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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Richard III

Director: Laurence Olivier
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 1955

Background

THE ACTUAL GUY

Born in 1452, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became acquainted at an early age with the violent struggle for kingly succession. In 1461, when Richard was 9, his brother Edward was crowned King Edward IV. By the age of 17, Richard commanded a small army. In 1470, Edward was deposed. On two separate occasions before he was 18, the young Richard had to take refuge in the so-called “Low Countries” (now Belgium and the Netherlands) to avoid the murderous grasp of those loyal to the House of Lancaster. In 1471, thanks in no small part to the military prowess of Richard, Edward IV was restored to the throne.

During Edward’s reign, Richard was rewarded for his loyalty with extensive landholdings and the governorship of Northern England. By all accounts, and contrary to the slanderous caricature in today’s film, Richard was regarded as a just governor and beloved by his subjects.

In 1483, King Edward IV died. Richard was appointed Lord Protector of Edward’s son, King Edward V, aged 12. In swift succession, Richard accused several of Edward V’s guardians of a plot to murder the boy, had them imprisoned and executed, and then placed Edward V and his nine-year-old brother Richard (confusing, right?) in protective custody in the Tower of London. Richard (Duke of Gloucester) claimed that King Edward IV’s marriage had never been valid, and that he, Richard, was the rightful heir. With the support of Parliament, he was crowned King Richard III.

The two young successors to the throne were never seen again. Most historians agree that they were likely murdered, but by whom? Richard III seems the most likely suspect, but there is no clear evidence. James Tyrrell, who claimed to have murdered the boys on Richard’s behalf, only confessed to the crime under the duress of torture, so his testimony is dubious. Several modern historians and authors have put forth alternative theories about the boys’ demise. For a summary of the current state of that debate, see Wikipedia’s Princes in the Tower article (with a surprise appearance by Ruth Bader Ginsberg!).

However he got the throne, Richard III was not destined to hold it for long. At least two major rebellions were mounted during his reign, and he died on the battlefield in 1485, only two years after seizing power, at the hands of his Lancaster-affiliated nemesis, Henry Tudor (or at the hands of Henry’s soldiers, at any rate). Henry was crowned King Henry VII, thus ending the rule of the House of York and the Plantagenet Dynasty. Richard III was the last British King to die on the battlefield.

THE PLAY

Shakespeare’s play was written a full century after the events it depicts, in approximately 1591, and incorporates many of the inaccuracies and flat-out libel that had crept into the historical record written by Richard’s enemies and successors.

There is no reliable historical evidence that Richard III was hunchbacked and lame, as depicted in Shakespeare’s play; this was likely a fabrication by Thomas More. As has already been described, the accounts of his child-murdering may have been exaggerated, as well.

Despite or because of its inaccuracies, Richard III was hugely popular. Running almost 4 hours in length and relying heavily on audience knowledge of events depicted in the Henry VI plays, Richard III is almost never performed unabridged. Some of the modifications made by subsequent directors have become canonical, particularly the changes made by Colley Cibber in the 1700s. “Off with his head; so much for Buckingham!” and “Richard’s himself again,” both included in Olivier’s film version, were Cibber additions.

THE 1955 FILM

Laurence Olivier made a trilogy of Shakespearean adaptations in the 1940s and 50s; Richard III was the last. Olivier thought that the job of directing and performing the lead role would be impossible, and therefore asked Carol Reed (The Third Man) to direct. Reed refused, and, encouraged by wife Vivien Leigh and producer Alexander Korda, Olivier grabbed the reins and forged ahead.

With Richard Dent, Olivier re-wrote the play for the screen, lifting out entire sections and characters, adding an opening section taken from Henry VI, Part III, and re-arranging as necessary.

Dent described the process thus: “One had to choose at the outset between making the meaning perfectly clear to 20 million cinemagoers and causing 2,000 Shakespearean experts to wince.”

