Richard III – 1955 | 161 mins | Drama | Colour
Not even in the same actor-director’s Henry V had Shakespeare ever made such dazzling, hypnotic screen entertainment as in Laurence Olivier‘s Richard III. The historical spectacular, a super-epic by almost any standards, took just 17 weeks to shoot – inside schedule and budget – thanks to the boundless energy of Olivier himself.
Olivier’s brilliant Richard Crookback, an extension of the interpretation he had first brought to a stage performance in 1944, provided material for a thousand imitators with his unique delivery of the famous ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ and ‘My kingdom for a horse’ speeches. His power-hungry king is a ruthless, dominant, unstoppable and unforgettable gross black spider of a figure that devours or possesses everything in its path. No character in the film, nor actor in the cast is a match for him, despite sterling, thoughtful portrayals from John Gielgud, as the hapless Clarence drowned in a butt of malmsey, Claire Bloom as Lady Anne, seduced by Richard over her husband’s coffin, and Ralph Richardson as the cunning, ever-scheming Duke of Buckingham.
During the shooting of the Battle of Bosworth Field (filmed first, in Spain, although the climax of the story), Olivier was accidentally shot in the leg by the film’s master archer, with a bolt intended for the much-cushioned horse beneath him, which had been trained to roll over and ‘play dead’ on its impact. Deeming the scene too important to stop, Olivier calmly asked co-director Anthony Bushell if it were all satisfactorily ‘in the can’ before calling for a doctor. The consequent delay meant that the limp Oliver had intended to affect Richard turned out to be very genuine.
The project to film Olivier’s stage triumph in the first place had been initiated by film mogul Alexander Korda, whose death the following year (1956) rendered still-born similar plans to film Olivier’s Macbeth (with Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth). The work then began of adapting Shakespeare’s text in such a way as to make it accessible to the average cinemagoer. In fact the job done by Alan Dent, with assistance from Olivier himself, was nothing short of brilliant – a rare case of the right decisions on excisions and omissions from the original being made on every occasion.
Some characters were omitted entirely (notably the murderous Queen Margaret), as were some passages of dialogue. Very few of the lines that were left in, however, were shorter or rephrased, while the film’s ‘crown’ motif, which reaches its climax in the final battle, was reinforced by Olivier’s ‘pinching’ of the coronation of Edward IV (Richard’s adult predecessor) from another Shakespeare play, Henry VI, Part III.
This telescoping and adaptation added greatly to the power of the dialogue, particularly that spoken by the king. Olivierís awesome appearance undoubtedly helped in this respect. His make-up – not dissimilar from the stage original 11 years earlier – took three hours to apply each day. Besides the unprepossessing black ‘fright wig’, Olivier’s Richard had long thin rat-trap lips, a deformed, two-fingered left hand, usually gloved and bejewelled, an elongated, icicle-like nose, plus the famous crooked back and sidling walk – making a man to feared but never trusted.
The air of magnetic unreality that resulted was heightened by the bizarre TechniColour photography of Otto Heller, almost cartoon-like in its effect, like such over-bright Hollywood colour processes of the past as SupercineColour or TruColour. It certainly brought the larger-than-life characters into sharp focus, and it is much to the credit of some of the supporting performances, especially those of Alec Clunes (as Hastings) and Norman Wooland (as Catesby) that they emerge from under the giant shadow of Olivier’s cloak as definite character in their own right.
Still, it was Olivier, and rightly so, who took the best award at the British film Oscars for 1956, which also named Richard III as best British film and, indeed, best film from any source.
Laurence Olivier: Director
Carmen Dillon: Art Direction
Otto Heller: Cinematography
Helga Cranston: Editing
Tony Sforzini: Make-up Department
Gladys Atkinson: Make-up Department
William Walton: Original Music
Laurence Olivier: Producer
Roger K Furse: Production Design
Laurence Olivier: Script
Alan Dent: Script
Red Law: Sound
Bert Rule: Sound
George Stephenson: Sound
Laurence Olivier: Richard III
Ralph Richardson: Duke of Buckingham
Claire Bloom: Lady Anne Neville
John Gielgud: Duke of Clarence
Cedric Hardwicke: Edward IV
Nicholas Hannen: Archbishop of Canterbury
Alec Clunes: Lord Hastings
Mary Kerridge: Queen Elizabeth
Pamela Brown: Jane Shore
Stanley Baker: Henry Tudor
Michael Gough: Dighton
Laurence Naismith: Lord Stanley
John Laurie: Lord Lovell
Patrick Troughton: Tyrell