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Richard III Week: The Trouble with Richard III on Film, or just The Trouble with Richard III?

*Many thanks to Anna Overseas for this wonderful image. It doesn’t have a lot to do with Shakespeare on Film, but it does continue with our animal theme and generally looks the business.

It has always seemed somewhat ironic to me that some of the greatest Shakespeare films (in my view) are the ones that do away with what he is most famous for – his language.

No English-speaking film comes even close to Kurosawa’s magnificent Ran, where King Lear is transposed onto feudal Japan and the Samurai system – a film where visual poetry and imagery becomes the equivalent film language for Shakespeare’s words. Or Kozintsev’s Hamlet where politics comes to the fore in an oppressive court imprisoning an apparently dissident Hamlet – brooding magnificently in black and white photography with a score by Shostokovich. (Although you do get to read a lot of Shakespeare’s words in the subtitles.)

Ok, there are some wonderful filmed versions in English, for example Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth, which, interestingly, goes to the other extreme – so pared down it is almost nothing but the words themselves (and some brilliantly psychological acting). Or Baz Lurhmann’s bright, colourful Romeo and Juliet, so bold and confident in its use of Shakespeare’s words that the juxtaposition of modern context and archaic language doesn’t even strike as odd after a while. But I’m beginning to wonder, when it comes to film, whether the thing we all go on about when it comes to Shakespeare is actually holding him back – his words. Not because of difficulty of understanding, but because, in this country, we are so concerned with those words that we simply forget what powerful political stories these are.

The Trouble with Richard III

When I was thinking about this piece I was trying to remember the great themes of Rich III and I had a bit of trouble coming up with any. The Henry IV and V plays have their coming of age story and the duty of kingship and putting away of childish things and the duty to the nation over the duty to feckless individuals (like Falstaff). Hamlet has great themes of inertia and indecision and clashes of duty, both familial and national. In Macbeth, the themes of ambition and thinking versus acting, of the corrupting nature of getting blood on your hands, the overturning of the natural order and great chain of being, a growing immunity to guilt and horror…

But what ARE the great themes of Richard III?

“Once a bastard, always a bastard”?

“I’m mean, but you can’t help but like me”?

“I’ll start as I mean to go on”?

What is his tragic fatal flaw – “well, just a bit of a psychopath, really”.

The trouble with Richard III is that from the first moment he limps onto the stage or silver screen and tells us he’s a nasty piece of work, we know what we are dealing with: a nasty piece of work. From here, he proceeds to plot his dastardly deeds in full view of the audience. We are complicit with his evil. He is our JR. The man we love to hate. The comedy villain.

Unsurprisingly, it remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.

But, perhaps, it is the above quality that makes this a play popular with actors and audiences but still without a truly great – and I mean great rather than good – film (in the opinionated opinion of yours truly).

Olivier’s Film Version

It is striking that when it comes to Shakespeare in English on film that these are so often primarily actors’ rather than film directors’ projects.

The two main Richard film adaptations of the last 50 years are Lawrence Olivier’s in 1955 and Ian McKellen’s in 1995 – two great actors, two great actor projects: both either adapted or extended from successful stage productions.

Olivier’s is set at the historical period it purports to be in – the 15th century. The film includes a prestigious cast of stars of the British stage and Olivier goes to town as the OTT theatrical villain. The Technicolour, stagy sets and Olivier’s comedy wig just add to the general campness of the whole thing. Olivier retains one of the key elements of the play by playing the famous asides straight to camera which is important to keep the audience complicit -but does add to the slight feeling of pantomime. Unlike his Henry V, (where many of the rousing speeches, feeling of patriotism and general rabble-rousing fervour seem to speak directly to a population in the midst of the Second World War, something that gives it a powerful resonance even today) there is no real attempt to create a synergy between the play and the modern day.

