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Laurence Olivier’s Richard III was the last and best of the trilogy of Shakespeare films directed by and starring the late actor and filmmaker. Shot in sixteen weeks during late 1954 and early 1955, Richard III was the final, crowning glory of the British studio system and the end of the great cycle of British films aimed at international audiences that had helped spawn the careers of David Lean, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Carol Reed, and Olivier himself.
Richard III had the longest gestation period of any of Olivier’s Shakespeare films. Olivier originally had wanted to adapt the play in the mid-1940s, concurrent with his successful portrayal of the role at London’s Old Vic; but Henry V, with its heroic martial sentiments, seemed the more timely project. By 1954, Olivier was no longer anxious to do the movie, having convinced himself that he didn’t have another large-scale Shakespeare movie in him to equal Henry V or Hamlet.
Up until Richard III, Olivier’s screen career of the 1950s had been relatively lackluster, highlighted by a starring role in William Wyler’s 1952 adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and a charismatic portrayal of Macheath in Peter Brook’s underrated The Beggar’s Opera (1953). He otherwise had concentrated on the stage for much of the middle-decade, and found great success as a producer as well as leading man and director, most notably in Terence Rattigan’s Sleeping Prince (later filmed, with Olivier as costar, producer, and director, as The Prince and the Showgirl, costarring Marilyn Monroe) and the comedy Meet a Body.
Richard III came about from Olivier’s interest in filming Macbeth––the proposed production would have starred Olivier, with Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, and was to have been filmed in authentic Scottish locations. But Alexander Korda, whose London Film Productions was backing Olivier’s production, had doubts about Macbeth’s appeal, and urged Richard III on him instead, with the promise that if it succeeded he would back Macbeth.
Olivier first set about reintroducing himself to the part over a period of weeks, and accomplished a startling screen transformation. Vivien Leigh had hoped to portray Lady Anne, and was bitterly disappointed when her husband selected Claire Bloom for the part. (As consolation, Olivier arranged for her to star in The Deep Blue Sea.)
A bigger problem was finding a substitute for Bosworth Field. The real location wasn’t usable, and no proper replacement seemed available until Olivier’s associate director and longtime collaborator, Anthony Bushell, suggested a location near Madrid. Spanish locations were not yet even the province of low-budget westerns in 1954, but Olivier found his Bosworth Field near the Escorial. The presence of mountains in the background scarcely bothered anyone, and the availability of five hundred Spanish extras helped create the illusion of tens of thousands of troops on an affordable budget.
The first day’s shooting outside of Madrid had a profound effect on Olivier’s physical portrayal of Richard. A misplaced arrow lodged in his leg rather than the armored shoulder of his horse, which did as it was trained and fell upon the actor. Olivier continued with the scene, with blood pulsing out of his leg, making sure the action was captured on film before seeking assistance. Fortunately, the arrow hit him in his left leg, the one on which his Richard was supposed to limp, and he no longer had to “act” the infirmity for the part.
The ten-year delay in producing Richard had served Olivier well––had he made the film in 1944, he would have had to confine his casting to actors who were not in military service. But as a 1954 production, Richard III drew on the best of two generations of English actors, including a quartet of acting knights (Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, and Cedric Hardwicke), gifted veterans like Laurence Naismith, John Laurie, and Esmond Knight, and the younger players like Michael Gough and Patrick Troughton (who was also Olivier’s stand-in).
Alexander Korda sold the U.S. television rights to Richard III to NBC in 1955 for $500,000, and the movie premiered on the network on the same afternoon that it opened in theaters. The ratings services later estimated that 62.5 million viewers––more than the number of people who had seen performances of the play since its premiere in 1592––had tuned in to watch an edited, black-and-white (there were only 50,000 color sets in use nationwide at the time), cropped version of Richard III, interrupted by three General Motors commercial breaks.
Richard III didn’t perform well on its original release in the United States, possibly because of the telecast, and didn’t become a success there until it was reissued in 1966, when it broke box office records in many cities. The movie subsequently fell out of distribution; and managed to “lose” nearly twenty minutes when it reemerged in the 1970s. This Criterion Collection release marks the first presentation of Richard III in nearly four decades, restoring the movie as closely as possible to Laurence Olivier’s original achievement.