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Richard III (1911)


Main image of Richard III (1911)
35mm, black and white, 1324 feet
PhotographyWill Barker
Production CompanyCo-Operative Cinematograph Company
Author of Original WorkWilliam Shakespeare

Cast: Frank Benson (Richard III); Elinor Aickin (Duchess of York); Constance Benson (Lady Anne); James Berry (King Henry VI); Alfred Brydone (King Edward IV)

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The rise and fall of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who schemes and murders his way to the throne, only to be outwitted by his rival, the future Henry VII.

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After the level of invention shown by Percy Stow in his 1908 The Tempest, Frank Benson's Richard III (1911) harks back to the model first displayed in William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson's 1899 King John, in that it presents a series of scenes from a concurrent stage production, this time from the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford in 1910. The Co-operative Cinematograph Company also made similar recordings of Benson's Julius Caesar, Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew (and possibly Twelfth Night and The Merry Wives of Windsor), though these have been lost.

Richard III marks a step forward from Dickson's film in that each shot is heralded by a scene-setting intertitle and a very brief citation from Shakespeare's text, but the concept remains essentially the same. The thirteen scenes add up to a précis of the whole play, including most of the obvious set-pieces, though these are usually presented in such a compressed and cryptic form that prior familiarity with the text is not so much recommended as essential.

It also draws on a convention first established in Colley Cibber's eighteenth-century adaptation, in that it opens with explanatory scenes from Henry VI Part III, an approach that would be continued by the two British feature film Richard IIIs, by Laurence Olivier (1955) and Ian McKellen (d.Richard Loncraine, 1995). Benson also adopts now obsolete but then current convention by casting women as the young princes, an inversion of practice in Shakespeare's time, when women were famously played by boys.

Aside from some wildly gesticulatory performances, presumably exaggerated to compensate for the lack of sound, there is little attempt at cinematic reinvention, aside from two scenes. The murder of the princes in the Tower, described verbally by Shakespeare, is turned into a silent pantomime here (concluding with their murderer Tyrrel's subsequent remorse), and Richard's nightmare on the eve of the battle of Bosworth involves a series of dissolves from one accuser to the next. But even here, the camera is rooted to the ground (or, more literally, the stalls), and each scene is presented as a single unbroken shot encompassing the whole stage.

Despite these limitations, there's a fair amount of entertainment to be had, especially in Benson's flamboyant performance as Richard, a part he had played regularly since 1886. Ultimately, the film makes most sense if viewed as an extended trailer for the stage production, which was almost certainly the original intention.

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
1. Wooing Lady Anne (2:58)
2. Death of the Princes (1:28)
3. Richard's nightmare (2:31)
Complete film (22:45)
Hamlet (1913)
King John (1899)
Oh'phelia (1919)
Tempest, The (1908)
Tragedy of Richard III, The (1983)
A Year in Film: 1911
Silent Shakespeare
Richard III On Screen