I first saw Laurence Olivier’s film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III in a theater in New York City sometime in the late 1950s, when I was a teenage acting student. What I’ve always remembered from that screening, besides the nasty, metallic timbre of Olivier’s voice—when it suddenly rose to a shriek, he sounded just like Hitler—were his thin, carmine lips, his oxblood doublet, and his scarlet gloves. In other words, more than fifty years later, I could still see in my mind’s eye all the different shades of red in this Technicolor rendering of Shakespeare’s bloody historical drama about the last days of the corrupt house of York and how the twisted Duke of Gloucester, afterward Richard III (Olivier), murdered his way to the throne of England.
Subsequent viewings of both 35 mm and 16 mm prints and the DVD did nothing to reinforce my original impression. Sadly, the color in the prints was murky and faded. This would be unfortunate in the case of any film, but it was particularly devastating to Richard III (1955), where color is such an important expressive element—and not only because the reds are employed as a substitute for bloody thoughts and deeds. (There is very little blood actually shown on-screen.) A subtler use of color occurs in the big battle scene that climaxes the film. From the moment that we see the Earl of Richmond, afterward Henry VII, and his forces, we know he will be victorious over King Richard and his army, if for no other reason than because the pale blue-gray and light brown costumes that Richmond and his soldiers wear are perfectly matched to the colors of the sky and fields of the English countryside. The colors themselves proclaim that Henry, the first of the Tudors, is the rightful king. (The Battle of Bosworth Field was, in fact, shot in southern Spain, but no matter.)
Richard III has now been restored: the VistaVision negative and other elements were digitally scanned and color corrected frame by frame at 4K resolution—which, given current technology, is about as good as it gets—and a few sequences that disappeared when the film was edited for television have been returned. So we can now see Olivier’s spectacle in all its glory.
Olivier had had one of the greatest successes of his acting career when he played Richard III for the Old Vic in 1944. The echo of Hitler in his vocal delivery was deliberate; the atmosphere of paranoia and the violence and rampant betrayals attendant on Richard’s rise to power struck a nerve. The question of how Richard could have pulled the wool over so many eyes had obvious parallels with Germany under fascism, but it also resonated and still resonates with our collective fears of the unknown “dark side” of the contemporary world. Despite the late-medieval setting, the film continues to feel utterly modern, particularly the scenes in which Richard uses the clergy as window dressing for his claims to piety and morality.
Although Olivier had directed and starred in celebrated film versions of Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), he did not want to assume that double task for Richard III, which may be the reason for the ten-year delay between the stage and film versions. Producer Alexander Korda lured him back into the director’s chair with the promise that Richard III would be the first in a series of Shakespeare films that he and Olivier would make. Sadly, Korda died in 1955, the year that Richard III was released.
In the opening titles, Olivier alludes to the differences between historical fact and the legend of Richard III as serial murderer, the latter encouraged by the Tudors, who needed to prove Richard a usurper in order to claim the throne for Henry VII and his descendants. Shakespeare’s play reinforces the Tudor version of history (his theater was supported by the monarchy). Four centuries later, undoubtedly aware of the dedicated efforts of the Richard III Society to question whether Richard was in fact such a monster, Olivier felt obliged to make note of the controversy—before proceeding, with great relish, to “print the legend.”
If Shakespeare took liberties with history in his text, Olivier played a bit fast and loose with Shakespeare. The play, one of the Bard’s longest, has been considerably cut down for the film, the focus placed almost exclusively on Richard, with secondary characters, most notably Richard’s older brother Clarence (John Gielgud), getting short shrift. However, the film opens with an addition to the action—the final scene of Henry VI, Part 3, which depicts the coronation of Richard’s eldest brother as Edward IV, as Richard watches jealously from the sidelines. The scene introduces not only Richard but some of the other crucial characters and suggests some of their relationships. It is only after this “show” that Richard tells us, from his distorted perspective, what the situation is and what he plans to do to gain the throne. This is the famous soliloquy “Now is the winter of our discontent,” with which Shakespeare actually opens his play.
