubles; the peace of the streets and a truce between the gang. Both gangs have silently agreed that they were even and together they carried out Tony’s body.
Zeffirelli had used medium dark colours for the dance costumes against rich white surroundings. The dresses weren’t that bright, more realistic to the Renaissance period. Neon/ luminous colours seem too modern for that era. As Juliet was dressed also dressed in dark colours, a mysterious crimson dress, she wasn’t particularly noticeable among the other guests and dancers; the focus of the story was maintained by only the camera. I believe Rosaline was standing directly in front of her and if she had not moved Juliet would have been completely concealed. I think that this was one of Zeffirelli’s techniques.
As Rosaline was expected to be the party and the reason Romeo had come, it wasn’t strange that she was in the focus of the camera. Yet as she moved closer to the camera it seemed to either lose focus or concentrate through her, so that her movement drew the spotlight on Juliet. There was a lot of symbolism in Zeffirelli’s film. A classic white mansion, long train of people equipped with flags and white horses were used for the Prince who rode in front, with a long bright cape. Lord Capulet and Montague themselves had lengthy capes and exquisite headwear.
Zeffirelli used bright half -red and half-yellow suits to separate the Capulets from the dark half-green and half-black clothed Montagues. For this reason, the main characters and their troupes clearly stood out from the normal citizens. This was used beneficially as humour, to show the outrageous extent of their disagreements and turn the film into comedy. In one of early scenes, a brawl breaks out and those dressed in brightly coloured Capulets rush out on the green and black Montagues armed with proper weapons. An independent group of dull coloured citizens rush to join the fight/fun, comically fighting with blunt work utensils.
For WWS the Capulets were represented by the Puerto Ricans who had recently immigrated to America, or in another sense, the ‘Sharks’ gang. The Montagues were the local American ‘Jets’ gang. It was their facial differences and clear accents that distinguished them rather than their clothing. Despite this, there was no mistaking where each person’s loyalty resided. An example of symbolism in WWS, was the mutual silence in which both enemies carried out Tony’s body. It symbolised peace conspicuously enough to substitute for the epilogue Shakspeare had written and Zeffirelli had used.
The characters in Shakespeare’s play were already given their own unique personalities, but not everything was clearly defined; how the characters were portrayed could vary by a lot. WWS clearly thought that they didn’t need as many characters to show all the themes and beliefs of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There were no ‘adults’ such as Lord and Lady Capulet and Montague due to the rebellious roles of teenagers in the 1950’s context and as authority was held by the government a police officer was sufficient as the Prince of Escales. This, of course, did not change the moral at all in the play. If there were problems in loyalty or disobedience, the consequence would be death and tragedy. ’ Many WWS character served two roles at once, which worked really well. Benvolio for instance, was Capulet and Tybalt, the only true family of ‘Juliet’. This extended the meaning in his death; further solemnity and tragedy. I think it’d be more straightforward to note only or mostly the differences between their character portrayal. WWS had depicted Riff as a trustworthy, sensible and loyal to his gang. Even at the moment of his death, he had respected Tony’s plead. As he is wounded his last concern was to hand the knife to
Tony proving the fact that he greatly respected his friend. It was as if the only thing that mattered even in death was that “I have not betrayed you. ” Mercutio in Zeffirelli’s film was also portrayed as ‘a man of honour’. Romeo had been able to endure Tybalt’s mockery, yet Mercutio, to whom Tybalt hasn’t even aimed a word of scorn, itched to start a fight. He prided himself on defending his friends’ pride and couldn’t bear to see Romeo undermine his ‘man’s pride’. Tony in WWS was seen as a growing teenager, who had left his gang and was looking for something more in life, while Romeo in Zeffirelli’s film was more immature and rash.
He was foolishly crying like a young child over the inevitable death of Tybalt and would surely have killed himself if the priest hadn’t been quick. He could not see that it was his rash actions and intense emotion that had lead to Tybalt’s death and not only his own death but Juliet’s violent end. Both films focused greatly on the romance and tragedy, but WWS’s justice-hoarding resolution and recoil secured a better ending. WWS ended the tragedy with a funeral procession, in which the two houses each carried the bodies of Romeo and Juliet alongside each other.
The prince reads the epilogue “… For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo”. In WWS however, Tony gets shot by Chino (Paris); he doesn’t suicide with poison. This increases the tragedy, for Romeo had died with the most bitter regret at the exact moment he sights that Maria is still alive and well. He dies in her arms, with her reciting the last section of their duet. Maria cries out that both sides had killed Tony indirectly with their hatred for each other and instead of killing herself with the gun, she swings it around in anger and grief. All of you! You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets, or guns, with hate. Well now I can kill, too, because now I have hate! ” Unsurprisingly, she cannot bring herself to kill anyone in revenge and the violence satisfyingly draws to an end. The story resolves easily as members of both sides/”houses” carry Tony’s body out in natural forgiveness. I believe that West Side Story is superior to Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, despite it being produced at an earlier date.
Jerome Robbin’s techniques have created an exhilaratingly tragic momentum, and a more realistic Romeo and Juliet; some things were just too unbelievable in Zeffirelli’s film as times have changed and so have the audience. This is also the reason why I believe the audience response was greater towards WWS. In Zeffirelli’s film, there was too much foreshadowing indicating more of a ‘past tense’ rather than a present tense; it seemed as if that fate had been written and was only unfolding whereas in WWS it seemed that fate was still deciding, still adjusting and that the final result was because of the final action. Tony could still have been rejoicing the rest of his life with Maria, had he not come looking for death/Chino). Though you could say the same of Zeffirelli’s film, I did not feel that way. I felt that the couple had been cursed ever since they had met and certainly ever more strongly since Mercutio’s death. I found WWS had more natural events and admired their logicality and especially how they had pieced together to give the same ending as Romeo and Juliet. The most obvious example, would be Anita’s words, after she was treated direly by the members of the Jets despite that she was helping to relay a message to Tony, “…
Bernardo was right. If one of you was lying in the street bleeding, I’d walk by and spit on you… I got a message for your American buddy. You tell that murderer that Maria’s never going to meet him. You tell him that Chino found out about them and shot her. She’s dead. ” In hurt and spite, Anita had easily twisted the ending of the love story. This showed the inevitability of fate, no matter how close the couple were to a happily ever after the story doesn’t end there til it transforms into the tragedy.
I think that it was marvellous how the story had changed direction in the last moment to produce the same ending. WWS was a beautiful transformation and brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, superior to Zeffirelli’s film in many ways. It was an innovation of Shakspeare’s tragedy, whereas Zeffirelli’s was a replication. It enhanced the tragedy, violence, rhapsodic and passionate tones of the story and beautified if not perfected the representation of Shakespeare’s superb work.