Directed by Laurence Olivier. UK. 1955.

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Richard III (1452-1485) was the last king in the Plantagenet dynasty that had ruled England since 1154. He was also the last English king to die in battle but he is remembered more as a man of unparalleled villainy and treachery as depicted in the play of William Shakespeare. His portrayal by Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1955 film version of Richard III has left a lasting impression of a bitter, crippled, and deformed man who murdered Henry VI, Henry's son Edward, his brother Clarence, and his nephews Edward and Richard, although the historical truth remains in doubt. The performance by Sir Laurence Olivier was to be the last of his three Shakespearean performances (Hamlet, Henry V). Though likely intentional, I found it to be a manic, one-dimensional caricature that robs Richard of any semblance of humanity.

The film depicts the events leading up to the crowning of Richard III in 1483, beginning with a disclaimer that the film is part history and part legend but it doesn't say which part is which. Shot mostly inside the castle, by modern standards, its style is dated and uncinematic. The opening scene is the coronation of Edward IV, lifted from the final scene of Shakespeare's "Henry VI: Part III". It is here that the director introduces the king (Cedric Hardwicke) and queen (Mary Kerridge), their two young sons, Gloucester (Olivier) and brother Clarence (John Gielgud), his cousin Buckingham (Sir Ralph Richardson) and his friend Hastings (Alec Cunes). Under Olivier's direction, Richard talks directly to the audience starting with the famous soliloquy "This is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York". In this monologue, Richard of Gloucester, a gruesome looking figure with a deformed shoulder, a withered hand, and a hook nose announces his plans to overthrow his brother, the present King Edward IV. 

Interestingly, Winston Churchill noted that none of Richard's contemporaries ever said anything about the king being deformed and one suspects that it may be the author's way of lampooning Robert Cecil, a hunchback who was an unscrupulous power broker during Queen Elizabeth's last years. Convincing King Edward that his brother, the Duke of Clarence, is after the crown he engineers Clarence's removal to the Tower where he is quickly disposed of, first by stabbing then by being immersed in a barrel of wine. Richard's goal is even closer when Edward is taken seriously ill. Needing a queen, he woos Lady Anne (Claire Bloom) who agrees to marry him even though fully aware that Richard had murdered both her husband and King Henry. Because his claim to the throne is tenuous, the killing does not stop and Richard has the king's two boys imprisoned and suffocated in the Tower and murders Queen Anne. 

After the killing spree leaves London in upheaval, a group of citizens comes to Baynard Castle to request that Richard accept the crown to bring peace to the troubled land. After some initial unconvincing resistance, Tricky Dick finally relents and is crowned King Richard III.  This event, however, does not stop young Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, from claiming the throne with strong popular support and a major battle takes place in Bosworth Field as armies of Richard and Henry gather in August of 1485 to settle the issue. After 165 scenes involving thirty featured players, forty actors in bit parts, and hundreds of crowd artists, the film is brought to a rousing conclusion. Richard's defeat and the succession of the Tudor dynasty brought to an end the Wars of the Roses and is marked as a turning point in English history, dividing the medieval from the modern era. 

Shakespeare's play, based on Tudor sources, is an astute propaganda piece whose principal goal in the words of author Mark Anderson was to "legitimize Queen Elizabeth and her house of Tudor by celebrating the Tudor regime's first victory - the deposition of Richard III by Henry Tudor in 1485." The play has an antecedent in the anonymous "The True History of Richard III" first performed by the Queen's Men in 1589, which in its final scene heaps praise on the Tudor queen. It is one of Shakespeare's most popular works but, for me, it is lacking in the usual Shakespearean subtlety, tenderness, and spiritual depth. Perhaps viewing a different performance might allow me to appreciate the work  a good deal more.


Howard Schumann
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