Michael Gough got his part (Dighton, the first murderer) by making a fuss to his fellow actor friends about only established stars getting cameo parts and leaving nothing for struggling actors like himself. One night he got a phone call, and a voice said "You've been stirring it, haven't you? Right little shit." Gough demanded to know, "Who is this?" only to be stunned by the response, "It's Larry", which of course was Olivier himself. Olivier in fact was just having some fun at Gough's expense, had taken on board his criticisms and was ringing to offer him the part of one of the murderers in Richard III. When asked which one he wanted to play, Gough quickly said "Whichever one has the most lines", and he got his wish. Olivier actually arranged matters so that Gough's scenes were split over several days, instead of all being done on the one day, so that he, Gough, would maximise his per diem fee.
Laurence Olivier used long takes throughout the film to allow the actors to build their scenes more theatrically. His opening soliloquy was shot in one nine-minute take. When he almost dropped the king's crown in the first scene, rather than re-shoot, he used the accident to create a motif for the film.
Laurence Olivier wanted to cast Orson Welles in the role of Buckingham, but life-long friend Sir Ralph Richardson wanted the role, and Olivier gave it to him. In his autobiography, Olivier says he wishes he had disappointed Richardson and cast Welles instead as he would have brought an extra element to the screen, an intelligence that would have gone well with the plot element of conspiracy.
The failure of the film to earn a profit in the U.S. during its theatrical release, together with the untimely death of Alexander Korda, who had backed the production of Richard III (1955), effectively ended Olivier's dream of filming Shakespeare as a director. He is accorded the honor of being the greatest Macbeth of the 20th century, but he could never raise the financing to make the film after the financial failure of this film. Mike Todd expressed interest in financing an Olivier version of "Macbeth", but Todd was killed in a plane crash before those ideas could come to fruition. Olivier never again directed a Shakespearean film, possibly the result of the fabled actors' curse attached to "The Scottish Play".
Laurence Olivier based his characterization of Richard on a much-despised theatrical director named Jed Harris. Years later he learned that the animators at Disney used Harris for the basis of the Big Bad Wolf.
The first film to have its U.S. premiere in theaters and on TV simultaneously. This occurred on the afternoon of 11 March 1956, when NBC-TV broadcast the film on the same day it had its U.S. premiere in New York. (It had already had its world premiere and first run in London in 1955.) The telecast was the longest single presentation of a film or play (three hours counting the commercials) ever shown on TV up to that time. Classic British films presented by J. Arthur Rank, such as Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), had already made their network TV debuts on an ABC-TV program titled "Famous Film Festival", but many of these were either drastically cut to fit a ninety-minute time slot or shown in two parts. Walt Disney had already begun, on his Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color (1954) TV program, to telecast some of his theatrical films, but these were shown in two or more one-hour segments, one segment per week, or edited down to one hour, as in the case of Alice in Wonderland (1951) . It was not until CBS showed The Wizard of Oz (1939) in 1956, that an uncut, full-length theatrical film was shown on network TV during prime time in one evening.
In the opening of the film, Richard accidentally drops the Duke's coronet after the royal party leaves. It was a mistake that Laurence Olivier made, but left in. However, it became a running joke throughout the film and later, you can see the same gag again.
Hastings's line "The cat, the rat/And Lovell the dog/Rule all England under the hog" is an eighteenth-century addition to the play, the work of the actor/manager David Garrick (1717-79) the most celebrated Richard III of his own era. Olivier included it to pay tribute to his predecessor in the role. Similarly, he carries a theatrical sword that belonged to the equally celebrated Edmund Kean (1787-1833), an actor of the generation after Garrick's.
Esmond Knight, who plays Ratcliffe, wanted to make his appearance at Richard's tent (at dawn during the Battle of Bosworth) longer by "loosening his sword in the scabbard, then look over the shoulder through the flap in the tent towards the horses, and then say it." However, Olivier refused his request and told him to "Play straight and piss off!"
