Richard III (Laurence Olivier, 1955)

This is my contribution to the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy blogs. Please do visit and read the great range of postings for this event.

Richard III 1
For millions who were never lucky enough to see Laurence Olivier play Shakespeare on stage, the nearest we can come is to watch his films of the Bard’s works. My favourite out of his Shakespearean roles is undoubtedly Hamlet – and I’m clearly not the only one, as my review of that film is far and away the most popular posting  ever on this blog. (It’s had nearly twice as many hits as the second on the list, which is my own small testament to the power of Olivier’s performance.)

But Olivier didn’t just take on the role of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragic hero. In Richard III, he also relished playing his villain of villains. To be honest, at first while watching this I found the outrageously over-the-top quality of his portrayal a bit hard to take – as he struts, sneers and shouts and is always many times larger than life. He towers over the rest of the cast just as his own misshapen, spidery shadow looms over him, and his mannered speaking sits uneasily with the more naturalistic speech used by most of the other actors.

Olivier and Richardson

Olivier and Richardson

However, after a while I got used to it and realised that the stagy portrayal is clearly intentional. Olivier is playing Richard as an actor, who is constantly putting on different roles to hoodwink his audience.  Of course, this aspect is there in Shakespeare’s words, as Richard dons one disguise after another.  He plays the ardent lover to Anne, the devoted brother to Clarence and King Edward and the hearty no-nonsense warrior to other lords around court. Most ludicrously of all, he steps up on the balcony to play a religious man of contemplation who really doesn’t want the Crown unless it is forced on him. His real self is only seen in his soliloquies, as he turns and mockingly addresses the audience – and, occasionally, in conversations with his partner in crime, Buckingham (Ralph Richardson).

On stage, this portrayal must have been a triumph, and I’m sure it would also work well on the big screen – but, watching the film on TV, Olivier does seem too much for his surroundings at times. I was also distracted by his fake nose, which I can only suppose was used to cover up his looks and make Richard’s mocking comments about his own ugliness work better. Was it really necessary, though? For me, a fake nose isn’t a good idea unless you are playing Cyrano – it has the same problem as a mask, covering up part of the actor’s face and so taking away from the expressiveness of his features.

Olivier and Claire Bloom

Olivier and Claire Bloom

All the same, Olivier speaks Shakespeare’s lines with his own unmistakable power, and there are some great scenes. I was especially impressed by the whole sequence where he seduces Lady Anne (a very young Claire Bloom) just after her husband’s funeral, rather than that of her father-in-law as in the original play. On the page, this seems so outrageous that it is hard to accept – but, when you see Olivier’s reckless energy as Richard the wooer, it suddenly makes more sense, once again proving that Shakespeare’s plays need to be seen in performance rather than read. The chemistry between Olivier and Bloom simmers here and it is no surprise to discover from a TCM article that they had an affair while making the film.

Gielgud as Clarence

Gielgud as Clarence

Bloom is excellent as Anne, speaking in a quiet way that makes a strong contrast with Olivier’s bombast. I also like Richardson as Buckingham, although the TCM piece says that Olivier really wanted to cast Orson Welles. The insiduous, calculating quality of Buckingham’s plotting sets off Richard’s sheer rampaging evil. But perhaps the most memorable performance, apart from Olivier’s, is John Gielgud’s as a dreamy, haunted Clarence, whose speaking of the verse could hardly be more different here  from that of his  great contemporary.

The film’s lavish Technicolor looks good and William Walton’s stirring music sounds great on the region 2 Network DVD, which has been well restored but has no extras (though there is a special edition available with an extra disc featuring a documentary on the historical Richard III).  It’s blatantly obvious that the Battle of Bosworth wasn’t filmed in England – although we knew this was a production from Alexander Korda’s London Films, my husband and I both thought it might be somewhere in America, as it looks like a landscape out of a Western. According to the imdb, it was actually filmed at La Mancha in Spain.  Not that it really matters, given the stagy quality of the whole.

To sum up, this isn’t one of my favourite Olivier roles, but, as it is so celebrated, it’s a must for anyone who wants to see his best roles and/or the greatest Shakespeare adaptations. The memory of this no-holds-barred acting also makes it all the more moving when you see a film where Olivier reins it all in, such as Carrie, which I hope to write about here next.

