Monday, October 29, 2012

Richard III (1955) - A Hammy Olivier Takes on a Suddenly Famous King

Now is the Winter of our Discontent

DVD cover of Richard III
"Richard III" (1955).

Usually, 's plays are best left in that medium: as plays. While revered by actors and English Majors everywhere, they simply don't have the broad appeal that they did three hundred years ago. That is not a slam against The Immortal Bard. Rather, it is a sad commentary on the declining interest of students and the general population for classic literature. However, interest in Richard III has revived because they recently located his body and reconstructed face. It's uncanny and unbelievable - but he looked almost like the twin of Olivier in "Richard III" (1955).

Richard III facial reconstruction
The real Richard III, reconstructed from his skeleton.

When you compare the above picture to these shots of Olivier playing Richard III, don't you feel the resemblance is so good that it's almost creepy? It's almost like the reconstruction comes alive.

Laurence Olivier as Richard walking with a hunch in Richard III
Laurence Olivier, looking as close to the real King as you'll ever get. The resemblance, in fact, is uncanny, made more uncanny by the fact that nobody knew what Richard III looked like until very recently.

Thus, since he so closely resembles one of his prime subjects, it's somehow weirdly appropriate that Laurence Olivier, like so, so many fine actors, was obsessed with mounting film productions of plays like "Richard III," "Hamlet" and "MacBeth." He managed to do that with the backing of London Films Productions. "Richard III" (1955) was his last and, arguably, best effort.  He was the best Shakespearean film actor of his time, and apparently he was determined to prove it. He hogs the camera throughout, but as both star and director, nobody could tell him "No." Certainly, he gives a fine interpretation as far as it goes, but it is fairly broad, and the extended asides to the audience explaining his plans are debatable in their impact. It is possible that Olivier intended to go a bit over the top with his performance to appeal to the masses and make the somewhat heavy material accessible. If so, it didn't really work, as the film was a financial failure in US theaters, though the TV ratings (NBC broadcast it in 1955, in color, on the same day that it premiered in theaters) were spectacular.

Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom in Richard III
In my very humble opinion, "Richard III" is the best of Laurence Olivier's film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare's "Richard III" (which is an extremely long and complicated play) deals with a royal family member, Richard Plantagenet (Laurence Olivier), who is close but not quite close enough to the throne of England.  In those days, you were either in, or you were out. Being close, the saying goes, counts only in horseshoes.  It didn't count when his brother was King (put there by Richard's own brilliant military efforts) but he was just another guy annoying everyone in the royal court.

Lobby card of Laurence Olivier in armor and crown in Richard III
An original lobby card from "Richard III."

Richard decides to improve himself.  First he arranges the death of his older brother (John Gielgud), who is higher in the line of succession than Richard.  Then, his other older brother, the King himself (Cedric Hardwicke), quickly dies suspiciously of health reasons.  The King's two young kids are the heirs, but they are too young to assume power, so Richard finds himself appointed their protector until they come of age.

battle scene in Richard III
A battle scene in "Richard III."

At this point, Richard is so close to his goal that he can taste it. He finds a pretext to declare the dead King's marriage null and void on the grounds of bigamy. This disinherits the two little princes, who conveniently for Richard are never seen again. This leaves Richard in charge with his wife (Claire Bloom), with nobody left higher in the line of succession. He is crowned King, but there is a lot of grumbling.

One might assume that this is the point where "they lived happily ever after." That is not the case at all. Richard's fatal mistake is assuming that, despite his own rampant illegality, everyone else will act legally. This turns out not to be the case at all.

Laurence Olivier's death scene in Richard III
Laurence Olivier emoting in "Richard III."

It's a great film, one of the top adaptions of Shakespeare. When I was in Seventh Grade, our Social Studies teacher had us watch the film in class. It took several days, and we always enjoyed "film days" regardless of what film it was. For some reason, my teacher made a big deal about the fact that the older brother (Gielgud) was drowned in Malmsey wine, but that's pretty much the only detail I recall from that educational endeavour. While the film is in color, our version was in black-and-white for some reason, which made it even more difficult to follow than it needed to be. I highly recommend finding the original color version.

There are some problems with the film besides just Olivier's acting. In an effort to be historically accurate (though of Shakespeare, not of reality) and include as many Shakespearean quotes as possible, Oliver and the rest of the cast rush their lines and speak in murky accents that presumably are medieval. There are times when you may need to turn on the subtitles to understand the extended speeches. The long play also is truncated in the film, but part of the previous play in the cycle, "Henry IV," is included at the beginning for clarity. All this works to a certain extent, but you also miss that Shakespearean flow that builds inevitably to the climax. It makes certain events difficult to follow. Real-life events are squeezed into what certainly appears in the film to be a very narrow time frame that actually covered many years. People in 1600 might have been willing to sit all night to get their Shakespearean fix, but that wasn't the case in 1955, and it isn't now. Olivier keeps things moving right along by cutting and pruning, but this is why I said above that Shakespeare should stay on the stage, not in a movie theater. Yes, this is nit-picking, but the source of some issues is himself, so no more need be said.

Despite its flaws, "Richard III" is a worthy exercise in acting, history (though not all accurate), and medieval propaganda against Richard III. The film also influenced certain battle scenes in more recent films such as "Braveheart." Just be forewarned, while watching this film can be highly rewarding, you must work to earn those rewards, because sticking with it can be a chore. "Richard III is out on Blu-Ray and other formats.


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