Laurence Olivier wanted Carol Reed (who was then the top British director during that period) to direct the film, but Reed turned the offer down outright. It was his then-wife Vivien Leigh and friend Alexander Korda who persuaded him to direct. Filming took seventeen weeks whereas in Olivier's previous Shakespeare film, Hamlet (1948), it took six months to film.
The liner notes on the Criterion Collection's DVD of this film states mistakenly that NBC-TV's premiere broadcast of the film in March 1956 was in black-and-white. Actually, NBC, the network that prided itself as the color pioneer of the three major U.S. TV networks at the time, did indeed run the movie in color. In fact, the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times, dated March 11, lists numerous advertisements by Manhattan merchandisers for new color television sets, coinciding with the Sunday afternoon broadcast of the movie.
Vivien Leigh wanted to play Lady Anne, but Laurence Olivier chose the younger Claire Bloom instead. Alexander Korda then suggested he cast Leigh in a silent cameo, a role specially created for the film version, but instead Olivier convinced the producer to cast her in another of his films, The Deep Blue Sea (1955), a leading role he felt better suited to her talents. Not having Leigh around on the set proved fortuitous for the director-star, as he had an affair with Bloom during shooting.
The battle scenes turned out to be the most dangerous to film. One scene was delayed a day when, as the light was fading, one of the actor's horses decided to mount Laurence Olivier's. Later, for a scene in which Richard's horse is shot out from under him, Olivier wanted to charge the camera, moving into a close up as the arrow struck his horse. The horse was appropriately padded, but Olivier wasn't. As he drove the horse toward the camera, he shifted his leg, and the master bowman sent his shaft right through Olivier's calf. After completing the shot, the actor asked Anthony Bushell if they had gotten it right. He then discussed ways to incorporate the accident within the scene's final cut. Only then did he call for a doctor. Fortunately, the arrow had struck his left leg, the leg on which Richard limped, so there were no delays waiting for the wound to heal.
Most of the dialogue is taken straight from the play, but Laurence Olivier also drew on the 18th century adaptations by Colley Cibber and David Garrick, including Cibber's line, "Off with his head. So much for Buckingham!". Like Cibber and Garrick, Olivier's film opens with material from the last scenes of Henry VI, Part III, to introduce more clearly the situation at the beginning of the story.
Feeling he couldn't top the battle scenes from Henry V (1944), Laurence Olivier decided to model the climactic Battle of Bosworth Field on medieval tapestries, only adding realism in closer shots of brutal hand-to-hand combat.
The Battle of Bosworth Field could not be shot on the original location, as the region had been modernized since the 15th century. Instead, Anthony Bushell found a bull farm outside Madrid where the foliage was green enough to pass for England and secured the cooperation of the Spanish Army. This was a decade before Spain would become the "go to" location for epic filmmakers around the world.
Laurence Olivier was very precise in getting many of the visual details of the period correct. Douglas Wilmer (Dorset) recounts that when he casually told Olivier that one piece of heraldry on the set was incorrect, that Olivier started pumping as much information out of him as possible as if he was "drilling for oil".
John Gielgud's casting in this film can be seen as a combination of Laurence Olivier's quest for an all-star cast, and the fact that Olivier had rejected Gielgud's request to play the Chorus in Henry V (1944).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The line "Richard's himself again" spoken to camera on the morning of the battle of Bosworth is not by Shakespeare. It comes from an acting edition of Shakespeare's text by Colley Cibber (1671-1757). Richard's line "Off with his head! So much for Buckingham" also comes from Colley Cibber's alteration of the play. As with the lines from Garrick's staging & the use of Kean's sword, their use reflects Olivier's desire to distill the stage history of the play to (then) date into his film version.
Filming of Clarence's murder in the Tower of London could have been completed in one day, but was lengthened to three days. The actor playing one of the murderers was short of work and Laurence Olivier was helping him out.
The monks that sing in the background through out the movie are singing Psalm 51 in Latin (Miserere mei, Deus). King David has killed Uriah the Hittite in order to get his wife Bathsheba, and confronted by the prophet Nathan, repents. Like David, Richard has killed the husband (Edward, Prince of Wales) to get the wife (Anne Neville), however he is unrepentant.