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Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke
Director: Laurence Olivier
Audio: English 1.0 monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, interview with Laurence Olivier, art gallery, trailers, essay
Length: 158 minutes
Release Date: February 24, 2004

"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York..."

Film ****

It 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.

Richard III (1955) 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.

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.

That 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.

Richard 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.

The 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."

And 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.

Soon 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."

The 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.

Richard 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).

Richard 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.

Some 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 VI plays.

Was 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.

Video **

Richard III was 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.

Richard 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 script.

For 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.

Audio **

Technically, 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.

Features ***

Richard 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.

The 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!

Next, 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.

The 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.

Lastly, 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 limp!


In the mood for some Shakespeare?  You can't go wrong with Sir Laurence Olivier who, backed by a truly stellar supporting cast, gives arguably his greatest screen performance in Richard III.

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