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Review by Ed Nguyen
Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke
Director: Laurence Olivier
Audio: English 1.0 monaural
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1
Features: Commentary, interview with Laurence Olivier, art gallery, trailers, essay
Length: 158 minutes
Release Date: February 24, 2004
is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York..."
would not be an exaggeration to consider Laurence Olivier among the most admired
actors of the twentieth-century. Even
from his earliest stage debut, playing Katharine(!) in The
Taming of the Shrew, he was clearly destined for something special.
Eventually nominated a remarkable nine times for Best Actor at the
Academy Awards and the recipient of two Oscars (including a special award in
1978 for lifetime achievement), knighted in 1947, lorded in 1970, Olivier
demonstrated in a career spanning over half a century his incredible virtuosity
in a huge range of stage and screen roles.
He was also a skilled director as well.
In the 1960's, he served as founder and director of England's National
Theater Company, and among his screen directorial efforts, his noteworthy
adaptations of the three classic Shakespearean plays Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard
III are considered near-definitive cinematic versions of the Bard's tales.
was Olivier's third directorial effort. Aside
from narrator duties in 1968's Romeo and
Juliet and a 1965 filmed stage production of Othello,
it would also prove to be his last Shakespearean movie.
Olivier's interpretation of the film's title role is widely acknowledged
as his finest film performance, and the rest of the cast in Richard
III is no less remarkable. Any
film that can bring together four of England's greatest knighted Shakespearean
actors of the twentieth century is a film that commands respect. In addition to Laurence Olivier's Duke of Gloucester, John
Gielgud also appears as his brother the Duke of Clarence, and Cedric Hardwicke
plays the doomed King Edward IV; Ralph Richardson portrays the Duke of
Buckingham. Last but not least,
Claire Bloom, fresh from her recent debut in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, is radiant in the difficult role of Lady Anne, later
Queen to Richard.
III is a
tale of Machiavellian scheming, treachery, and villainy.
It is considered one of the great Shakespearean history plays and as with
any filmed adaptation of Shakespeare's works, the more familiar the viewer is
with the text, the more satisfaction he will derive from watching the film.
For anyone not familiar with Richard
III at all, I recommend reading the play first if possible (or at least
tracking down some summary notes), especially since the play is the concluding
chapter in a four-part epic commenced in Shakespeare's first three Henry
VI plays. Fortunately, Olivier
has removed many of the allusions to these earlier plays to make his film more
comprehensible to general audiences.
said, Richard III is set in the midst
of the War of the Roses in the fifteenth century. England has endured years of conflict between great rival
houses for the right to bear the English Crown, and now King Edward the IV,
adherent to the House of York, commands all of England.
However, he is an old man of failing health, and as the film opens his
short reign has already entered its final hours even as it sees its dawn.
Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester and brother to Edward, secretly aspires to the
King's crown. Plots he will lay
against his brother, for Richard has "no delight to pass away the time
unless to spy my shadow in the sun." This
Duke of Gloucester is a man ugly of body and heart, deformed in appearance and
spiritually bereft of compassion or sympathy.
Even before the film begins, he has killed a man, lately son of Henry VI
and husband to Lady Anne. And yet
in his insatiable lush for power and control Richard will even have Lady Anne
too for wife.
pattern of Richard's butcheries will eventually consume his closest kin.
His brother the Duke of Clarence will be sacrificed to the Tower of
London: "Clarence beware, thou keepest me from the light but I will plan a
pitchy day for thee..." By
this deception Richard hopes to further mislay the King, all the while
professing to Clarence a devoted commitment to labor for his brother's
deliverance. This betrayal of
blood, when revealed to the infirmed King, breaks his heart and hastens him to
his grave, which perhaps Richard foreshadows: "Shine out, fair sun...that I
may see my shadow as I pass."
so one by one the obstacles fall until only the deceased King's two young sons
stand in the path of Richard's ascension to the throne.
Sweet and innocent that they are, the nephews are of insufficient
persuasion to prevent their pre-ordained ill fate, borne upon them by decree of
Richard, this usurper to the Crown of England.
enough, Richard will by devious means or willful direction anoint himself the
new King of England. But as he has
lived by the sword, so shall he die by it.
