Sir Laurence Olivier
directed and stared in three adaptations of Shakespeare plays. First
Henry V in 1944 and then Hamlet in1948. The last was
1955's production of Richard III. Olivier is a consummate
Shakespeare actor, bringing life to his characters and making the iambic
pentameter sound beautifully poetic. For this production he
surrounded himself with other high caliber actors, including John Gielgud
as the Duke of Clarence and Ralph Richardson as the Duke of Buckingham.
But even with this great talent pool, the movie comes off as being a little
This play takes place near the end of the War of the Roses. For
almost a hundred years, the houses of York and Lancaster have been fighting
for the crown of England. As the play opens Henry VI and his
son, the Prince of Wales, both Lancasters, have been defeated on the battlefield
and Edward IV has just been crowned King. This is a position that
his brother Richard, the Duke of Gloucester covets. Richard was born
lame and deformed, but with a piercing intelligence and ruthless ambition.
There are several people between him and the crown though, and even if
he were to gain it, his claim might be tenuous. So he devises a plan
to seduce Anne Neville (Claire Bloom) the Prince of Wales widow.
If he can marry her, his claim will be that much more powerful.
But even with Anne's hand, there is still the matter of those people
who come before him in the line of succession. With deceit and treachery,
Richard plots against his brother and young nephews. Through murder
and perfidy he takes the royal crown. But his machinations have cost
him dearly as many people now look upon him with distrust and loathing.
Will he be able to hold on to that which he strived so hard to obtain?
in this film is simply superb. Everyone involved does an excellent
job, and Olivier's portrayal of the devious king is classic. The
only problem is that all of the performers are very traditional in their
approach, and that style of acting seems a little dated. The movements
and gestures are planned to accent the words of the play, not to try and
seem realistic and natural. For instance, during the monolog in the
first act, Richard's famous "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech,
Olivier looks directly into the camera during most of this scene.
He delivers the words impeccably, but it is not realistic to think that
someone would be glaring at a wall or a door while they were speaking such
The whole movie is in a traditional style too. The direction makes
this look like a play that was filmed more than a movie. The camera
work if fairly simplistic, with many scenes consisting of static long shots
where the actors move within the confines of the frame. The actors
talk to the camera the way they would address an audience attending the
evening performance. The ending battle scene, which was filmed on
location in Spain, took the camera out of the studio and moved the production
away from the 'filmed play' look, but only slightly. There were some
nice shots, including a well done process shot where Richard is drawing
battle plans in the ground and the troops are superimposed over his sword,
but much of the dialog still had people standing in front of the camera
delivering their lines. That is not to imply that the film isn't
good. It is good. It just seems a little dated after Kenneth
Branagh's more dynamic films based on Shakespeare.
The mono audio was just right for the movie. It was not dynamic
or forceful, but the dialog is reproduced faithfully and easy to hear.
There isn't any noticeable hiss or distortion. Being nearly 50 years
old, I was very pleased with the way it sounded. There are English
This movie is presented with a rather unusual aspect ratio of 1.66:1,
the way it was originally theatrically shown in Europe. It is enhanced
for 16:9 televisions.
Criterion went to a lot of trouble restoring this film. Several
sources were used to obtain a complete version of this film, all for 35mm
prints or better. This master was then restored and a high definition
transfer was made. They did an excellent job. The Technicolor
print is a joy to view. The blues (a color that is hard to reproduce)
are bright and vivid, as are the rest of the colors. There is a slight
red push, but it is minor. I didn't notice any scratches, dirt, or
other print defects that are common with a film of this age. There
was a minor amount of color bleeding from some of the dark red robes, but
this was a minor matter. While a few of the scenes were not
quite as vivid as the rest of the film, the entire movie had excellent
image quality. The major problem I had was that some edge enhancement was applied. Aside from that, Criterion has released another top grade DVD.
The first DVD in this two-disc set contains the movie, and a commentary
track with playwright and stage director Russell Lees. Lees is supplemented
with prerecorded comments by Shakespeare authority John Wilders, former
governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Their comments are very
insightful and relevant. They point out the changes that were made
to the original play, and offer explanations as to the purpose of the alterations.
The historical background to the War of the Roses as well as the political
atmosphere when Shakespeare was writing is discussed. The mechanics
of the play, the functions of the scenes and the importance of lines and
characters are also gone into in detail. This commentary is very
good and is a welcome addition to the disc.
The second DVD has several nice extras too. It starts out with
Acting: Laurence Olivier, a 1966 BBC television show. Theater
critic Kenneth Tynan hosts this 47-minute interview with Olivier, where
they discuss Richard III among other topics.
The Production Gallery contains on the set photos of the cast
and crew with quotes from Olivier talking about the production.
One very interesting item is the TV trailer before the movie was shown
on television. This 12½-minute promotional video has scenes
from the movie and some behind the scenes shots.
The theatrical trailer is also included. Overall a nice set of
extras, though I was expecting a little more than just an hour's worth
of video. With the film running at over 2 ½ hours, I am glad
they didn't squeeze everything onto one DVD, but with a second disc devoted
to extras they did have room to include more. The 1911 silent version
of Richard III would have been an interesting extra to include.
This DVD is a great chance to see several exceptional actors at the
top of their form. Olivier does a magnificent job as the warped Richard.
His style of acting is a little dated, as is the direction for the film,
but it is still an exceptional performance. Recommended.