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20 thoughts on “Richard III (Laurence Olivier, 1955)

  1. Well well well! So Olivier couldn’t resist the temptation to chew the scenery? I loved your analysis of his acting – it’s very objective, as all your reviews are.

    I’ve got to see this one, but I won’t hold my breath. Sometimes I get impatient with stagey Shakespeare but I’m keen to see this because of the cast.

    Thanks for choosing a Shakespearean film for the blogathon! It wouldn’t have been the same without the Bard.

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    • Ruth, I’d hate to put you off – it definitely is very theatrical, but it does have a fantastic cast, and maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for it. I often find that I respond differently if I see a film again. (I had seen this one years ago but didn’t really remember it, except for Gielgud’s big speech as Clarence, which I must have seen more recently in a programme of excerpts!)

      Thanks for the kind comment and for all your hard work, together with your co-hosts, in organising the blogathon.

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    • I WOULD HAVE LOVED TO HAVE SEEN Olivier ON STAGE. But unfortunately when he was playing some of his greatest roles at the Old Vic London I was not born. I am a fan of his I have been since the 1960’s when I saw the film of Richard 111 on TV. His performance I thought was amazing and he really introduced me to Shakespeare. Sometime after also in the 1960’s in the west end of London a cinema was putting on Olivier’s three Shakespeare films Hamlet Henry V and Richard 111. I went to see all three and people where lining up around the block to get in. I thought who says many people don’t like Shakespeare. I think Laurence Olivier really made the part of Richard 111 his own and actors since who have played it must have found it quite daunting to take on the part as in the public imagination Olivier brought Shakespeare’s Richard 111 to the big screen. I liked his performance as to me he brought a certain amount of humour to the part and his Richard was both feminine and masculine and the high pitched vocal address added to the characterization. I think Laurence Olivier as an actor had a great feel for the classics especially Shakespeare his verse speaking in both Henry V and Hamlet was very well done. His speaking voice was very distinct and he was very handsome as a young man and still attractive when much older. The cast in Richard 111 was also good with the likes of Claire Bloom John Gielgud Ralph Richardson to name but a few Olivier directed and produced and the music of William Walton complimented the film in my opinion.

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  2. Pingback: Day 6: The Great Villain Blogathon | Silver Screenings

  3. wow this blogathon is full of amazing and different types of villains, all of whom deserve to be counted. Have said before, the scariest ones are the realistic ones with power over our lives. You know you’re a despicable leader when you get horror movies made about you. I was fascinated enough by Shakespeare’s R III to write a bunch about it in grad school; there’s just so much to unpack there and a richly complicated character. Red meat for Olivier’s caliber! well done post, love the choice and thanks for contributing to this event!

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    • Very true that the scariest villains are the real ones, Kristina. Thanks so much for your work on the blogathon with the other hosts; it’s amazing how varied the villains are who have featured, as you say. Thanks for the comment!

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  4. In my opinion the 1955 filmed adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, ” The Tragedy of Richard 111″ by David Garrick, Colley Cibber (both credited) and Laurence Olivier (uncredited), is sensible and sensitive to the “Baird of Avon’s” original work. In addition, Olivier’s acclaimed direction, production and acting, in concert with the other celebrated members of the cast, have caused “Richard 111” to become a benchmark for all subsequent filmed versions/adaptations of this play.

    Olivier revealed in a broadcast interview with Alexander Clark on NBC that he wrote the textual preface to the film and stated – “As I’ve tried to say in the preface to Richard 111, it is a legend, and what a pity all legends should die, merely because they’re disproven”. In fact, the jury is still “out” in respect of the man that Shakespeare depicted as a character “determined to prove a villain”.

    With the demise of Richard 111, it became a tradition for English literature to court the favour of the Tudor Monarchy and to defame Henry V11’s predecessor. Shakespeare simply followed the trend that had been in place for some considerable time. Currently there is insufficient evidence to accuse our protagonist of all the “evil” attributed to him by both Shakespeare as well as the publications of the time.