His reign will be brief, and if Edward IV was the light and the sun (of
York), so Richard is its darkness. He
even admits himself to be "subtle, foul, and treacherous," a man who
can "smile and murder whiles I smile."
repetition of the shadow motif serves to emphasize the darkness of Richard's
character. In fact, the film often
introduces or ends Richard's scenes with images of his shadow seen creeping
along the walls or the cobblestone floors like an ominous Nosferatu-style
character. As it grows in size, so
does Richard's manipulative influence over the court. In the triumphant scene with Lady Anne that concludes in her
bedchamber, Richard's shadow consumes her entirely. Later, when he has ensnarled the Duke of Buckingham as well
in his webs of deceit, their shadows are seen to merge into one.
is the Vice, an archetypal character often seen in the supporting role in plays
of the Elizabethan era. The duties
of the Vice was to comment upon the acts of other characters, often through the
use of soliloquies, and to be the instigator of plot developments, for better or
worse. In Richard III, the Vice has been elevated to the title role, obscuring
any potentially heroic characters in the plot such that, for this play and film,
the villain is the "hero" of
the tale (in perhaps a very rare precursor to the "anti-hero" of
twentieth-century film and literature).
offers many soliloquies in the film. Through
them, he bares forth to the audiences the truth of his dark nature and contempt,
but to the other characters in the film, he wears a false mask of humility and
kindness whose duplicity is only revealed too late.
Lady Anne may recognize him as a "minister of hell" who would
seduce her in the very presence of her dead husband's corpse, but she too
succumbs to Richard's charms. The
Duke of Buckingham may be Richard's confederate in his plots, but upon due time
for the awarding of the earldom of Hereford to him for his services, Buckingham
is rebuked by Richard, "Thou troublest me.
I'm not in the vein." Buckingham will soon meet his untimely demise.
Ultimately, all those who defy Richard or stand in his path are summarily
defeated, and even those who aid him are soon to be betrayed by Richard's
corruption to tyranny. Much like Barabas in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Richard is a classic Machiavellian character.
His actions are devised to extend his influence, and he is not shy to
ruthless deeds to retain this power.
critics have complained over the years that the film takes liberties with the
Shakespearean text. However, even
Shakespeare's play itself had greatly condensed and re-arranged the actual
timeline of real historical events, as well as introducing numerous
anachronistic allusions and references. Suffice
it to say that since Shakespeare's Richard III was not historically accurate to begin with, any
cinematic alterations to the text in Olivier's film can be easily forgiven as
well. In the film, the famous
seduction of Lady Anne has been split into two scenes.
The character of Queen Margaret, who provides a uniting link between the
four plays Henry VI Parts I-III and Richard
III, is completely excised. Clarence's
execution scene has been greatly condensed.
Some other scenes or dialogue have been imported from other Shakespearean
plays, for instance the opening coronation of Edward IV (from Henry
VI, Part III). While these
alterations may be frowned upon by Shakespeare purists, their cumulative effect
is actually to make Richard III a
stronger, more coherent film exclusive of the Henry
the real Richard III truly as criminal and vilified as stage and screen have
traditionally depicted him? Probably
not. Henry Tudor, who defeated and
ultimately succeeded Richard as King of England, undoubtedly called for his
former adversary to be portrayed in an unfriendly fashion in the historical
records, the better by which to lay a legitimate claim to the goodness of his
own reign. Such are the privileges
of the victorious. What Shakespeare
has done was to take the popular depiction of a cruel and deformed Richard III
and to transform him into a complex character of great depth and vitality.
Richard III is a fascinating
character study, and to this end, Laurence Olivier has succeeded admirably in
bringing the dark King to life. It
is to the credit of Olivier's considerable skills as an actor that while his
Richard Duke of Gloucester is clearly an untrustworthy villain, he is
charismatic enough to sustain the audience's interest and empathy throughout the
film. We root for his ill-begotten triumph, and then we trumpet for
his well-deserved downfall. It is a
truly great performance in a great film.
originally shot in VistaVision. This
early widescreen format ran film through the camera horizontally and had an
image of 24x36mm on the negative for an aspect ratio similar to that produced by
a 35mm still camera. To achieve the widescreen appearance, this image was then
usually cropped and magnified or else combined with an anamorphic lens.