Richard III was a notable production for several reasons, including the fact that the cast included four Knights of the Realm. On one occasion three of the four were riding in a car that was stopped for a traffic offense. “I am Sir Ralph Richardson,” proclaimed one of the car’s occupants to the police officer. “Seated next to me is Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and behind me is Sir Laurence Olivier.” The policeman replied, “I don’t care if it’s the whole of King Arthur’s ruddy Round Table. You’re getting a summons!”

During the final battle sequence, you can see an archer shooting Richard’s horse out from under him. The arrow actually missed and lodged itself in Olivier’s leg. He finished the scene, confirmed that the cameraman had gotten the necessary shots, and then, finally, with the arrow in his calf and blood soaking through his costume, said tersely, “Now get me off this bloody horse and find me a doctor!”

Richard III was shown on NBC on the same day as it premiered in New York theaters. It was cropped to fit the television screen, interrupted by three commercial breaks, and most viewers saw it in black-and-white. NBC paid half a million dollars for the privilege, and an estimated forty million viewers tuned in to watch. According to the British Film Institute, the television audience for that single showing “…outnumbered the sum total of the play’s theatrical audiences over the 358 years since its first performance.”

Olivier had intended to film Macbeth next, but the relatively poor box-office performance of Richard III in the U.S., and the death of his producer, Alexander Korda, smothered that dream in its sleep, much like poor, angelic Edward V.

Fun fact: During the making of Richard III, Salvador Dali painted a portrait of Olivier in character.

One last item of note: You can’t really tell from this week’s film, but Claire Bloom (Lady Anne)? Rowrrr!

Synopsis

The film begins with some on-screen text, setting the historical context and preemptively pooh-poohing our concerns re: historical accuracy.

“The history of the world, like letters without poetry, flowers without perfume, or thought without imagination, would be a dry matter indeed without its legends, and many of these, though scorned by proof a hundred times, seem worth preserving for their own familiar sakes.”

“The following begins in the latter half of the 15th Century in England, at the end of a long period of strife set about by rival factions for the English crown, known as the Wars of the Roses.”

For those of you keeping score at home:

Red Rose = House of Lancaster

White Rose = House of York

Then appears the list of the “Principal Characters to the Plot” : Adherent to the House of York / Lately Adherent to the House of Lancaster… blah blah blah.

I’m falling asleep already.

“Here now begins one of the most famous, and at the same time, the most infamous of the legends that are attached to the Crown of England.”

After which we see… a gigantic Crown of England! Hovering in midair!

A crowning ceremony is in progress: “Long live King Edward IV!” cheer the boisterous York-ians. But then raven-haired, deformed and pointy-nosed Richard (currently Duke of Gloucester, not yet King Richard III) whips around and looks meaningfully at the Duke of Buckingham, and the Duke of Buckingham looks meaningfully at George, Duke of Clarence (who is also, coincidentally, Richard’s brother), and we understand that something is afoot!

Hopefully, the above paragraph gives you some idea Why Jason Hates Shakespeare. Regardless, we’ve got approximately two-and-a-half more hours of this, so let’s press on, shall we?

If you’re looking for British thespian royalty, the gang’s all here: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Claire Bloom, and whatsisname, Dudley Moore’s butler.

Now the royal family is parading through the streets, the peasants are rejoicing in their ignorance and filth… and Richard is alone in the throne room, delivering that famous, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York…” speech.

This is Shakespeare, so he talks on and on, unaccountably enamored of his own flowery speech and clever metaphors. The upshot is: “Everybody is happy now, but not me. I was born too early. I am hunchbacked and lame. Dogs bark at me in the street. Someday, I’ll be king – even if I have to kill some people.”

In the meantime, he plans to marry Lady Anne, whose husband he recently killed. Oh, look, here she is now, weeping over her husband’s coffin and cursing the godless homunculus who killed him. Tactless Richard chooses this moment to put the moves on Anne (tsk, tsk), but she responds by spitting in his face.

Courtesy of further expository monologues delivered by Richard, we find out the following Hot Gossip:

  1. He also killed Anne’s father-in-law!
  2. He is plotting to kill his brother Edward!
  3. He has a secret plan to turn Clarence and the King against each other!

