Richard III artwork by Mister G

Richard III

Richard III artwork by Mister GDirector: Laurence Olivier / Screenplay: Olivier, Garrick & Cibber (from play by William Shakespeare/ Editing: Helga Cranston / DP: Otto Heller / Music: William Walton

Cast: Cedric Hardwicke / Nicholas Hannen / Laurence Olivier / Ralph Richardson / John Gielgud / Mary Kerridge / Pamela Brown / Claire Bloom / Clive Morton / Norman Wooland / Alec Clunes / Dan Cunningham / Douglas Wilmer / Michael Gough / John Laurie / Patrick Troughton   

Year: 1955

Live and Let Die

A testament to the power of well-executed propaganda, Shakespeare’s dramatic reconstruction of the various machinations attributed to Richard III, erstwhile Duke of Gloucester, has stood the test of time: over five centuries-worth and counting

Yet Shakespeare was writing a few generations after Richard’s brief reign and moreover, was writing under a Tudor monarchy; a line of Lancastrian succession established after the Yorkist Richard’s demise. There were few contemporary chroniclers of the period and, as far as historians can tell, scant official records of Richard’s reign then available, so it’s not inconceivable that Shakespeare was ‘influenced’ to write a damning character assassination of a man long-dead & unable to defend himself, by patrons with a vested interest in ensuring that ‘their’ side of history became, thanks to this wunderkind playwright from the Midlands, the accepted – if not definitive – ‘truth’.

In other words, when Shakespeare writes him as a malformed hunchback along with a variety of other ailments, he is creating a legend intended to legitimise Henry Tudor’s seizure of the throne: and we all know how difficult they are to disprove…

GlassesLegend that is, until 2012, when King Richard’s skeleton was disinterred from the site of a long-lost chapel of the Order of the Greyfriars (latterly, a car-park belonging to Leicestershire Council). DNA testing established the bones were indeed that of Richard’s; the King having fallen at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485; a battle that would seal the end of what historians deem ‘The Middle Ages’ and usher-in the Tudor dynasty, begat by Henry VII.

Sir Laurence Olivier, that elder statesman of British theatre in the Twentieth Century, first explored Shakespeare’s play on-stage in 1944 and there was a certain inevitability – if not expectation – when it was announced that he was to both direct – and star in – a film adaptation a decade later. Handling the production, would be Alexander Korda’s London Films, from whose company, many of the actors would be drawn.

A Hungarian émigré, Korda’s career as both film director & producer began, falteringly, with stints in Vienna, Berlin & Hollywood, where he made a smattering of pictures, built contacts and learnt the movie business. However, the Wall St. Crash of 1929 brought Korda’s career to a shuddering halt through a sharp reduction in the worth of his investments, so he struck a deal with Paramount, to re-locate to the UK and establish a joint ‘production outpost’; the aim being, to get faster, ‘cheaper’ deals done in the smaller British industry.

As things turned-out, the arrangement fell-through after just two low-key pictures, but its failure led Korda to establish London Films as an independent producer; London seeing its first commercial hit a year later, in 1933, with The Private Life of Henry VIII, starring Charles Laughton (who else?). London would go on to produce a string of memorable pictures, including The Thief of Bagdad (1940), The Third Man (1949) and Hobson’s Choice (1954), until Korda’s untimely death in 1956.

GlassesShot in sparkling VistaVision (here presented in a pristine HD remastering courtesy of Network), Olivier’s film opens with a short prologue (actually lifted from the final scene of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 3) that establishes key relationships and dazzles the eye with a searing array of period costumes. This then segues into Richard’s opening soliloquy beginning ‘Now is the Winter of our discontent, made glorious Summer…’ and it’s here, that Olivier’s distinctive interpretation is revealed, for it’s overly theatrical & mannered; a less-than-generous critic might call it ‘hammy’. No wonder that Peter Sellers latched on to it in later years, using it as the template for a revered sketch, in which he recited The Beatles ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ whilst in-character as Olivier’s Richard!

