Richard III (1955): Olivier, McKellen, “the infamous legend”
Richard III (1955) plays three nights Mar 20-22 at 7:30pm in Palo Alto, at the Stanford Theatre)
Fun is no measure of greatness, but Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955) is certainly the most sheer bloody fun of all his renowned Shakespeare adaptations: it is a celebration of fatal mischief. In breaking the fourth wall—in all but sticking his midnight-black Bettie Page-wigged head out of the screen, Olivier set the bar high for villainy and it hasn’t been reached since.
It’s one of the most invigorating of all cinematic performances: a nervy, evil swashbuckler about a climber surrounded by gentlefolk. As director, he’s conscious of the theater’s proscenium arch, but Olivier manipulates even that, pulling himself back into the stage to give his Shakespearean roars some echo.
While appointed in VistaVision, a cast of four theatrical knights, and a sweet and fragile Lady Anne (Claire Bloom). But the film is ultimately Olivier taking charge of the medium from the luring in of the audience at the beginning to the shocking death scene Olivier claimed he adapted from witnessing the death of a kitten.
Before he goes to that well-deserved end, Richard lies, he fawns, he seduces, and informs us that he will school Machiavelli himself by the time the tale is over. And indeed he does: marrying the widow of the man he killed in battle; tricking the King into killing his own brother; imprisoning a pair of little princes; and then–an especially low blow–cheating his henchman out of his pay.
For its perennial and strangely modern qualities–after four centuries, it’s probably the most popular of melodramas–the 1592 Richard III was not a completely unprecedented play.
Shakespeare was following the lead of his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, who had a few years previously made villains the centerpieces of his play (as in his first success, Tamburlaine). Marlowe also invoked Machiavelli years earlier than Shakespeare. The difference is that while Marlowe takes almost cartoonish delight in characters whacking each other, Shakespeare’s words stir our sympathy for a warped, unrepentant character’s rise and fall.
Ian McKellen’s 1995 Richard III is faster and more fascist; his website in detail (and the story of the universal appeal of the play wherever misrule reigns. On his terrific website, McKellen told of a time that one critic discerned a tasteless reference to Saddam Hussein. When I interviewed him in 1995, he had a few critiques of the Olivier version:
“I was astonished to see what he’d cut out,” McKellen said. “It’s not just one-man show about a charismatic jolly villain, it’s about a whole group of power brokers and would-be powerful people, the setting in which Richard moves.”
Olivier had cut out all but one scene of Richard’s mother, played by Maggie Smith in the McKellen version.
McKellen observed, “When you don’t see her telling her son ‘I hope you die,’ you’re missing a part of the psychological truth of it all. And the scene where Richard tries to repeat his success with Lady Anne, by asking Queen Elizabeth for the hand of her daughter, is also gone.”
I asked McKellen what he made of the complex scene of Anne’s seduction by Richard, when Lady Anne is persuaded to accept a ring from the same hand that stabbed her husband to death. Kristin Scott Thomas’ Anne is passively upper-crust, making the scene look like a fait accompli, as opposed to the Olivier’s version, where Claire Bloom is in shock–“probably in shock because she was working with Olivier, who was directing her,” McKellen suggests, “a very unfair advantage to have over the other actors. I detect that Olivier didn’t have total faith in the scene, and that’s why he splits it into two. … The bravado of the scene is that it begins and it ends and Richard does it all at once.”
(But as Clare Bloom notes in the documentary Shakespeare’s Women, it was Olivier’s idea to change the corpse who shares their love scene, from Anne’s father in law King Henry to her husband. The Loncraine/McKellen version keeps that worthy idea.)
McKellen continued: “I remember a conversation Kristin Scott Thomas and I had about it. Anne’s juices are flowing, she’s crying, she’s in distress … once someone convinces her to listen, those juice start flowing in a different way, in relief … the fact that she gets a chance to tell Richard what she thinks of him–maybe that’s all she needs to do to feel better.
“What can you do when someone kneels in front of you, saying they’re ready to commit murder because they love you so much? And then what do you do when they say, ‘I am prepared to to kill myself for you’? You would have to believe them … it would just stop you in your tracks.
“The fatal mistake,” McKellen said, “is to spit at him. A young lady of her social class doesn’t go around spitting at people. She’s got a good tongue on her. She might have won the scene with words, but she spits. And when she does, she sees in his face all the other times he’s been spat on. Afterward, she sees herself as the wonderful woman who’s persuaded this dreadful man to be contrite. She thinks she’s converted him, she’s different. She discovers immediately that she’s wrong.”
