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Richard III (1955)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Richard III (1955)
Producer/DirectorLaurence Olivier
Production CompaniesLondon Film Productions, Laurence Olivier Productions, Big Ben Films
Text AdviserAlan Dent
Director of PhotographyOtto Heller
MusicWilliam Walton

Laurence Olivier (Richard III); John Gielgud (Clarence); Ralph Richardson (Buckingham); Cedric Hardwicke (King Edward IV); Claire Bloom (Lady Anne)

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The rise and fall of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, whose Machiavellian schemes secure him the throne of England, but at what cost to its reputation?

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Reviewing Richard III in 1955, the Monthly Film Bulletin hailed Laurence Olivier's performance in the title role as "surely one of the classic interpretations". Today, it's considered so definitive that even highly acclaimed performances by the likes of Antony Sher, Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale are praised as much for their lack of resemblance to Olivier's as for their own intrinsic merit.

Olivier's interpretation was first seen at the Old Vic theatre in 1944 and subsequently on a world tour. It took some time to reach the screen: Carol Reed turned down an offer to direct it, and Olivier reluctantly assumed the role himself when he signed a contract with Alexander Korda's London Films. It was to be the first in a series of Shakespeare films, a project curtailed by Korda's death in 1956.

Shakespeare's full play can run four hours in performance, so Olivier and his regular "text adviser" Alan Dent made sweeping cuts, jettisoning Queen Margaret altogether and toning down the wider historical intrigues to concentrate on the character of Richard himself. Passages were also added, notably in the film's opening scenes, where the coronation of Edward IV originally came from Henry VI Part III. This was to help clarify both the political situation and the structure of the House of York for the benefit of those not familiar with Shakespeare's other history plays.

Compared with Olivier's Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), Richard III seems rather less "cinematic" - until the final battle, there's little attempt at opening out the play, and scenes are typically shot in long takes favouring the performer. Given the calibre of the cast, which included four theatrical knights (Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Cedric Hardwicke) and its source in an already acclaimed stage production, this approach is understandable, even if it makes the film more of a showcase for Olivier's barnstorming performance than a comprehensive translation of the play into another medium (Richard Loncraine's 1995 film with Ian McKellen is far more conceptually imaginative).

But on its own terms, Richard III is comfortably the most entertaining of the three great Olivier Shakespeare films, and may have done more to popularise Shakespeare than any other single work. When shown on US television that same year, the resulting audience (estimated at between 25 and 40 million) would have outnumbered the sum total of the play's theatrical audiences over the 358 years since its first performance.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Our discontent (4:39)
2. Gentle Lady Anne (3:43)
3. Murder of Clarence (3:30)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
As You Like It (1937)
Hamlet (1948)
Henry V (1944)
Tragedy of Richard III, The (1983)
Baker, Sir Stanley (1928-76)
Brown, Pamela (1917-1975)
Gielgud, John (1904-2000)
Heller, Otto (1896-1970)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Laurie, John (1897-1980)
O'Hara, Gerry (1924-)
Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)
Walton, Sir William (1902-1983)
Laurence Olivier and Shakespeare
Richard III On Screen