Soon enough, (George) Clarence is banished to The Tower, based on some rigged sooth-saying (“…the traitor’s name begins with the letter ‘G’!”). In a turn of events common in Shakespeare’s plays, but – I would think – unlikely in the real world, Anne falls in love with her husband’s hunchbacked murderer.

The King is feeling poorly; looks like he won’t be around much longer. Now that Richard has a girlfriend, he’s got himself all dandified with a jaunty fur-lined Robin Hood cap and a red velvet… coat… thing. When the King dies, Richard will be the official protector of the heir, which probably does not bode well for the heir’s longevity. Richard also drafts up an official-looking “Execute Clarence” document and gets the King to sign on the dotted line. Is there any limit to this man’s avarice? Has he no common decency?

Answer to both questions, based on available evidence: nope.

Now there is a bunch of plotting and maneuvering that, quite honestly, I couldn’t follow. Richard is agitating the nobles and blaming the queen for his brother’s imprisonment. What he hopes to gain from all this is unclear to me.

(George) Clarence is executed. I would have thought it would be a more… professional affair, but no: Two thugs are hired to bash his skull in and then nail him inside a casket of wine. Seriously? Is that the way they did it back in the day? I had no idea.

The King is on his deathbed. Literally: He is in the bed in which he will die. The nobles are gathered ‘round, paying their last respects. The King beseeches the assembled guests to make peace with one another, and so they do, and we are treated to approximately 45 minutes of “Whenever Buckingham doth turn his hate on you or yours, God punish me with hate in those where I expect most love,” and “‘Tis death to me to be at enmity,” and “I do not know that Englishman alive with whom my soul is any jot at odds more than the infant that is born tonight.”

Arrgh.

Caught up in the general spirit of chivalry, someone mentions Clarence, and then Richard is all, “How dare you? Don’t you know that he’s dead?” The King feels a little embarrassed about that whole signing-of-the-execution-order thing, and promptly dies.

Arrangements are hastily made to fetch young Prince Edward from Ludlow, so that he may be crowned the new King. Richard and his supporter the Duke of Buckingham conspire to be included in the traveling party, no doubt with evil intentions.

Somehow, the trip to retrieve the Prince ends with two brothers of the Queen imprisoned by Richard. Why? Who knows?

“Ay me, I see the downfall of our house,” says the Queen, staring into the middle distance. “The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind.”

“O let me die, to look on death no more,” responds the Queen’s Mother.

Side Note: Is it just me, or is the Marquess of Dorset played by Roger Daltrey?

The young Prince is escorted into London, but the Queen and her other son are in the Church, claiming sanctuary. Richard and Buckingham hatch a plot to “infer the bastardy” of Edward’s children, and to claim that Richard is the illegitimate son of the dead King, and therefore the rightful successor to the throne! Or something!

Ah… okay, apparently the two imprisoned brothers of the Queen were enemies of Lord Hastings! Richard hopes that removing them will make Lord Hastings sympathetic to his claim for the kingship, but he has miscalculated: Hastings is a loyal York-man! Or whatever!

Richard tricks the young Prince and his even younger brother into a sleepover in the Tower of London, and the Yorkites are summoned for the coronation. I suspect this will end in tears.

At a meeting of the coronation party planning committee, there is a sudden and mysterious shift of power. Richard levels some bizarre accusations of witchcraft and adultery, and when it’s all over, nobody has signed up to bring the potato salad, and Lord Hastings is slated for execution.

“The cat, the rat, and Lovel the dog, rule all England under the hog,” Hastings intones ominously, apropos of I’m-not-sure-what, and then he is beheaded.

Buckingham assembles a mob and whips them into a frenzy, demanding – DEMANDING, I TELL YOU – that Richard accept the crown. Richard protests his unworthiness for the job, but humbly accepts.