And yet… Olivier is still tweaking the role for the camera; adding telling asides that break the ‘fourth wall’, to bring us – the audience – into his confidence. On-stage, one imagines these to have been achieved with side-glances at the audience, delivered with ‘stage whispers’ but on-film, the illusion is seamless. In fact, I’ll offer this observation: that watching Olivier savour the lines beyond that famous opening, it’s as if that acts as a blustery, brassy shop-window beyond which, everything else can relax, breathe and find its own pace. Not that that redeems his performance. His Henry V (1944) was given a patriotic reading that chimed with a war-weary public and as such, it still resonates today. Hamlet (1948) became a moody, noirish thriller in-keeping with post-war angst, which leaves this Richard as more of a document; a record of a lauded theatrical performance, lacking a cinematic identity of its own.

While I’ll not delve into the play’s plotting in this review, you should know that the text still works; there’s a reason why Shakespeare’s work remains relevant and ripe for continued exploration and it’s this: strip-away the period dialogue (and some of the bad jokes) and the situations he writes about are universal; his themes trouble us still. When a piece is so elegantly done, so truthful in its sentiments, it’s little wonder we return to that touchstone time and again.

So it is here. Shakespeare might’ve written Richard as a scheming, misshapen murderer and perverted our historical view of him in the process, but the further we are from the period, the more he becomes less a historical figure and more of a dramatic archetype. A caricature of a villain if you will who, with his pantomime exaggerations, Olivier was seeking to bring to some kind of life, imbuing Richard-the-Man with a little of the ghastly, obsessive determination that Shakespeare had gifted / cursed him with. 

GlassesSupporting Olivier was a stellar cast, drawn largely from London’s established roster of players, and boasting three additional Knights: John Gielgud, as the weak, almost gullible George, Duke of Clarence, Cedric Hardwicke as the soon-deceased Edward IV and Ralph Richardson, as the scheming, complicit Duke of Buckingham. Incidentally, research for this piece revealed that Olivier’s first choice for the duplicitous Buckingham was actually Orson Welles! Had he gone with Welles instead of his friend Richardson, the film might have been able to carve-out more of its own identity.

A pale Claire Bloom took on the role of The Lady Anne; the widow of Edward, Prince of Wales. As-written, we get the impression that Richard woos her, AFTER killing her husband (and the young Heir to the Throne) on the battlefield, thus embroidering his dark shroud yet further, but there’s no evidence supporting the claim. Instead, history records that Richard DID marry Anne – and that she later became his queen – but anything more is insinuation.

Rounding-out the cast, were a roll-call of names, then-already familiar to audiences, or destined to be. As well as the noted Stanley Baker as young Henry Tudor, we could add John Laurie (Dad’s Army), Patrick Troughton (Doctor Who) and Michael Gough (Alfred to Michael Keaton’s Batman). 

The cast move through intricately-designed sets, incorporating an elevated ‘Minstrel’s gallery’ at one side of a Great Hall. Seen from within, it gave Olivier the freedom to add height to his crowd scenes and break-up otherwise static gatherings. From ‘outside’, it doubled-up as a long balcony overlooking a public area, from which, in one particular scene, Richard is seen mumming his close-reading of the bible, for the benefit of a sceptical crowd, then swinging-down on a bell-rope. 

Where the budget really went, was in the ambitious location shoot for Richard’s final, decisive Battle of Bosworth; an excuse for Shakespeare to gift his newly-dismounted villain another vainglorious moment as he calls ‘A Horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a horse!’. Unfortunately, location scouting failed to identify any areas of Leicestershire that had escaped development, so production decamped to a cattle ranch close to Madrid, where the burnished Spanish grass made a poor substitute for England’s green & pleasant land. Still, one imagines that the few-hundred extras – many on horseback – worked-out cheaper to hire, than an equivalent number from the East Midlands…

That said, Olivier’s battle-choreography is static & all too brief; a sideshow compared to the text which, I suppose, is as it should be. No-one comes to Shakespeare for his balletic action sequences do they? Yet such are the limited scope & reach of these final scenes, that what was possibly intended as spectacle falls-flat; again, it’s as if Olivier had settled for making a record of his stage production, rather than finding a specific theme for the picture as he’d done twice-before. It all feels stolid and almost processional methodical as it runs-out; as if Olivier’s just going through time-worn motions, rather than finding something new to say and show.

