Richard III (1955)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 2 January (12.00 midnight)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Laurence Olivier directed and starred in three big screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays – there were halted preparations to film a version of Macbeth, featuring his wife Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, which sounds like it has the potential to be delicious viewing, but the legacy remains Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III. The best known of these is probably his Oscar winning Prince of Denmark, and you can sort of see why it was acclaimed at the time – must of the fat cut away, all those sweeping, portentous shots of castle staircases and corridors, but of the trio it’s my least favourite and without doubt it’s been done better elsewhere. Henry V is an astonishing technical achievement. Beginning as a contemporary troupe of actors performing it on the boards at the Stratford Globe, at some stage the ‘filmed play’ transforms into Hal and his fellow soldiers crossing medieval France and building to a genuinely breathless and superbly mounted Agincourt. It was made as a propaganda exercise, a rabble rouser for the troops, and it’s great viewing, a virtuous attempt to show how such old material can have relevance and entertainment value in more modern times. Perhaps the Branagh update, with its heavy emphasis on the sweat, grime and blood of battle, carries more resonance, but there’s a lot to be said for Olivier’s romantic and patriotic interpretation.

Then there’s Richard III, quite a different character on whom to focus and a moderate success compared with Olivier’s two previous adaptations, and yet in hindsight perhaps the best one. It’s undoubtedly my choice. Fans of the political drama series House of Cards, with its fourth wall breaking of Francis Urquhart/Underwood sharing his plans and feelings with the audience, need look no further than this one for its inspiration. Olivier’s impish Duke of Gloucester waits for the other characters to leave the scene, before turning to the camera and outlining what’s on his mind with the viewer, sometimes making to take us by the arm as he talks, as though we’re a silent witness at the court, knee deep in his machinations and sworn to keep his dark secrets. I think it’s great fun, and Olivier seems to be having fun also, playing Richard as a smiling villain, utterly without scruples in his wiping out of anyone who stands betwixt himself and the crown. Those seeking a more cinematic comparison might see Richard as akin to the charming yet murderous Louis in Kind Hearts and Coronets, narrating his schemes throughout with little feeling of remorse.

As with his two previous adaptations, Olivier cut and amended scenes from the text to produce a more cinematic and muscular movie, and to increase Richard’s Machiavellian villainy. The early scene where he courts Anne (Claire Bloom) becomes more diabolical as he tells her he plans to marry her, having disturbed her procession into the church with the coffin containing her Lancashire supporting husband, killed in battle by none other than Richard himself. As disgusted as she is by his proposal, she capitulates when he makes her choose to either run him through or marry him, knowing she’s too faint-hearted to do the former. He expedites the death of his own brother Clarence (John Gielgud), and plays a more direct role in bringing about the death of the king and his oldest brother, Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke).

In one of the film’s most powerful moments, the young Duke of York (Andy Shine) makes a joke about Richard’s hunchback, and suddenly the feigned jollity falls away; Olivier turns and fixes the child with such a malevolent glare that he physically backs away, terrified by the monster that was always there, beneath his uncle’s exterior, and now unmasked. This bit of stage direction was invented by Olivier for the film, adding layers to the character’s evil for, as we know, the Duke  and his brother are fated to be the Princes in the Tower.

For all Olivier’s cuts Richard III remains more than two and a half hours in length. It’s a meaty play, a lot to take in, and yet it’s completely compelling thanks in part to the star’s performance, the amazing way he has of making Richard a charismatic protagonist, to such an extent that you almost come to wish he won’t suffer the end that’s coming to him. He’s by some distance the most interesting character in the story, funny and engaging, despite the stoop of his disabilities someone who towers over the court, a sharp contrast with and leagues ahead of its stiff manners and bland gallantry.

Production levels were high, as London Films supported Richard III with a £6 million budget following the commercial success of Henry V and Hamlet. Most of it was filmed at Shepperton, Olivier making painstaking efforts to create as authentic a late medieval environment as possible, going so far as to change a piece of heraldry on the set when it was pointed out to him that the original decoration was incorrect. Olivier didn’t want to direct, aware of how debilitating it was to have to do two key jobs on set, and initially offered the job to Carol Reed. His misgivings proved justified as Richard III developed into an arduous shoot, particularly when the production moved to Spain to film the Battle of Bosworth scenes. Along with sitting on a horse that was suddenly mounted by another, he took an arrow in the leg (fortunately for the shoot it was Richard’s lame leg) and was so ‘in the moment’ that he checked how well the accident would hold up on film before seeing the doctor.