The character of Richard is almost unique in the history of the movies (excepting certain modern horror films—Mary Harron’s American Psycho, for example) in being both an unredeemable villain and the protagonist of the story. And more than a mere protagonist, he is the narrator and the confidant of the audience, providing us with titillating coming attractions, scabrous gossip, and mockingly reasonable accounts of his murderous schemes and acts. Unlike Macbeth, Richard is not a tragic figure, nor is he insane (at least not in Olivier’s interpretation). He does not murder for the betterment of the state or to make the throne more secure. He murders because he wants to be king, plain and simple. And if he is troubled by bad dreams, they do not rise to the level of a guilty conscience. Richard is an extremely intelligent and witty sociopath and, to the extent that he is a product of his times, the most brutal blossom of the protracted War of the Roses. He seduces us by flaunting crimes too horrendous for us to dare even imagine. And he gets away with them—until he suddenly dies an ugly, agonizing death on the battlefield. Olivier’s Richard ends up writhing in the dirt, disemboweled and bleeding from dozens of stab wounds. It is by far the most violent of the deaths depicted in the film, but it is also over in less than a minute. The story of the life that leads to this terrible death takes more than two and a half hours of our time.
It is this time—the time in which we are drawn together, conspiratorially, with Richard—that Olivier’s film makes us notice. The director’s visual strategy is startlingly simple. Apart from the final battle, the film was shot on sets, mostly in medium and long shots employing a relatively wide-angle lens. The lens has the effect of flattening the space so that, combined with the artificiality of the sets and the unobtrusive dolly moves, the images resemble medieval paintings or tapestries. When Richard takes command of this seemingly two-dimensional space, however, it is as if we had suddenly donned 3D glasses. He achieves this three-dimensionality physically, through his robust movements, and also, taking it a step further, psychologically, by breaking the fourth wall to include us in the drama—sometimes with a mere glance at the camera, sometimes inviting our complicity by speaking entire soliloquies directly into the lens, as if there were no one else in the world but him and you. The connection feels much more personal than in the theater, where in Shakespeare productions, actors play their asides and sometimes their soliloquies to the audience in general, trying to embrace everyone.
As a result of Olivier’s manipulation of what cinema theorists refer to as “the gaze,” we perceive a fully enlivened Richard existing in some amalgam of then (the late-medieval setting of the film) and now (speaking directly to us as we watch him on the screen). Olivier establishes this strategy immediately. In the opening coronation scene, rather than fixing his attention on the new king, Richard keeps turning to us, as if his sardonic perspective on the event is all that should matter. Even as he is wooing us, his audience, he is also exchanging conspiratorial glances with Buckingham (Ralph Richardson), his principal ally, which makes the moment late in the film when Richard, now the king, turns on Buckingham (“I am not in the giving vein today”) all the more chilling. If Richard can cast off Buckingham—virtually imposing a death sentence—what would he do to us if we were to displease him?
Alone after the coronation, Richard takes possession of the now empty throne room, pacing its length and width, leaping up stairs, leaning on railings. This three-dimensionality suggests that Richard is ahead of his time—he knows that the Renaissance is fast approaching. He also puts himself on display, allowing us to examine him from every angle, even as he confides his hatred of his misshapen body (“Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, / And that so lamely and unfashionable / That dogs bark at me as I halt by them”). Olivier makes Richard’s deformity considerably less noticeable to us than it is in his perception of his own body. Despite his limp, he moves with the authority and grace of an athlete. (Yes, there is the suggestion that something is amiss in his upper back, but he seems to have found a genius of a tailor to hide it.)
It is the hatred of his own body that Richard projects onto the world, and that is the root of his paranoia. He kills to avenge not only actual slights to his person but imagined ones as well. Olivier brings an enormous, concentrated physical energy to the character, in his movements as well as in his reading of the text. This athleticism, vocal and physical, is combined with a quickness of speech that makes him seem almost lighthearted in his villainy—as if he is mocking us for taking seriously his murderous plans and actions.
That said, Olivier, brilliantly directing his own performance, chooses about a half dozen moments in which to suddenly bring the horror of the character into focus. One is the betrayal of Buckingham mentioned above. Another is his response when the younger of Edward’s sons makes a childish joke in which he likens Richard to an ape. At that moment, his and his brother’s fates are sealed. Olivier’s Richard has the two child princes murdered in the Tower not because they stand in his way to the throne (he has already been successful with his false accusation that they are bastards) but because one of them teased him about his humped back.
Olivier filled the supporting roles with fine actors—including Claire Bloom as an enigmatic Lady Anne—who seldom emerge from the background tapestry as distinct characters. A notable exception is Gielgud, who, despite the fact that his role has been drastically cut, gives a performance of surprising and affecting simplicity.
Still, far more than his films of Hamlet and Henry V, Olivier’s Richard III is a one-man show—and also a rip-roaring action melodrama. As actor and director, Olivier gives us a murderous, fanatical protagonist, legendary in history and all too familiar in the modern world.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor at Film Comment and Sight & Sound. She also writes frequently for Artforum.