Richard III (1955)

*. What a terrible opening scroll. “Laurence Olivier Present’s Richard III by William Shakespeare.” That apostrophe! How could they?
*. And the thing is, the rest of the scroll is almost as bad, being a bunch of fustian English that does little to introduce the play. This is disappointing because Richard III is a play where the audience could use a lot of help, and seeing as they went through the trouble of providing an introduction it might have been of more assistance.
*. I think they should have foregone the scroll. The thing is, I’ve rarely been able to keep all the characters and their relationships straight and I’ve read the play numerous times and also know the background history pretty well. It’s just a hopeless task.
*. The play itself has often been described, and is best enjoyed, as a one-man show. That’s the case again here. Pauline Kael found the supporting cast “a dull lot,” but then that’s what they’re supposed to be. Though Ralph Richardson’s Buckingham is well developed and I found him interesting to watch.
*. Apparently Olivier wanted Orson Welles for the part of Buckingham, as he thought Richardson would play as too likeable. But I think Richardson is perfect. Buckingham is a politician, after all, just like Richard. And I’ve never been a big fan of mixing American and British actors in Shakespeare. I think Welles might have looked especially out of place in this production, though the thought intrigues me. He was so good at rascals.

*. It’s a standout performance by Olivier, and I’d maybe rate it his best Shakespearean role on film. That’s putting it ahead of some tough competition (his Hamlet, Henry V, Othello, and King Lear), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Richard so well played. He is powerful, unscrupulous, and seductive. Ian McKellen is more a pathetic grotesque, it’s a great interpretation, but eccentric. Olivier’s Richard, one feels, could pass as normal, which makes him more dangerous.
*. The rest of the production is solid, but not overwhelming. It’s stagey, but Olivier did his best with the battle scene and I thought it worked well. It’s not up to the level of what Welles did with the Battle of Shrewsbury in Chimes at Midnight, but then few if any filmmakers have climbed those heights. (As a footnote, both Welles’s Shrewsbury and Olivier’s Bosworth were shot in Spain. The difference being that in this film it looks like Spain. Chalk another one up for Welles.)
*. I also liked the costumes, especially with Richard’s hanging sleeves giving him a bug-like appearance. Aside from that, however, most of it is stagecraft on film. Gielgud’s Clarence adopting a pose that mirrors the crucifix on the wall opposite him in his cell, for example. Or the way Richard has his posse kneel to him in the courtyard. All of this accompanied by loud cues in the score.

*. It was fun coming to this movie again, decades since I’d last seen it. Several scenes have always stuck in my mind. Clarence being hammered into the butt of malmsey. The look Richard gives the young prince when he makes the crack about his shoulders. Richard crying out for a horse. Now here, I thought, is a man who really needs a horse!
*. Olivier had limits as a filmmaker. He could certainly film a play, but in the end the stage was always his creative comfort zone. Still, there are the performances. And for his Richard III to still be reigning after over sixty years is quite an achievement. How did he do it? Yes, Shakespeare is for all time, but in this particular case I think it’s Olivier who is our contemporary. I’ve mentioned how normal he can seem, and how this makes his Richard dangerous. But I wonder how much of that is due to our having become more familiar with such figures. In politics, has Richard become the new normal? At times it certainly seems that way.

17 thoughts on “Richard III (1955)

  1. fragglerocking

    Another Shakespeare I haven’t done. In other news have you seen they are doing a new one, Tragedy of Macbeth starring Denzil Washington & Frances McDorman dir. Joel Coen? I might give that a go as it’s on APple TV in the New Year.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Americans often miss the rhythm of the lines, but can still be excellent. What’s disturbing is when they have a cast that mixes in Brits with Americans because they don’t go together.

  2. Tom Moody

    The Village Voice (as I recall) described McKellen’s fascist Richard III as a “camera-hungry smoothy.” That bothered me about his interpretation. He is always staring into the camera and seems to be looking for the camera when he is not. (Arguably he plays Gandalf the same way.)

    1. Alex Good

      Yeah, that’s definitely what he was going for. Of course Shakespeare’s Richard likes playing to the camera too with his direct addresses to the audience. He’s that sort of guy. My review of the McKellen is coming up though in a month or so.

  3. Tom Moody

    I recently read John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting, a strange alternate history fantasy where Christianity never took hold in Rome, Byzantium still exists as a major power in the second Millennium, and the Brits had the same Wars of the Roses — but as pagans. Richard III is a major character and is a strong, basically normal person (except for tolerating vampires in his court). For whatever reason, Ford wanted to clear the Shakespearean bad stench around Richard and took all his quirks away (including mugging for the audience). It’s interesting to read the character as if he were “AOK” and had been unfairly treated by history.

    1. Alex Good

      I’ll keep an eye open for that. There’s a whole Richard III Society that presses against him being such a villain. I read a biography on him a couple of years ago and it basically made the case, I thought convincing, that he was just a typical warlord king who was doing what he had to do to survive the power politics of the day. I don’t know if you’ve read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time but it’s a detective story on a similar theme.


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