At the time of its release this film was not lauded and applauded quite as much as Olivier’s other Shakespeare films (Henry V and Hamlet). But, despite disappointment at the box office, it is still one of the most popular films of Shakespeare ever made – reaching an enormous audience mainly through later showings on television (an estimated 25-40 million viewers tuned in when it was aired on Television in1955 – according to the British Film Institute, via Wikipedia!)

And, in its own way, it is still a wonderful film. Despite the stagy sets, the comedy wigs, the melodramatic performances, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and lovable film – rather like the play itself in fact – and I challenge anyone not to enjoy it.

McKellen’s Film Version

Ian McKellen’s film in the early nineties was not set in either Richard’s time nor the present day but in the 1930s, painting parallels with the rise of Fascism. Where such adaptations are common in the theatre (and indeed this was another adaptation of a successful stage production directed by Richard Eyre and with a much-praised performance from McKellen in the starring role) – it is a slightly uneasy convention when transferred to film.

This was again, essentially, an actor’s project with McKellen acting, writing the screenplay and gathering people and money for the film.

And the result, again, is highly enjoyable – a bold and exciting thriller with some wonderful acting and moody photography. It is also very funny – something easy to discount but essential to the original play – with many lovely comic touches including the famous moment when Richard delivers his famous line “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” when his 1930s jeep gets stuck in the mud.

However, although I really enjoyed this film, for me there is a problem with the central concept, particularly in the film’s later stages.

Reading up about its circumstances, I found a quote from McKellen who talked of the possible rise of Fascism in Britain in the 30s.

…It was a period when a tyrant reminiscent of Richard III might just have arisen in the United Kingdom. On his abdication, Edward VIII visited Hitler with approval and Oswald Mosley aped Germanic fascism in the streets where I live in the East End of London. (See full interview here)

This is a fascinating and chilling idea. But, for me, the notion of the Britain-that-could-have-been does not translate completely successfully to the film, mainly because the symbolism (red and black banners, Hitleresque rallies, chanting and marching) is too straightforwardly Nuremberg to make that extra jump to a fictionalised fascist Britain.

Whilst there are lovely moody scenes – for example in the hospital where Richard meets the mourning Lady Anne and proceeds to jump joyously down corridors directly addressing the camera to tell us of his dastardliness against a backdrop full of war-wounded – the film gets increasingly extreme in its imagery, and this ultimately reduces rather than increases the scope of the film. Despite its slickness and moodiness and pace and thrillerishness, the clear Nuremberg imagery and iconography, particularly towards the end, does not lead us to think of the historical turn we might have taken so much as takes us straight to Hitler: Do Not Pass Go.

Perhaps it is a difference of emphasis. With an actor who cares as passionately about Shakespeare as McKellen does, perhaps Hitler is being used as an analogy to help us understand and access Shakespeare, rather than Shakespeare being used to illuminate the world around us. The danger when you marry two accepted monsters is that an audience might just shrug off both as extreme aberrations rather than seeing the real dangers of letting any one individual gain too much power. Shakespeare’s character ain’t lovely, Hitler wasn’t too nice either – link the two together and what do you get? Well, not a lot of revelation quite frankly. But you do get McKellen and a dramatic, slick, moody, watchable, pacy and thoroughly enjoyable thriller.

Those Pesky Themes Again

I am beginning to wonder if it the lack of grand overarching themes in the original play that is the limiting factor, rather than the adaptations themselves.

And so, I return, broodingly, to the central problem. What ARE the big themes of Richard III?

Perhaps Richard and Anne can lend us a clue.

Richard’s famous wooing of Anne over the dead body of her husband (for whose death Richard is responsible) is always a bit of a problem scene. How do you convince the audience that Lady Anne should have such an about-turn of feeling in the course of just one scene?

In the Olivier version the famous scene is split in two, giving her a bit more of a chance to cool down and be worn down by Richard’s continued advances. In the McKellen version, we know the lady (splendidly played by Kristin Scott-Thomas) is won over by the end of their first encounter. This version has more problems to deal with in terms of the period (a woman might easily be married off in the 15th century, not that fussed about her husband, fearful of losing her place and standing in the court. This is rather more unlikely in the 1930s). But McKellen makes up for this by concentrating on the extreme flattery poured upon her by Richard and by use of Kristin Scott Thomas’s trade-mark buttoned-up enigmatic aristocratic air to leave us less sure as to her true feelings either before or after the encounter.