Richard III’s almost ridiculously classy cast was not the group of players Olivier intended to assemble. He wanted Richard Burton, Richard Attenborough and John Mills. Orson Welles was his preference for the role of the duplicitous Duke of Buckingham. Instead, he worked with the actors routinely considered the stage titans of their century – Gielgud, Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson, not to mention Olivier himself. Helen Haye, who had been acting on film for as long as there’d been a British industry, made her screen swansong as the Duchess of York. There were roles for not inconsiderable presences like Andrew Cruikshank, Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer, and Stanley Baker played the future Henry VII, while Hammer staples Michael Gough and Michael Ripper took small parts as Richard’s hired executioners, getting the ghoulish delight of drowning Gielgud’s Clarence inside a barrel of wine.

Olivier’s performance earned him a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination, yet perhaps the film would have done better but for producer Alexander Korda’s fateful agreement with NBC. For a fee of $500,000, Richard III made its American premiere on the small screen as well as being theatrically exhibited. This no doubt had an effect on its box office takings, and dismayed Olivier who felt that the film’s widescreen production would not be showcased to best effect on television. Korda might have argued that Richard III wasn’t Olivier’s most cinematic offering. Until the climactic Bosworth scenes, it’s filmed as though shooting a play, the focus on the characters and their dialogue rather than interpreting the action with a screen audience in mind, as in Henry V. It’s justified because the material is so good and Olivier’s adaptation crackles, but the 1995 version starring Ian McKellen takes a more imaginative approach to the text.

For all his attempts at accuracy, Olivier ignore the revisionist approach that makes it clear this Richard III is almost entirely fictional. The play was written by Shakespeare for a Tudor audience and ties in with the propaganda following Henry VII’s ascendance that Richard had been a murderous usurper. Shakespeare toed the line, turning his minor physical defects into outright deformities and his circuitous route to the throne a consequence of ruthless scheming against family members. None of it is actually true, or at least it’s unsubstantiated. though at least its presentation of the villainous king as a reader of The Prince, Machiavelli’s guide book for rulers that was in circulation at the time, sounds about right. Personally, I would love to see an interpretation of the play that hints at the string of deaths as being ambiguous rather than pointing the finger squarely at Richard. There’s no doubt, however, that Olivier’s playing of him as a blood-soaked monster allows him to let rip on the character, performing Richard with twinkle-eyed glee and remaining true to his potential as the Bard’s most thoroughly entertaining baddie, leaving viewers to feel somewhat unsettled by their enjoyment while following his mounting crimes.

As a footnote, I am happy to refer to the BFI’s comment that in being screened on American network television and watched by audiences of up to 40 million, Olivier became responsible for Richard III being seen by more people than the total of its entire theatrical run since 1592. It’s a little sad that they didn’t get to enjoy the full Vistavision presentation, which we can thanks to recent restorations. I own the Network Blu-Ray, which contains a glorious print, and includes as an extra The Trial of King Richard the Third, a BBC production from 1984 that determined Richard’s guilt or innocence via the means of a courtroom trial.

Richard III: ****

Becket (1964)

When it’s on: Monday, 4 April (1.15 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The first of two 1960s films covering the life and times of Henry II and starring Peter O’Toole as one of England’s most important kings, Becket stands as cracking medieval drama. Like its ‘not really, but it could be’ sequel, The Lion in Winter, Becket was adapted from a stage play, actually a French play, and noteworthy was the amount of licence used in pulling away from historical accuracy. The main point of contention was the film’s assertion that Henry was a Norman and Thomas Becket a Saxon, throwing in a key note of tension as William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England set up an apparently divided country of ruling Normans and downtrodden Saxons that played well in Hollywood versions of the time. In reality, Becket was as Norman as they came whilst Henry was from the Anjou region of France, an Angevin whose territories on the continent added further chunks of what would become the French nation to England.

The Norman-Saxon element is ever present in Becket, but far more important is the personal relationship between Henry and Becket, the deep friendship that turns to enmity once the latter is handed the Archbishopric of Canterbury and sets up a dividing line between the two real powers in England – that of king and church. Henry’s belief that giving Becket the job will put his strongest ally in the most powerful job within the clergy and therefore bend it to his will turns to ruin. Against the odds, Becket finds God. In doing so, he becomes the church’s staunchest defender and aligns himself in political opposition to Henry. Their argument, over the incident of a priest being killed by Lord Gilbert rather than handed over to ecclesiastical justice, boils over into a personal feud as neither side is prepared to back down. Using the full fury of royal power, Henry eventually forces Becket to go on the run, to France and thence to the Pope, all the while lamenting the loss of his best friend and fellow lad and in private cheering Becket’s spirit. The story boils to its well known conclusion, the king drunkenly sanctioning the dispatch of his ‘meddlesome priest’ before really regretting it.

