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: ****

Clash of the Titans (1981)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 23 December (4.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

I don’t know if I’ve told this story before, but mine father regularly dines out on the time I was allowed to pick the film during a cinema visit in 1981. It was my ninth birthday and the choices were Clash of the Titans and a little known action adventure called Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much to his consternation I opted for the former, and why wouldn’t I? At that age I was a nut for tales of mythology, not to mention having been raised on the films of Ray Harryhausen. It wasn’t really a choice at all. Of course since then it’s been made clear to me that I turned down one of the greatest entertaining films of all time for some Greek fluff, and in the end we went to see it anyway, but I didn’t regret my decision and I’ll remind readers that I was very young.

Years later, not having watched Clash of the Titans for some time but sitting uncomfortably through the somewhat awful 2010 remake, I wasn’t expecting very much. Comments I’ve read note some terrible acting, shoddy compositing and naturally the stop motion creatures, which even in 1981 were beginning to look a little quaint. Harryhausen has noted his influence over the next generation of film makers, the likes of Lucas and Spielberg, but it was these very people, directors who’d grown up admiring his artistry, who were now rendering him obsolete. A classic like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, made more than twenty years beforehand and using broadly the same technology, suggested that special effects and audience tastes had moved on a long time ago, notably to a galaxy far, far away.

But I shouldn’t have worried. While seeing a HD transfer had the unfortunate side-effect of highlighting some of the shortcomings within the effects work, the finished result was still every bit as much fun as I remember. At their worst, Harryhausen films acted as vessels for the money shots, the plot a mere excuse for stringing the creature appearances together, but here there’s a good story and it’s very nicely acted for the most part. True, Harry Hamlin makes for a bland lead, but having caught any number of matinee flicks over the years he’s a consistent presence – handsome, square jawed, in no danger of upstaging the film’s real stars. Backed with a solid $15 million budget and working from its Pinewood base, the production used European locations rather than the standard California/Grand Canyon, and shooting in places like Andalusia and Malta lends it an authentic look. That climax looks much better for it being filmed by the Azure Window in Gozo, a majestic backdrop for mythological action.

The funding ensured a good cast of mainly British actors, most used to fill the roles of the Greek Gods. No less a figure than Laurence Olivier was hired to play Zeus, the logic being that only the grandest thespianic name could fill the sandals belonging to the Father of the Gods. Despite being ill, Olivier adds real heft and authority to a part that could have been overblown and silly, a difficult balancing act that he pulls off. Elsewhere, Claire Bloom appears as Hera, Ursula Andress’s Aphrodite has nothing to do but be pretty and Maggie Smith enjoys some fine scene stealing fun as the more roundly characterised Thetis. By all accounts, Burgess Meredith was cast as Perseus’s theatrical mate, Ammon, to try and ensure a slightly more American presence on a very British sounding film. He’s good, even if of all the characters he’s the one who gives the biggest impression of taking not a second of it seriously.

As always, the real draws are the Harryhausen creatures, though it’s nice to see a greater focus on the players, an attempt to emphasise the growing affection between Perseus and Andromeda (Judi Bowker), and the manipulation of the Gods on the humans, those whims and caprices that kick start all the major plot points. Whilst it’s true that the effects were losing much of the jaw dropping wonder they previously possessed, looking increasingly like the models they clearly were, there’s the effort to give them personalities that helps bring them to life. Harryhausen also knew enough to mix special effects with dramatic tension. The scene in Medusa’s temple, where Perseus knows he can’t leave without collecting her head, is thrilling even now. Often shot in shadow or half-lit, the noises of her body slithering along giving as much sign of her approach as anything shown visually, builds the suspense really well, while the actors play their part by appearing terrified of her. There are some great close-ups of Hamlin, perspiring and frightened, and by the end of it he’s visibly exhausted by the effort of what he’s achieved. A note too for Laurence Rosenthal’s tingling score, which adds extra layers to the drama.

It’s worth drawing a comparison with the 2010 film here. Someone on YouTube has nicely collated the same scene from both movies, flicking between the two ostensibly to show how effects have advanced in the 29 years between them. What is actually revealed is the vacuum of any tension in the update, CGI and snap editing being used to fill in the blanks and falling short. Sure, the creature played by Natalia Vodianova in 2010 is a far slicker Medusa, capable of moving at speed and apparently more dangerous, and yet the scene has the feel of a videogame sequence, Sam Worthington jumping platforms in order to get away whilst seemingly showing little effort for his troubles. Here’s the video, see what you think:

Some of the other creations are less successful. That isn’t always the fault of the animation; the Kraken is really present solely to be turned to stone at the film’s close. The giant scorpions are simply monsters for Perseus to fight, the same with the two-headed dog, and there’s a far greater sense of threat from the villains played by actors, like the Stygian witches and Neil McCarthy’s rather tragic Calibos. But then there’s the marvellous mechanical owl, Bubo, criticised for being a riff on R2-D2 from Star Wars though Harryhausen claimed he had designed the character beforehand, and nevertheless a good fun addition. The winged horse, Pegasus, is fine and well rendered, and adds to the fantasy as he carries Perseus into the skies.