    It is interesting that an extensive examination of the recently discovered remains of Richard 111 have found that, while the 32 year old suffered “severe scoliosis of the spine, making one shoulder higher than the other; his record as an active participant in the “War of the Roses” welding a sword, (both from a horse and on the ground), indicates that this “infirmity” did not restrict his abilities in combat. A forensic facial reconstruction discloses one of a “warm, young, earnest and rather serious” nature; this contrasts with the description of the character provided by the Baird as, “not shaped for sportive tricks”; and “curtailed of this fair proportion” – in short, a man who sort power to compensate for his physical deformities.

    The theme of Shakespeare’s play and Olivier’s film remains one of “Manipulation” of both the characters of the film as well as the audience – we are made to feel complicit in these manipulations by the protagonist directly addressing the audience and revealing his manoeuvrings to gain and retain power.

    Judy, it is unfortunate that the lack of the financial success of the film, “Richard 111” was one of the main factors that denied audiences Olivier’s proposed filmed version of “Macbeth”.

    Thank you for your review of this important film.

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    • Rod, thanks so much for your thoughts on this film and all the interesting background information you have put together here.. I do hope to read more about how stagings of this play altered over the years and the innovations made by Garrick, Cibber and others. I’m also interested to know how much John Barrymore’s version of the character might have influenced Olivier’s.

      On the lack of financial success, it seems that giving the film a TV premiere in the US damaged its takings at the cinema. That’s a shame, because even while watching it on a modern widescreen TV I had the feeling that it really cried out for the big screen and I wasn’t seeing it as it should be seen. I am sure that the larger-than-life quality of Olivier’s portrayal would work better when seen on a big screen. Thanks again.

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  5. Timely post considering this month marks the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. I agree with you, this isn’t Olivier’s finest Bard moment, but there’s something about it that I do enjoy, perhaps it’s the bombast ;) When Hamlet was released I think there was a lot of indignation from Shakespeare purists who were unhappy with how it deviated from the original text (clearly they forgot that, in the Bard’s day there was a lot of improv!), but Richard III is much closer to the original and worked as something of a pacifier!

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    • Yes indeed – I know there will be a lot of celebrations for Shakespeare’s 450th, and am looking forward to seeing some productions over the rest of the year! Many thanks for your comment. Interesting that his Hamlet set hackles rising at the time and yet now it is accepted as such a classic. I do prefer it to Richard III but then again I prefer the play, so that doubtless affects my appreciation of the two. And that’s a good point about the improv at the time – something Shakespeare points to in Hamlet with the comment about the clowns speaking no more than is set down for them! Thanks again!

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  6. Judy, I thought extracts from a review of Olivier’s performance of “Richard lll” by critic “J. B.” as published in the “Sydney Morning Herald” during the 1948 Australian tour by Olivier, Vivien Leigh and the Old Vic Company, may be of interest to you as well as address some of the issues you have mentioned.

    ” Sir Laurence Olivier in a remarkably-conceived and wonderfully- sustained study of malignant ambition…..was Shakespeare as it ought to be – a delight to reason and to emotion”
    The critic mentioned Olivier’s “unquenchable vitality” ; his “exceptional brilliance and judgement” and, ( as Sir Laurence did in the filmed adaptation), “Olivier’s inclusion of the great Gloucester speech from “Henry Vl”, in his first soliloquy, delivered with great clarity of diction and wit and evil intent, (which) seemed to foreshadow a role of more solidity and smouldering depth of feeling”.

    Olivier played the King “with a nasal tinge to the voice, a pendulous upper lip and the lean elongated nose (that) gave a griffin-like predatoriness to the character” this was enriched by the deformities and the limp. The critic likened Sir Laurence’s performance of ” Richard lll” to that of a bird of prey”.
    Mentioned in the review were the fine performances of Vivien Leigh, Peter Cushing and others.

    It was unfortunate that, during a matinee performance of “King Richard lll”, Olivier injured his right knee, but continued; he subsequently appeared in later performances of the play supported by a “T-shaped” crutch. It was remarked that “instead of the virile and active King, he became a twisted, bitter man who hated his infirmity”. At the end of the season Sir Laurence underwent an operation on the knee.

