Richard III (1956)

Richard III (1956)

The 1956 production of Richard III is a movie you might want to miss unless you really like dated interpretations of Shakespearean propaganda and 17th century speech. It’s not at all the style we’re used to nowadays and seems artificial compared to, let’s say, a 1990’s version of Henry V with Kenneth Branagh in the leading role.

In the near future, Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III (The Hollow Crown series, BBC2) may deliver those exhausting lines of Shakespeare more eloquently for this generation. That is, as they say, a topic for another day.

This production, with Sir Lawrence Olivier as both director and leading man, has moments of both diamond-brilliance and grinding dullness. Of course, Olivier is the diamond. His breathtaking performance could make a person trash all the facts about the elusive king and carry the banner for the propaganda that we know Shakespeare helped to disseminate.

Here’s the story as the great poet would have it:

After King Edward IV dies, his brother, Richard, becomes the evil Lord Protector of England. Shakespeare would have us believe that, lusting for power, Richard assumes the crown, murdering his dead brother’s sons so that neither will ever become king.

By Act IV of this long play, following Richard’s coronation, Shakespeare leads us to believe that King Richard has done something to his unwilling Queen, Anne Neville. Richard commands his courier Catesby to spread the news that the Queen is taken seriously ill. To make sure the courier understands, Richard commands it twice. When Catesby exits the throne room, Richard says he means to marry his own niece, Edward’s daughter, although Shakespeare doesn’t say which one. In any case, we know she’s the sister of the two boys in the tower, who according to Shakespeare, were murdered by Richard.

In this light, it would seem Richard means to get rid of his already ailing wife, Anne Neville, in order to marry his niece. Earlier in the movie, Richard is seen as practically forcing Anne to marry him so that he can secure her family fortune and power for himself. All this occurs after he has killed Anne’s first husband in battle.

Since 1924, the Richard the III Society, a scholarly organization has taken pains to disprove Shakespeare’s villainous portrait. If Olivier had been familiar with their scholarship, he might have tempered his portrayal, but it appears that he chose, for this version, to preserve every line that is not cut from the original play. Sir Lawrence Olivier, though scintillating as Richard, is not quite so dazzling as director. But never mind.

As Richard III his performance far surpasses that of any other in the film–even John Gielgud’s portrayal of Richard’s brother, George of Clarence.

Although this is not the great and timeless movie hoped for, it is wonderful to watch the legendary Olivier and Gielgud, both great stage actors that we get to see on film. Watching them here, you see why they are held in such high esteem.

However, the young Claire Bloom as Anne Neville was not so great. Over-acted histrionics seemed out of place, but perhaps her acting had something to do with bad direction. Sometimes, when an actor like Claire Bloom has a proven track record, film reviewers euphemize “bad” acting and call it “highly stylized” acting. In this case, I think you could take your pick. Surprising, since her later work in the sixties and seventies proves that she was capable of delivering a much better performance.

To be fair, it’s important to note that women in this movie generally are given short shrift—their speeches are shortened and their performances are shallow, so Bloom is no exception to the rule–again, most likely the result of poor direction. On the other hand, if you appreciate good acting by male characters, this is a good movie to see.

It’s also important to remember that a great film is the sum its parts, and acting is but one part. There are several murky instances in the movie where, if you didn’t already know what happened, you would have a hard time figuring out exactly what did. That’s not Shakespeare’s fault, mind you.

Either his original play has been abridged for the film, or the film has been edited, leaving on the cutting room floor long passages of Shakespeare’s dialogue. It’s been reported, too, that sections of Henry VI were incorporated into this version of Richard III. Perhaps as a result of editing and abridging, the flow of events is interrupted, sometimes confusing, so you might leave the movie scratching your head wondering what this scene or that was all about.

The Battle of Bosworth scene comes to mind, where Richard’s trusted allies, the baronial Stanleys switch sides at the last minute and decide to fight for the enemy–Henry Tudor of Richmond. Tudor wins the war, his men slaughter Richard III and Tudor becomes King Henry VII. If you know history, you know what is happening in the movie. If you don’t know these events going into the battle scene, you are most likely lost.

Recommended? Yes and no. It’s an important film and should be seen by serious moviegoers. The script is written by the greatest English-speaking poet who ever lived. One of the most acclaimed actors in the history of film appears in the starring role and delivers a transcendent performance.

The rich art direction is second to none, in spite of some outdated elements of the film. On the other hand, it was made in 1956, so for the casual viewer looking to be entertained for an evening at home, it might not be the best choice. Even for a well-informed audience, the 1956 Richard III requires concentration and a willingness to overlook the less-great elements of the film.

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