"Richard III" was the third, and last, of the three Shakespearean films directed by Sir Laurence Olivier, after "Henry V" and "Hamlet". The story is too well known to be set out here; indeed, Shakespeare's version of history is probably more familiar than the story of the real King Richard. The prologue states that the film is based as much upon legend as upon historical fact, thereby acknowledging that Shakespeare used a good deal of artistic licence. In some ways, in fact, the film goes even further than Shakespeare in its rewriting of history, although normally for a good artistic reason. The film opens with a scene not found in the play, the coronation of King Edward IV who is accompanied by his wife, two sons and adult brother Richard. In fact, Edward's coronation took place in 1461, when he was unmarried, his sons as yet unborn and Richard still a child. This scene, however, enables Olivier to assemble all the main characters and introduce us to them.
The real Edward IV was a strong, vigorous man, standing around 6' 4" tall, who died suddenly at the age of forty. Here he is played by the diminutive, sixty-something Cedric Hardwicke, as a feeble old man. The purpose behind this piece of casting was to emphasise Richard's Machiavellian nature, secretly laying long-term plans to seize the throne in the inevitable event of his brother's demise. (In reality, Richard was probably as taken by surprise as anyone else by his brother's death, and his rise to power was a quick reaction to fast-moving events). Similarly, Edward's death and Richard's seizure of power took place in the spring and early summer of 1483, but here these events are shown as occurring during a bleak, snowy winter, to emphasise that the brief "glorious summer of this sun of York" is now over and that England faces a return to the "winter of our discontent".
Olivier does correct one of Shakespeare's inaccuracies by removing the character of Queen Margaret who, at the time of the events depicted, would either have been in exile, or dead. This, however, was probably an inadvertent by-product of Olivier's cutting the original text to produce something more suited to the cinema. On the stage "Richard III" can be a rather unwieldy play, with a full production lasting up to four hours; at just under three hours the film is already considerably longer than the average fifties feature film.
Unlike some more recent productions of the play, most notably Richard Loncraine's film from 1995 which updates the story to the 1930s and quite deliberately portrays Richard as a fascist-style dictator, Olivier does not attempt to draw parallels- at least not explicit ones- between Shakespeare's story and modern politics. (Of course, one could argue that those parallels are still there because Shakespeare understood the essential psychology underlying fascism and communism long before either ideology formally existed). Like Olivier's Henry V, the film is shot in vivid colour and attempts to reproduce the visual splendour of the Middle Ages with authentic period costumes. Most of it was shot on stylised Gothic sets in the studio, although the final scenes depicting the Battle of Bosworth Field were for some reason filmed on location in a region of Spain that looks nothing like Leicestershire.
Olivier's Richard is not just a pantomime villain; he is also a consummate hypocrite, able to be all things to all men as the occasion demands, so Olivier has to call upon the full range of his acting skills to play the parts of loyal brother, ardent lover and man of the people as well as ranting tyrant. Although Olivier plays him with a limp, Richard's disabilities are not as evident as in some productions, so his speeches lamenting his "misshapen body" seem more like self-pity than genuine complaints. Olivier dominates the play, but there are other good contributions, especially from John Gielgud as Clarence (a far more sympathetic figure than the treacherous drunkard of legend) and Claire Bloom in the thankless role of Lady Anne, Richard's wife, who should have every cause to hate him but who inexplicably marries him.
The film was not a great box-office success when first released in 1955, particularly in America where its prospects were harmed by the curious decision to broadcast it on American television on the day that it opened at the cinema. That relative failure ended Olivier's series of Shakespearean dramas; a film of "Macbeth" scheduled for 1957 had to be cancelled when Olivier was unable to secure the necessary funding. (That must be one of the great unmade films of cinema history!) Today, however, its reputation seems secure as a classic, at least as good as the Oscar-winning "Henry V" which was much-praised upon its release. Olivier's performance as Richard, portraying him as (in the words of the historian Professor Richard Harrison) that "slit-eyed, snaky, deformed embodiment of evil" has passed into legend; for many people it has become (to the disgust of the king's modern apologists, and he has many) the definitive image of King Richard III. 8/10
Some goofs. As stated above, a number of key scenes are switched from spring/summer to winter. I have no quarrel with this change, which was done for good artistic reasons, but Olivier should have cut that line about "strawberries" which in the fifteenth century would not have been available out of season. Some of the heraldic banners are incorrect; Lord Stanley, as King of Man, would indeed have been entitled to quarter the Manx arms with his own, but the Manx "three legs" symbol should appear on a red background, not a blue one as here. And Richard III never used the arms attributed to him of a white boar between four white roses on a red shield.
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