Lady Anne is told to prepare for the wedding, Roger Daltrey is sent away to safety, and Richard is crowned King of England.

r3_crowned

Still, two loose ends remain to be tied up, by which I mean the two kids in the Tower need to get whacked. Richard charges Buckingham with the task, but Buckingham hesitates and therefore gets the freeze-out.

Richard then turns to a previously-unknown character, James Tyrrell, and gives him the job, which leads me, not for the first time during this week’s film, to think of the boardgame Clue: Tyrrell in the Tower with a Pillow!

“We smothered the most replenished sweet work of nature that from the prime creation e’er she framed…” says Tyrrell in voiceover. Translation: “We smothered the two kids, which was probably a bad thing to do.”

There follows a flurry of plots, counter-plots, unlawful imprisonments, escapes, betrayals, and murders so byzantine I could scarcely track it. Apparently, Lady Anne is dead? Lady Anne, anyone? No?

Now Richmond (whom Richard refers to as a “white-livered runagate”) has mustered a naval force and is about to attack. Really? A naval battle? How much longer is this film? Buckingham is captured and sentenced to death; no idea why. All of the other Dukes and whatnot are rising up with Richmond against Richard, and Richard hies himself off to Salisbury, where the battle will be fought for the Future of (yawn…) England!

“Despair and die!” So sayeth the ghosts of Richard’s many victims, haunting his pre-battle sleep.

The battle begins, and Richard says a lot of stuff like “Conscience avaunt!” and “Amaze the welkin with your broken staves!” and “Saint George inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons!” and other, equally puzzling things, all at top “I AM ACTING!” volume.

Then… Something Happens. I’m not sure what, exactly, but it causes a whole platoon of Our Guys to defect to the Other Side. Undaunted, Richard puts on his special Battle Crown and leads his somewhat-diminished troops into the fray!

At some point in the ensuing melee, Richard loses his mount, which enables him to scream out “My horse! My horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Pretty soon after that, he is ambushed and individually stabbed by every single member of the opposing army.

Richard holds his sword aloft for a moment in his gnarled, three-fingered hand, and then dies, bringing this dark chapter in England’s history to a close.

What I Liked

Olivier does his level best to make Richard III more than just a filmed version of a stage play; the camera creeps through open doorways, snoops on characters through open windows, and agilely follows the soldiers as they dash pell-mell toward their doom on the battlefield. There are some cool matte painting effects, and even some nifty ghosts.

The acting is dialed down a notch from actual stage acting, but is still stylized and mostly overwrought, as is common to Shakespeare. Olivier’s performance is way over-the-top, but once I accepted that, I started to enjoy the sheer gusto and the sly grace notes of humor he brought to an essentially despicable character. At the other end of the “I’m ACTING!” spectrum, Ralph Richardson makes a real impression by keeping it (slightly more) real. He retains his intensity without resorting to scenery-chewing, and I was riveted by him every time he was on-screen.

I mentioned Olivier’s uncanny ability to find the humor amid the darkness of Richard III, and that’s probably the thing that I enjoyed the most about the film; it was much funnier and gleefully evil than I expected.

…which leads me to notice the striking similarities between Richard III and the equally nasty Kind Hearts and Coronets. Interesting double-feature, that.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

I cannot fault of the stylistic decisions that Olivier made in adapting Richard III for the screen – partially because I don’t know enough about the play to make that kind of judgment. As far as I can see, Olivier did everything in his power to make the play more lively, engaging and cinematic.

Everything I didn’t like about Richard III is a direct result of the original source material; I quite simply detest Shakespeare’s plays.

I absolutely understand that his mastery of the English language was unparalleled. We all like to quote Shakespeare for just that reason. But place that poetic, overly-elaborated dialogue in a character’s mouth, and I lose interest immediately. Speaking only for myself, this is primarily because that kind of dialogue – along with the type of performance that it generally inspires – places these characters in a frame, puts quotation marks around them, and makes them doubly fictional and remote.

