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King John (1899)

Courtesy of Netherlands Film Museum

Main image of King John (1899)
35mm (originally 68mm), black and white, silent, 89 feet
Production CompanyBritish Mutoscope and Biograph Company
Director/PhotographyWilliam Kennedy-Laurie Dickson
Stage producerHerbert Beerbohm Tree
Stage directorWalter Pfeffer Dando

Cast: Herbert Beerbohm Tree (King John); Dora Senior (Prince Henry); F.M. Paget (Bigot); James Fisher (Pembroke)

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The death of King John.

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Long believed lost, this is the cinema's first known Shakespeare film, a brief excerpt from King John's death scene as performed by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and sourced from a contemporary stage production. There is little to add to the synopsis - lip-reading the performance suggests that it incorporates King John's speech in Act 5 Scene 7 from "Ay, marry, now my soul hath elbow-room" to "On unreprievable-condemned blood", but there is no contextual information in the film itself.

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was one of the Victorian era's most distinguished stage actors, but it is hard to reach a fair judgement from this performance, not least because, although based on a current stage production (staged at Her Majesty's Theatre in September 1899), it was shot specifically for the film in the Biograph company's studio on the Thames embankment. As a result, there is every possibility that the histrionic eye-rolling and hand-clutching was deliberately exaggerated for the cameras to compensate for the lack of sound.

The film as it survives consists of a single shot, though it seems the full version contained three further sequences, 'The Battlefield Near Angiers', 'The French King's Tent' and 'The Orchard of Swinstead Abbey' (the coronation of Prince Henry), each running at a similar length to give a total running time of about four minutes.

It was apparently made initially as an advertisement for the stage production, and the death scene was subsequently distributed by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company under the title Beerbohm Tree: The Great English Actor. Originally shot in a comparatively rare widescreen format, 68mm, it was also distributed in card form, for viewing in a 'What The Butler Saw' kinetoscope machine.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Silent Shakespeare', with an optional commentary by Judith Buchanan.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (1:39)
Hamlet (1913)
Oh'phelia (1919)
Richard III (1911)
Tempest, The (1908)
Life and Death of King John, The (1984)
Dickson, William Kennedy-Laurie (1860-1935)
Literary Adaptation
Silent Shakespeare
King John On Screen
King John: Video Materials