This scene, problematic though it is, seems to me to be the key to Richard III.

The Smiling Dissembler

Richard III does not have the great themes of the greatest Shakespeare tragedies that have lead to the greatest works of art in film. But what it does have is the smiling face of the dissembler, the smarmy villain who wins over everyone with flattery, the smiling face of ruthlessness and deceit who uses other people’s vanity towards their own undoing which leads his country into a wholly unwanted war…


Perhaps adaptations of Richard III have for too long been dominated by that grand central performance and the idea of the single extraordinary man. Perhaps it is about time what he represents should be explored through the face of modern politics, the way we are so easily won over by charm and flattery, how we don’t listen to what people say but how they say it. How we, like Anne, listen to words, not actions, and say to ourselves that what matters is intention, is penitence, is saying sorry – not what has been done, even when that is murder and deceit.

Or maybe we have been too side-tracked by Shakespeare’s original title “The Tragedy of King Richard the third”. It is, after all, a very funny play. Why not go the whole hog into satire: Richard III by way of The Thick of It – where Richard’s manipulative powers could have a new edge, surrounded by media, pr and obscenely swearing press officers!

In her piece on Monday Moira said, “It all changes though, when Richard finally becomes king. The monologues stop. The lines of communication and bewitchment are broken. Belatedly, we see him for the monster he really is.”

Surely, at the end of the day, this is the great theme of Richard III? The lying, dissembling and manipulating needed to worm your way into power, and how susceptible we are as human beings to be flattered, charmed and listen to the honied words – the rhetoric – rather than judging people by their actions: however terrible those actions might be.

If this is not one of the great themes of our era then I don’t know what is.

16 comments on “Richard III Week: The Trouble with Richard III on Film, or just The Trouble with Richard III?

  1. Pingback: Coming Attractions: Richard III Week. « Vulpes Libris

  2. Col
    August 22, 2008

    I saw McKellen in the stage version of this, and very much enjoy the film version: not because of themes as such, but for the somewhat internecine struggle between the Woodvilles and Richard (with his minimalist camp of Buckingham and Tyrrell, + hangers-on), and the portrayal of this via the breakfast scenes, mealtimes or of Prince Edward arriving by royal train. Also that closeness exhibited between Rivers and Elizabeth at the dance, that puts across their common aims and desires (whether historical or not!)

    Where it lacks is in the battle scene: the Shakespeare allows for heroism and a tragic death (it is called The Tragedy of King RIII after all), which can be movingly portrayed and is possible in the Olivier version (and various other stage versions I’ve seen); whereas McKellen plays it for laughs and with little battle interaction that actually threatens his phsyical person or looks set to come near unseating/putting down the pretender Tudor.

  3. RosyB
    August 22, 2008

    Funny how differently we approach this – perhaps because of the obvious interest (looking at the post before me!) of the exact whats and wherefores of the real Richard that seems to consume people. I suppose I am far more interested in how Shakespeare can speak to us now and, whereas on the stage, interpretations of familiar moments and relationship to other productions is often a huge pleasure and maybe even the most important pleasure, on film I think this dissolves to some extent and the integrity of the whole is much more important than clever interpretations moment by moment.

    (Not sure this has anything to do with what you were saying come to think of it but it was another aspect I was thinking about for this piece which ended up cut as it was far too long already.)

    I do agree that the McKellen film is let down, in general, by the end. Though never against laughs myself – I think that it should be shoring up the impact of what it is saying at that point, which it doesn’t really manage to do because it goes too extreme but in a bit of a cartoony way I suppose.

    But it is a lot of fun – the end – too. But, in the main, I don’t quite think it works.

