Hamlet (1913)

*. We are first introduced to the two main players: Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet and Gertrude Elliott as Ophelia. I say to myself, “They look really old.” They are. A quick Internet search tells me that Forbes-Robertson was 60 (!) when they made this movie. That has to be one of the oldest screen Hamlets on record (he was to retire from acting, a profession he didn’t enjoy, the next year). Elliott was 37, which is only not-too-bad relatively speaking.
*. I won’t make anything more of this. Because it’s so obviously ridiculous? No. But rather because Forbes-Robertson is actually very, very good. In fact, he quickly became one of my favourite actors in the part. From the first scene I didn’t notice his age at all.
*. Apparently he was considered one of the finest Hamlets of the Victorian era, and was highly praised by George Bernard Shaw. Of course acting styles change, and what was once thought the epitome of great acting often seems laughable just a couple of generations later, but if you allow for that I think you’ll be impressed.

*. Forbes-Robertson was, obviously, a stage actor. I think he appeared in only a handful of films and this may be the only one that survives. So this is very much a stage performance put on for the camera. At the time it was only just being discovered what a film actor did that was different. That said, his Hamlet here is a perfect fit for the silent screen. The gestures are eloquent, and you can see he’s actually delivering the lines, as are all the actors.

*. I think it was assumed that everyone watching such a film would be familiar with the play. The dialogue cards are little more than intertitles, giving prompt lines. Most of the scenes are allowed to play out in full, uninterrupted. I really appreciated this, and thought it worked well. If you don’t know the play though, I think you’ll be in trouble.

*. There’s more to like here than just the lead performance. Here are some other positives.
*. What a remarkably well-preserved print! Most movies from 1913 don’t look anywhere near this good. Actually, most movies from 1913 are now lost forever, but even among those that we still have this one looks terrific.
*. The direction is, as you would expect, pretty limited. Like the acting in early film it hadn’t developed its own style yet, so the camera mostly just sits and watches. There are few short pans though and they do what they can to work in depth of field. Presenting the play-within-the-play was an impossible task from a fixed camera position and no editing, but I thought it was handled as well as could be hoped for by splitting the audience in two and arranging them on perspective lines leading up to the stage, with Hamlet lolling across the foreground.

*. There’s also one nice directorial touch in showing the close-ups of venom being put on the rapier and poison in the cup before the final swordfight. By the standards of the day that’s actually a pretty daringly imagined bit of cinema.

*. There are three interesting touches in the final scene: (1) Hamlet kills Claudius in self-defence when the king attacks him with his sword. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it played that way. (2) Horatio tries to kill himself by drinking from the poison cup but Hamlet stops him. This is in the play (Horatio’s line is “Here’s yet some liquor left”) but I’ve rarely seen it done in performance. (3) Horatio gives the dying Hamlet, who is on the king’s throne, the crown. Fortinbras isn’t in this cut of the play at all so that actually makes for a nice final tableau.
*. All-in-all then I think this is a great Hamlet for the time, and a production that holds up well. At just under an hour it gets through most of the play with real economy and manages to present the action with energy and creativity. For a silent Shakespeare from the early days of cinema I was very impressed, and don’t see how they could have done much better.

11 thoughts on “Hamlet (1913)

  1. Bookstooge

    I like your comparison of silent films being the intermediary point for the stage and movies.

    But I don’t think I’ll explore like you are doing. I wouldn’t have enough time to read 😀

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Only the Ghost. He doubles over and says “My groin!” in a George C. Scott voice. But you can’t hear him because it’s a silent film.


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