GlassesYet there are cinematic tricks here, if you’re paying attention. For example, Olivier’s repeated use of shadow to illustrate key actions, or signpost – as in Richard’s case – evil intent. Then there’s the build-up of a protean, almost physical tension every time Richard eyes the actual throne and holds himself back. When finally at his coronation, he possesses it with such intent that Anne collapses at the foot of its dais. He has achieved his goal. She is now fearful about what that might mean for her… It’s telling, that Richard doesn’t even look at his new Queen from that moment, until she’s withdrawing from court and, even then, it’s with contempt. 

Then there’s the question of Richard’s betrayal of Buckingham. In betraying the trust of the man who’d worked hardest to bring him to the throne, Richard effectively seals his own Fate. By this point, he’s lost-sight of whom to trust and grown mad by seeing plots in every corner. On reflection, I DO think that Olivier manages to catch a whiff of such madness here; though remember that, by this point, he’d already spent a quarter-century working in-movies and had probably seen REAL madness up-close. In later years, he admitted to basing his interpretation on two sources: Disney’s incarnation of the Big Bad Wolf and New York theatre impresario Jed Harris; someone who Olivier would later describe as ‘the most loathsome man I’d ever met’…

In the final reckoning, Richard III was destined to be history’s scapegoat and bear, for centuries after, the biased judgement of William Shakespeare. Whether he – or Buckingham – actually murdered the two Princes in the Tower of London, we’ll never know for certain (the skeletons of two children were discovered in the Tower in 1664, some two hundred years after their disappearance, though they remain unidentified to this day). Then again, who’d have believed that Richard’s own mortal remains would one-day be discovered, so who can say? Perhaps there are clarifying records as-yet undiscovered. 

GlassesFunnily enough, Olivier’s film also became something of a scapegoat to a film career that never moved-past this film’s disappointing box-office (despite an early screening on U.S. TV). There would be one more attempt at rehabilitation a few years later, directing Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) (recreated for the recent picture My Week With Marilyn (2011), with Ken Branagh giving a passable take on his hero), but after that, Olivier’s time was divided between running the National Theatre on London’s South Bank and a new marriage – and family – with Joan Plowright.

The film DID become a set-text for students of the Bard and a template for young actors at drama-schools the world-over, but its overly-mannered staginess is hard to ignore and Olivier’s gurning, hard to forgive. Contemporary audiences are looking for just one or two things in their filmed Shakespeare: either a sense of gritty realism (as in Justin Kurzel’s recent Macbeth (2015) with a stubbly Michael Fassbinder and an almost-unintelligible Marion Cotillard) or spectacle, as in Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) or his breezy Much Ado (1993). Anything else, struggles to work: take Branagh’s own Loves Labours Lost (2000): whoever thought that this minor work, set in a fictitious Mitteleuropa on the outbreak of WW2 and turned into a musical in the spirit of the old Hollywood spectacles would work? Even Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), with its post-punk sensibility and surfeit of action sequences, struggled to make a lasting impression beyond its narrow target audience. 

Besides, if you REALLY want to see how Olivier might have taken the idea, check-out the impressive 1995 film by Richard Loncraine and starring Ian McKellan, Annette Bening & Kristen Scott Thomas, which transposed the setting to a modern country barely recovered from civil war. 

Trouble is, for all its ragged worthiness, I fear Olivier’s own version of this tale will be less-regarded with every passing decade. If only the film had its own sense of ID as strong as that enjoyed by the Director’s own, earlier, efforts. Olivier’s Richard will forever be seen as a relic of its time, just as its author’s work is now seen as politically skewed, for all its worthiness… And undeniable charm.

Clarence beware, for though keepest me from the light.

 Richard III  Triple Word / Score: STAGEY / RELIC / FITFUL / SIX

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