  4. Col
    August 22, 2008

    I suppose I watch RIII with three hats on: there’s the examination of a character, who could be called anything, which I have to strive to not relate to what is known of the historical Richard. I treat the thing just like any other play, examining the sway of his power-seeking or his betrayals of self. If I didn’t have this hat on, I couldn’t watch the play at all – I have friends who refuse to ever watch it, in that it seems to collude in a calumny against the man himself to do so.

    I watch it also interpreting it and relating it to what I know of the history, and balancing the two in my head and adjusting and comparing; in this I’m also comparing it to other versions I’ve seen or read of and where the various interpretations of the characters might conflict with each other.

    With my last hat, it is sheer indulgence: a fictional hat, if you would. Where I am considering what I personally feel to have been the case eg. the family relationship between the three brothers, the awkwardness or aggression between Richard and Elizabeth Woodville; how the Princes found each other having been raised apart; the sheer guts and bravery of the man at Bosworth.

    I think McKellen overindulged towards the end of the film; Olivier over-acted but was still extraordinary, and noble at least in his last scenes.

  5. Pingback: Do You Love/Hate Richard III? « Fuzzy History: Learning History through Fiction

  6. Jackie
    August 22, 2008

    Wow, Rosy, a brilliantly examined piece, very well thought out and dissected. You’ve given us a lot of food for thought, from angles that never occurred to me before. But now I’m really curious to see the McKellen film after your comments on it.I’ve seen parts of the Olivier one, but never the most recent one. Do you think it’s the difficulty of portraying R3 that makes this one of the less frequent adaptions of Shakespeare?
    I agree with you on the Lurhmann “Romeo and Juliet” but I still prefer the Zefferelli version.
    And what a nice pic to go with the article, the stained glass really gives an atmospheric flavor, contrasting with a modern medium. The porcine pair are kinda cute, even.

  7. Margaret Donsbach
    August 23, 2008

    A very insightful piece. In a way, what Shakespeare does with Richard III is very similar to what the vast literature of World War II generally does with Hitler. This can be very appealing to audiences who want to dispense with shades of gray in their approach to history and to life in general. But it doesn’t particularly help us to understand these people. As you suggest, it’s unusual for Shakespeare to write a play in which a character is so starkly evil – he’s usually much more interested in the ambiguous.

    I think you’ve really hit the mark when you say the scene with Lady Anne is the key to the play. Just as the audience is convinced (by Richard!) that Richard is wholly evil, his depiction of himself to lady Anne convinces her that he is entirely to be trusted.

    You’re making me want to go back and read this play again. Shakespeare was no Manichaean who saw the world in terms of absolute good and absolute evil. I wonder if there are clues within this play that might suggest he did not see even Richard in absolute terms.

  8. Jonathan Evans
    August 26, 2008

    The McKellen film is lovely and a better piece of cinema than Olivier’s. But it’s nevertheless a compromise, shot on an absolute shoe-string budget despite its apparent lushness. There’s a huge amount to admire about it, but I regret the fact that more of the original stage production couldn’t be incorporated. That was staggeringly brilliant and, at three and a half hours plus, a slow-burn descent into darkness. The most striking difference between the two is the tone. While the film is blackly comedic, laughs were few and far between on stage and when they came, they came very queasily – an example being when Hastings’ head was brought on in a fire bucket. There’s comedy in that, but the laugh dies in your throat when you see Richard dip his hand into the bucket as if to assess what it is that separates life from death – even more so when he realises he’s being watched by Ratcliffe (and, by extension, the audience) and shoots a look in his direction of guilt, malevolence and defiance all intermingled. The most striking thing about the National Theatre production was that it took the Richard who has so often been played as a two-dimensional vice figure and made him absolutely real – a man of simmering resentment who hides his deformity rather than flaunts it; a man shaped by a monster of a mother and a blood-soaked life amid people who are all as flawed as he is. The film unavoidably loses some of this because of its brevity and the concomitant need to simplify. But it remains the best record we have (pace the National Video Archive of Performance recording) of one of the defining stage productions of the nineties.