    In a interview on Australian radio, some years later, an actor from the Old Vic, was asked to give his opinion on the differences between Olivier’s performance on the Australian stage and his subsequent film version. He much preferred the stage appearance and thought that the power of Sir Laurence’s presence was awe-inspiring.

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    • Thanks for sharing these fascinating extracts, Rod, which are making me feel frustrated that it isn’t possible actually to see Olivier playing the role on stage. I’m sure it must have been awe-inspiring, as the actor said in that interview. The inclusion of that Gloucester speech in the soliloquy reminds me that we do have a clip of John Barrymore performing the same speech in ‘The Show of Shows’ and it is interesting to compare the two great Shakespearean actors in the role – here is a link to the clip of Barrymore:

      He also plays Richard much larger than life and gives a flavour of what it must have been like to see him play the role on stage.

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  7. Judy, I must say that I personally feel that Olivier’s performance in this 1955 RICHARD III is his greatest Shakespearean performance of all-time, your own modest reservations notwithstanding. (the nose never bothered me but I can certainly understand why it would) The way he manipulates the language -this is a feast of a role for sure, and just recently I attended Kevin Spacey’s RICHARD III at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a production I did like quite a bit- and all the famed soliloquys (“Now is the winter of our discontent,” “My kingdom for a horse,” etc.) are classic in their delivery and effectiveness, and he is menacing and venomous throughout. Mind you, I do love Olivier’s superb work in both HAMLET (your own favorite) and the 1944 HENRY V, but for this one is tops. Walton’s music as always is indeed stirring and the color cinematography and the color cinematography by Otto Heller is wholly magnificent. The version of this film that does it full justice and then some is the Criterion blu-ray, which is a real pictorial stunner as you would expect and some extras to boot. Yes I would absolutely agree with you that Gielgud is unforgettable as Clarence and that Bloom and Richardson are quite impressive, again as you would pretty much expect. The BFI stated that in view of the enormous TV audiences that greeted the film’s US release in 1955 that “it may have done more than any other single film to popularize Shakespeare with the masses.”

    Again you have written a magisterial review in one of your areas of specialty, and I tip my cap to you ten times over.

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    • Sam, as ever you are too kind – but your comments are much appreciated. I definitely need to watch this again and ideally I would love to see it on the biggest screen possible, where I’m sure Olivier’s portrayal would come into its own. The film is actually being released on Blu-ray in the UK in August, by Network, so should hopefully have a great picture too although it won’t have the same extras as the Criterion. It must have been great to see that Kevin Spacey production, too. Yeah, I’ve got to try to get over that fake nose – it’s just such a distraction for me, for some reason. And I should have mentioned Otto Heller! Many thanks, Sam.

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  8. I lucked out and saw this first in a movie theatre. It blew me away. To me, Richard is the ultimate seducer, and the audience is one of his victims, complicit in his actions until he gains the throne.Then, as with his other conspirators (Buckingham, for example), he throws us away by plotting the murder of the princes. This is actually my favorite of Olivier’s Shakespeare films, and one of my favorite Shakespeare works, period.

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    • Patricia, I’m jealous of you for seeing this in the cinema, which must be a great experience. Interesting that both you and Sam say this is your favourite Olivier Shakespeare role – for me it’s Hamlet, but that is my favourite Shakespearean play which doubtless affects my reaction. I like your description of Richard as the “ultimate seducer”, something which certainly comes across in his outrageous wooing of Anne – and yes, it’s easy to cheer him on until he makes it impossible to follow him any further by his murder of the princes. Many thanks for visiting and commenting.

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  9. I greatly enjoyed your write-up on this film, which I’ve never had the opportunity to see. I also appreciated your analysis of Burton’s character and his motives. I look forward to reading your treatment of Carrie — and to your joining our journey into villainy next year!

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    • Thank you, and sorry to be so slow in replying! I’m feeling a bit guilty that I haven’t got around to writing about Carrie yet, though I still want to do so. Looking forward to another journey into villainy, and thanks for the ride!

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  10. Laurence Olivier was a great classical actor especially in Shakespeare I saw him at the Old Vic in London in the 1950’s in Macbeth his performance sent shivers up my spine it was so powerful.

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