Clash of the Titans is a very nice addition to the grand tradition of mythological cinema, made for matinee screenings and carrying out its brief well enough. If there’s a sense of it coming after these kinds of films had had their time, then you can argue equally that it’s a last hurrah for the faded genre, a late addition to the Harryhausen collection that reminded younger viewers of what the contemporary film making heroes had drawn their inspiration from. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Clash of the Titans: ***

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 9 May (1.55 am, Thursday)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

A real guilty pleasure this, reminiscent of a lost childhood spent watching old Tarzan and Charlie Chan movies on BBC2, not to mention the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials the same channel churned out to pad its early evening schedules. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow groans under the weight of its own charm, its recapturing of not just a film-making era from seventy years previously, but also its look and style. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character comes straight from the pages of ballsy, 1930s heroines who gave as good as they got. Her verbal sparring with Jude Law has real sparkle, which almost matches the visual magic director Kerry Conran shoehorns into every scene.

It’s a terrific film, unfairly lambasted upon its release during the CGI backlash of the era. Whereas there are certainly instances of narrative, acting and urgency being lost amidst all that green screen filming (the Star Wars prequels come to mind here), Sky Captain is a cut above because every element has been considered carefully and works. I wrote a critique of it after being blown away during a cinema visit back in 2004 and, reading it now, I see no reason not repost the entire piece in full.

So what’s it to be? Computer generated imagery gone mad, or an evolutionary step in movie making? Is Sky Captain a curiousity, a visually mind-blowing experience but without a soul? Or does it keep its heart, marrying those lovely effects with a sizzling plot, good acting and pace? In short, is there room in this world for a picture where everything is filmed before the now infamous green screen, all the backgrounds, sounds, planes, killer robots and monsters added later?

The story behind Sky Captain’s making is the stuff of painstaking legend. A-list stars like Jude Law and Gyneth Paltrow were recruited to strut their stuff before the screen, using markers to interact with things that weren’t there. Once all that was done, the computer effects were added. Pretty much everything apart from the actors themselves was fake, generated by technology, and the reason for this? Sky Captain is set in the late 1930s, and looks like a movie made in that time too. The colours are muted. Visual trademarks, like a camera scaling the side of a skyscraper, or the characters flying some distance represented by a map covering the ocean below, are pure era stuff. The baddies – early in the film, New York is invaded by giant robots with single white lenses for eyes – appear as though they belong in this time. Milk of Magnesia is used to cure flying sickness. People go to the cinema, a grand, art deco affair with swishing curtains, and see The Wizard of Oz.

Sky Captain is played by Jude Law, who’s made for this this sort of caper. A Biggles type, square-jawed fighter pilot, he uses a variety of souped-up weapons in his improbable jet to combat the robots. Later, having collecting Polly (Paltrow, with whom he has had some previous) the pair find out more about the robot attack via a visit to the Himalayas, getting some help from Angelina Jolie as the commander of a floating aircraft carrier* and end up on a secret island… the home of… what, exactly?

The plot complements the extravagant look of the picture perfectly. The leads, Law and Paltrow, are perfect, particularly the latter who embodies the brassy, salty 1930s heroine with natural ease. Her interaction with Sky Captain sizzles, a couple who still have feelings for each other and hide it behind sarcastic wisecracks and anatagonism. Even better are the scenes with Jolie. Not only does she get to be in charge of one of those amazing vessels in the clouds (complete with Union Jack insignia on the side), but she also wears an eye-patch and leads her own fleet of planes.

This is a movie that has been accused of lacking substance, of being all about the visuals. Sure enough, the effects are fabulous. Sky Captain looks unique, with its retro setting and a genuine attempt to create contraptions as they would be imagined by 1930s film makers (other nice touches include the Captain’s boffin friend, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), tracking the location of the secret island with the use of a wireless, ruler and stencil equipment), but it’s much more than that. Clearly, Paltrow and Law have chemistry, and as they’re in most frames together, we get to see an excellent use of a couple who are equal partners rather than the hero and his babe. It’s got humour, pace and suspense in equal measures. All involved are happy enough both to send up their roles through playing it straight, and look like they’re having a good time in the process. Heck, there’s even a posthumous appearance by Laurence Olivier, his scenes cobbled together from archive footage.

That said, Sky Captain is ultimately a forgettable experience, a treat for the senses that flashes by easily enough and never taxes the brain. But didn’t they say that about the Indiana Jones films, which this most resembles in spirit? When Spielberg and Lucas turned Harrison Ford into a tomb-raiding adventurer, they set out to make the archetypal matinee experience. And that’s just what this feels like. Just like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s an absolute blast. Incidentally, the golden age of the matinee was the 1930s, and as it goes, Sky Captain has the look and feel of a movie that was made by thirties producers who suddenly found themselves with access to modern technology.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: ****

*Good to see that airborne aircraft career idea pop up again, first as the Valiant in Doctor Who, and more recently in Avengers Assemble. There’s sure no keeping a good concept down!