  9. Moira
    August 26, 2008

    Great analysis, Rosy.

    McKellen’s performance was one of astonishing physical dexterity, too.

    I saw it on stage in Oxford – probably one of the sniffiest audiences in the country – and it’s the only time I can remember anyone getting such a long standing ovation.

    I just give Anthony Sher’s the edge … but the McKellen production was completely overpowering.

    That scene with Lady Anne is almost impossible to play … but McKellen managed – ably abetted by his Anne, as I recall (but I can’t remember for the life of me who she was, unfortunately …).

    I agree that the film lost something … and I still prefer the Olivier version … but then I have a soft spot for his Lordship, who could be one of the hammiest actors on the planet, but when he was on song, he was untouchable.

    I once served him devils on horseback, you know … Oh, me lorst youth … :mrgreen:

  10. Col
    August 28, 2008

    Anastasia Hille played Lady Anne to McKellen’s Richard. His physical dexterity was astonishing in that production. I was unlucky enough to miss out on seeing Antony Sher’s Richard – still one of the greatest regrets I have! – but the use of Richard’s physical state to enact things about his psychological state was, I imagine, similarly utilised.

  11. Moira
    August 28, 2008

    Thank you Col. Anastasia Hille it was.

  12. Jonathan Evans
    August 28, 2008

    Lady Anne was originally played by Eve Matheson. Anastasia Hille took over when the production was very slightly re-cast after it stopped playing in tandem with ‘King Lear’. Matheson was excellent in the part, but I actually preferred Hille. She brought a cold brittleness to Anne which made me realise for the first time that the character is actually rather unpleasant – as are most of Richard’s victims!

    I’d like to echo the comments about McKellen’s physical dexterity. The stand-out moment in that regard was putting on a 1930’s officer’s uniform – shirt, jacket, belt/shoulder strap, greatcoat and gloves – using only his right hand and arm. But equally impressive was how he’d take a cigarette from a silver case and light it under them same limitations. All seemed as though he’d spent his life finding ways to cope with a severe disability – and coping so well that the disability became barely noticeable.

    One last random thought – the second so-called “wooing scene” between Richard and Elizabeth can frequently come across as a pale re-tread of the first between Richard and Anne. Not so in this case. In fact, the battle of wills between Richard and Elizabeth was perhaps the dramatic highlight of the production. McKellen and Clare Higgins, overlooked by a silent rank of soldiers, held the stage for about 20 minutes, neither giving an inch. It was both powerful and – again, unusually – deeply moving, and at the end of it, despite her agreeing to Richard’s blandishments, one had the distinct impression that Elizabeth had won.

  13. Moira
    August 28, 2008

    It was the donning of the uniform that I specifically had in mind, Jonathan. That image has stayed with me ever since – long after much of the other detail has blurred. It was just hypnotic watching him …

  14. Jonathan Evans
    August 28, 2008

    Hypnotic describes it perfectly! I loved the punctilious way he tucked his paralysed left arm into his greatcoat pocket, giving it a neat little pat as he did so… It’s amazing how the detail comes flooding back when you start talking about it. But, then, I did see it nine times over the course of two years, and was lucky enough to interview McKellen about it when I was a student. It was a very special piece of theatre, ranking alongside the two ‘Henry IV’s with Robert Stephens as Falstaff and the ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ with Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart as the best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen.

  15. Richard Clark
    February 12, 2009

    Richard III murdered the princes! May he rot in Hell!!! Long Live King Edward V!!!!!!

  16. John chapman
    June 10, 2014

    Richard is much maligned .Shakespeare did a fantastic hatchet job.
    Of course he needed to because the Tudors needed to legitimise their position as monarchs.They spread the rumour about the death of the princes,perhaps THEY were responsible . Even in the tower the jailers were open to bribery.Killing two boys was nothing to them they had a lot of blood on their hands.

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This entry was posted on August 22, 2008 by in Entries by Rosy, Uncategorized and tagged , , , .



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