Sadly, the story of Richard III is too good to be true. Olivier must have been concerned about the nerves of a British audience of the 1950s. Endearingly, a title crawl (later appropriated by Julian Temple in his Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and The Fury) warns viewers that what we are about to see is just a story. “NOW BEGINS ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS, AND AT THE SAME TIME, MOST INFAMOUS, OF THE LEGENDS THAT ARE ATTACHED TO
THE CROWN OF ENGLAND.”
There were three kings of England named Richard. One was a butcher who killed hundreds in one day. One was an irresolute tyrant who was deposed by his own men. The last had the throne for just a few years, but traded it at his death for another royal title: He is the monarch of villains, the most enduring evildoer in Western literature, and perhaps the best known–with the possible exception of Darth Vader, who certainly would not have been everything Lord Vader is without the inspiration of Richard III.
The Richard of Shakespeare’s creation is an early example of spin-doctoring. The annals of royal history are full of unnatural siblings, bad sons, maniacal fathers, murderous wives. Richard’s particular notoriety comes from a deliberate campaign of slander instituted by writers trying to flatter their king, Richard’s successor, Henry VII, first of the Tudors. You wouldn’t want to climb on a tree rooted as shallowly as that which bore the Tudors’ coat of arms. To establish the new dynasty, a legend grew to imply the illegitimacy of the dynasty before it.
In accounts starting with Thomas More’s History of Richard III, Richard’s reputation was poisoned. In various chronicles, Richard Plantagenet grows a crooked back, a withered arm and a bad limp, an ugly clouded face, and a form that makes dogs bark at him as he walks by. There’s no evidence of this in the paintings of King Richard, from which a face much like Dennis Hopper’s looks back at you: the same pleasantness of feature combined with neurotic spirituality, the tight, almost puckered mouth, firmness that could become a snarl. It was from these materials that Shakespeare drew his rousing account of the ultimate nightmare king; that the character should be so strangely lovable is, of course, Shakespeare’s own doing.
The real Richard emerges in the 1470s at the end the civil war of barons, earls and knights known as the War of the Roses, a literal battle royal. This younger son of the house of York is a fighter of such fearlessness that he is made Constable of England at age 19. He was not, though, as fierce a beast as Shakespeare portrays him. During some of his battles in the different parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, he wouldn’t have been older than a toddler.
Richard takes the throne through realpolitik, by deposing his nephew, Edward V, a boy of about 13. Says historian Paul Murray Kendall in Richard III: The Great Debate (Norton, 1965), the real-life King Richard was crowned amid “an atmosphere heavy with the beating wings of chickens coming home to roost.”
Historian Michael J. Bennett in The Battle of Bosworth concurs; “Before the reign was a year old, the king began to appear to his subjects, perhaps even to himself, as a man headed for divine retribution.”
Some people were born under a bad star, and Richard Plantagenet was one of them. His father was killed early. His son and his wife died of TB. He was connected, falsely or truly, to the murder of his two nephews, the prince and his brother, the Duke of York, who disappear forever after being sent to the Tower. Finally he is killed, stripped and, in the fullness of time, disinterred and thrown into the river Soar.
The horror of the story is plain to an audience of centuries ago, reminded constantly that they were the children of the king. Whether it was Herod slaughtering the innocents in early medieval miracle plays, or Shakespeare’s Richard commanding the deaths of his nephews in indirect language worthy of a corporate press release, the murder of a child by a king thus speaks the unspeakable about misrule and royal capriciousness.
To a 20th-century audience, accustomed to rulers who kill thousands of children in the name of ethnic cleansing, Richard is a mere trickster: well-spoken, a gentleman when it suits his purpose–representing not the worst case of leadership, not a leader who has broken his contract with God and man, but the other voice in one’s head, the bad angel. A good villain goes out fighting, and Richard’s will to power is what makes him as dynamic a figure now as he was in 1592.
For centuries the best thing to be said of him was that he died well. Whatever he’s accused of, from being a gimp to being a child murderer, all agree that Richard was killed in battle–the last English king to do so, and not the custom of kings before or since. He rides into history to face a libel that’s lasted half an eon. “For slander lives … forever hous’d once it gets possession,” Shakespeare wrote in The Comedy of Errors.