I think we can all agree that the characters in Shakespeare’s plays speak like People in a Play. Worse, they also behave like People in a Play; how much of Shakespeare relies on absurd coincidence or, at the very least, utterly inexplicable behavior? Unbelievable things happen, and people respond in unbelievable ways, solely because the author needed the plot to move in this direction or that.

And, yes, I’ll acknowledge that the same criticisms could apply to other screenwriters whose work I admire or enjoy.

All of those things probably wouldn’t bother me if:

  1. Shakespeare’s plays were about something that I found interesting in the first place, and
  2. We hadn’t been taught from infancy that Shakespeare was the absolute pinnacle of English literary achievement.

Should You See It?

Do you like Shakespeare? What about Laurence Olivier? Or would you just like to commemorate the passing of the British film industry’s Golden Age? If so: yes, you should see Richard III. As noted above, I am not a Shakespeare fan, but I’ll still admit that Richard III was the finest “straight” Shakespeare film I’ve seen.

Next: The Rules of the Game

One Comment

  1. I’ve watched my share of public domain films. Literally hundreds of them. Most of them I have no idea what I’m about to embark on in terms of this cinematic adventure. Oh, sure, I’ve got clues like when I watched “Hercules and the Moon Men” or “Life with Father” – but most of the time I’m in for a pleasant surprise (or on the rare occasion – an UNPLEASANT surprise). As I’ve said before, with the Janus collection – I try my best to not prejudice myself on the film I’m watching by reading the description but just keeping myself focused on title and running time.

    Heavy sigh.

    Yes, it was with the heaviest of sighs that I was stuck watching “Richard III.” There were three reasons for this. Reason 1: It’s f*cking Shakespeare. Reason 2: It’s f*cking 2 hours and 39 minutes long. Reason 3: It stars f*cking Laurence Olivier. Great. Woo hoo! Can’t f*cking wait!

    Okay, enough with the * – let’s get down to the review. I’m not really one to get into Iambic Pentameter so within 5 minutes I had turned on the subtitles hoping that would help…it didn’t. Here’s what I glean: Richard is a cripple. Made fun of by his peers but due to his lineage to nobility he holds a high position in the court of so-and-so. To get back at all his “haters” he starts pulling strings behind the scenes to get people to do what he wants. He kills a few here and there and, eventually, makes it to the crown where he abuses his power, murders a few more people and dies horseless on the battle field. Yay!

    As I watched the film (and tried to make sense of it) I couldn’t help thinking that this was the story of Dick Cheney in the Bush white house. It MUST be one of his favorite movies. I could even see a resemblance between Larry O. and Big Dick Cheney. Once I put it in that sort of context – I began to enjoy the film a bit more (though I still didn’t understand a whit of what was going on).

    As the two hours stretched into what seemed like a fortnight the film FINALLY opened up to a battle scene. At this point I found the film enjoyable only for how terribly directed the battle scenes were. It was as if Larry said: “Okay, group one, go and interact with each other. Now group two. Go group three.” Imagine if you will a few hundred costumed extras walking up to each other to exchange potato salad recipes (Note I wrote this BEFORE Jason’s Potato Salad reference above – make of that what you will) and you have the amount of excitement in the battle scenes. To call them boring would be an insult to the word boring. The ONLY bit of excitement was found in one moment where the camera (assume strapped to a car) was driven while following Richard’s horse. That was cool. But that was it.

    The acting was passable in the “we’re kind of on stage but we’re actually on film” style of acting – which wasn’t subtle enough for film and just slightly less overacted than on the stage. The feeling was that all the acting was false and the line readings were, basically, line readings. Note: Larry chews the scenery like he’s at a Royal Fork buffet.

    And here’s my FINAL complaint about the film. There is absolutely NO CLEAVAGE WHATSOEVER. Not once! That’s my typical male chauvinist saving grace in a film like this. Yes, I admit, it’s a sad statement but, hey, I’m being honest here!

    WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THE FILM:

    The technicolors were nice. The print was pristine.

    WHAT I DISLIKED ABOUT THE FILM:

    Everything else.

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Don’t waste your f*cking time.

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