III had an
original running length of about 161 minutes.
Over the years, however, various scenes were either lost or cut from
subsequent prints, resulting in approximately twenty minutes of excised footage
since the initial release in 1955. Fortunately,
this Criterion DVD now restores much of the original running length.
The bulk of the source print for the transfer is a 35mm color reversal
intermediate, with the restored missing scenes coming from recently
re-discovered 35mm prints. While
this understandably accounts for some unavoidable variability in the quality of
the image, the good news is that otherwise Criterion has done a fine job with
this transfer. Furthermore, the
film as presented on this DVD once again matches the original theatrical release
its age, Richard III looks gorgeous!
The colors are brilliant, as should be expected of a Technicolor film,
but their glowing luminosity comes at a small price, as the film has a mildly
soft appearance. Other minor
blemishes hint at the film's age - occasional age spots in the print, a constant
density pulsing, and fake-looking rear projection scenes, for instance. These flaws are however inherent to the source prints.
It should also be noted that Richard
III was shot mostly on soundstages (hence the theater-like artificiality of
the film environment) until the climactic Battle of Bosworth, shot outdoors with
the help of several hundred Spanish extras.
The change in the film's setting is a bit sudden, so be aware that it
will occur around chapter 33, just after the two-hour mark.
Richard III is in English, but most
viewers will be thankful for the optional English subtitles which accompany this
film. I would recommend turning
those subtitles on, especially for viewers unfamiliar with the text, which is
typical of Shakespearean works for its elaborate metaphors, dramatic ironies,
puns and wordplays. The audio track
is monaural 1.0 and has received Criterion's usual meticulous care in removing
tics and pops and other such background noise.
Dialogue is always clear and, other than the stylized and sometimes
archaic iambic pentameter (meaning ten syllables per verse line, with a heavy
stress upon every other syllable) spoken in the film, presents no difficulty in
following the general storyline.
III is a
two-disc set from Criterion. The
film occupies the entire first disc, which also provides a supplemental
commentary by playwright and stage director Russell Lees.
These comments are extremely useful in giving the historical background
for the many characters in Richard III.
Audiences in Shakespeare's time naturally were already familiar with
these names, but today's audiences are too far removed from the historical
references and so this commentary track proves invaluable in filling in the
gaps. Lees also comments upon the
deletions or alterations made by Olivier to the film when compared to the
Shakespearean text. From time to
time, interview excerpts with John Wilders, a former Governor of the Royal
Shakespeare Company, also appear.
remaining extra features can be found on the second disc.
First and foremost among these is an interview (47 min.) with Laurence
Olivier which also includes stills from his various plays as well as clips from
his four Shakespearean films. As
might be expected, Olivier is extremely well-spoken and throughout the interview
offers many enlightening comments about his various stage and screen roles,
ranging from his (then)-current endeavour, Othello,
back to his early years as an actor. If
viewers still have any lingering questions about Olivier's skills as an actor,
the four astoundingly powerful film clips included in this interview segment
should completely dissipate those doubts!
there is an art gallery containing several dozen stills, publicity shots, and
promotional posters for Richard III.
Interspersed among the photographs are captions, excerpts, or quotations
relating to the photographs.
disc's extra features are rounded out by two trailers.
First is a trailer (12 min.) for the television broadcast of Richard
III. Oddly enough, the film was
premiered concurrently on TV and in the movie theaters (although the television
broadcast was edited for length and shown in black & white).
The second trailer is a typical movie trailer.
the package insert includes an essay by Bruce Eder, writer and film historian.
The essay presents a basic overview of the film's history from its
conception in the mid-1940's to its casting and production and lastly to its
reception upon initial release. Interestingly,
Eder's essay reveals that Laurence Olivier was accidentally shot in the left leg
by an arrow during production and consequently did not have to fake Richard's