Becket was unavailable for many years before being painstakingly restored and rereleased during the previous decade. Technically it’s a marvel, much of the film’s budget going on a titanic reconstruction of Canterbury Cathedral so well designed that it’s virtually impossible to imagine the action is taking place anywhere other than the actual site. To all intents and purposes the crew transported back in time to thirteenth century England, a shift away from previous visions of the era as a pastoral and rural idyll to show it as austere, dark and dirty. Even the king, who would have enjoyed the highest living standards, is in relative squalor. You imagine a film like Becket, which was very popular, blowing apart forever the chocolate box representation of Ye Olde England as it had been depicted in The Adventures of Robin Hood and copied since, because this version was simply truer.

It really works on the performances of its two leads, Richard Burton’s Becket and Peter O’Toole as Henry. Burton was at the time one of the world’s biggest stars thanks to the previous year’s Cleopatra and his relationship with co-star Elizabeth Taylor. After Lawrence of Arabia O’Toole’s star was also in the ascendancy and it was his complicated, multi-layered performance that made him an ideal choice for the capricious Henry, a role he had in fact previously wanted on the stage before he was offered the part of T.E. Lawrence. Burton, top billed as the eponymous meddlesome priest, has the tough sell of conveying Becket’s spiritual transformation, a difficult thing to convey in the modern, secular age and something the play struggled to depict convincingly. What Burton does, however, is portray his character as a man of conviction from the start, working both as a friend to the king and operating behind the scenes to smooth over his many caprices, as in the scene where he deals with the peasant girl. When told by Henry that he’s going to be the next Archbishop, Becket begs him to reconsider – he knows that doing the job will place him in opposition. Sure enough, no sooner has he donned the robes of office that he starts taking his duties very seriously, defending the church and even discovering his own spirituality. It’s not long before he’s clashing with the monarch, but it’s consistent with Becket’s entire approach to life and it’s something he understands will happen exactly as it does. It’s the essential difference between Henry and Becket. The former, a young king, has been used to getting everything his own way and thinks of the world in terms of bending it to his will. Becket embraces a wider view, sees it from the perspective of the people and realises just what heading the church involves. His is a tragic story, one in which he turns to God because it’s the logical route to turn to a greater power for help and support.

Burton plays his character with complete conviction, a real sense of steel-eyed purpose, and makes it work. That he is ultimately overshadowed by O’Toole is that the king gets all the best lines and despite everything is a likeable and playful monarch. Henry’s struggle against Becket is a dichotomy – he loves him on a personal level and cheers him on even though officially the Archbishop’s struggle is against him. Other moments, his saving of the peasant girl for Becket even after the latter has privately kept her away, show his basic lack of understanding for his friend. He just wants Becket to be his pal, but on his own terms, and when he’s rejected it becomes dangerous because he’s a king and he can call on all manner of earthly forces to manifest his anger. O’Toole plays Henry as a force of nature, using his position to say exactly what he thinks, often to ruinous effect, sparing no one the barb of his tongue. The way he talks to his family, presented as duplicitous and critical, is simultaneously hilarious and horrible. And there’s a lovely consistency in his character from this film to The Lion in Winter, where the older Henry is shown as being prepared to start his dynasty all over again because the current one isn’t working to his liking.

Brilliant, complex work from both actors, beautifully written – Edward Anhalt won an Oscar for his screenplay, though the film’s further eleven nominations did not end in awards – and performed. O’Toole revealed that the tight shooting schedule was beneficial due to the months he’d spent beforehand rehearsing his role, getting the nuances of his character just right, and it helped that he and Burton became good drinking buddies whilst on set together. It’s a very well acted film featuring a string of solid to good supporting performances, notably John Gielgud as a camp and cool-minded French king, and David Weston as the monk who falls wholeheartedly for Becket’s show of faith, sticking with him to the end. Becket is an intelligent and altogether engrossing couple of hours, bookended by marvellous work from its two lead actors.

Becket: ****