Shakespeare in Film – Part 10 – Richard III – Olivier’s 1955 Version

This is not one of my favorite plays.  Part of that is my allegiance to the House of Lancaster.  Henry IV and Henry V seemed like my kind of guys so I was sorry to see the House of York pry back the crown from their side in Henry VI Parts I, II & III.  But more than that, it’s the spectacle of a monster like Richard crushing the people around him, his family in fact, without any compunction or even much difficulty.  His brothers Edward and George are oblivious to his treachery even as it is being accomplished.  His other enemies are more aware but equally powerless to save themselves from his malice.  He moves from outrage to outrage upping the ante at each stage.  Finally, he assigns a merciless assassin to smother his nine and twelve-year-old nephews with their own pillow to ensure that they never have the chance to revenge themselves on Richard for his usurpation of their father’s crown.  And then there’s the matter of Lady Anne.  She is the widow of the Lancaster heir to the throne, Henry VI’s son Edward.  And it was Richard who killed Edward.  Having Anne agree to wed Richard is the final outrage that just makes the play a bridge too far for me.  I mean, come on! Richard is a hunchbacked, withered armed, monster.  Anne spits in his face and calls him a fiend and then willingly marries him.  This is a tough play to understand.

Anyway, Olivier plays Richard to the hilt.  He is actually comical at certain points in his jocular, two-faced portrayal of the monster.  Olivier has surrounded himself with an all-star cast of Shakespearean professionals.  Cedric Hardwicke is his brother King Edward IV, John Gielgud is his brother George, Duke of Clarence, Ralph Richardson is Duke of Buckingham and Claire Bloom is Lady Anne.  The acting is good.  It’s just that I can’t stomach the plot.  To see evil just dance along while well meaning people are led to the slaughter irks me.  The ending should be consolation enough.  Richard gets his comeuppance and pays the price.  But the play rubs me the wrong way.  It’s the way that good seems to be powerless to resist evil.  It’s almost as if it gives up without a fight.  Oh well.

So, as you can tell I don’t love this play but I recognize that it’s really about me and my way of looking at the world.  I acknowledge that this is a well-acted version of the play and the production is full of nice touches.  The chanting monks, the cinematography of the battle scene, the excellent set design, the skill of the cast.  Olivier’s elocution and mastery of the part demands it be seen.  He gives us a consummate and thoroughgoing villain.  All of it recommends this play to the Shakespeare devotee.  So, I do recommend this version.  It is well done and deserves high praise.

But I’d rather watch Hamlet.  I’d rather watch Henry V.  Richard III rankles me no little bit.

Things to Come – An OCF Classic Movie Review

It’s been a few years since I last saw this old science fiction film.  The screenplay was written by H. G. Wells based on his story of the same name.  And it has some distinguished British Shakespearean actors in the persons of Ralph Richardson and Cedric Hardwicke.  But it also has Raymond Massey who can chew up scenery with the best of them.

The plot is remarkably realistic at the start.  A Second World War begins in 1940 (this was made in 1935) and goes on for decades killing off most of humanity.  Then a plague finishes off the majority of the survivors and throws humanity into a virtual dark age where isolated communities battle for the meager resources that remain in what is practically a pre-industrial age.  In a section of England Ralph Richardson portrays a “Chief” who controls his villages as a rough and ready princeling battling the surrounding mini-states for control of the food and other resources.  Suddenly an advanced airplane lands and Raymond Massey reveals that a scientific community has survived the war and is re-establishing civilization and putting an end to nation-states.  He is taken prisoner by the chief but the writing is on the wall and eventually Massey’s friends show up with aircraft that looks like something out of a Buck Rogers serial.  They use the “gas of peace” to knock out the population and shepherd them into the Global Socialist Future complete with “science.”  We are then regaled with the wonderful futuristic science and engineering marvels that allow the world to be converted into a paradise on earth.

Flash forward fifty years and everyone lives underground and the world is a garden of delights where no one seems to work very hard or gets sick and everyone is happy, sort of like San Francisco but without the human feces everywhere.  The descendant of Raymond Massey, who looks remarkably like Raymond Massey, is working on the Space Gun that will shoot a space capsule around the Moon.  But Cedric Hardwicke won’t have it.  He rallies the non-scientists (actors and hair stylists) to attack the Space Gun and destroy it with their own soft and well-manicured hands.  Raymond Massey takes his helicopter and races the mob to the Space Gun and loads his daughter and her boyfriend into the bullet just in time to fire them into space and coincidentally allow the shockwave from the firing of the gun to murder all the raging doofuses attempting to stop him.

Then Massey gives a monologue that goes on and on.  It’s a panegyric to progress.  We’ll go to the Moon and colonize it and out to the planets and then onto the stars.  We’ll never stop.  It’s all or nothing.  There’s even a choir at the end.  I think they were repeating “all or nothing.”  For someone who is a big fan of the space program he managed to make it sound unhinged even to me.

Here’s my take.  The beginning of the movie is frighteningly prescient.  He saw the rest of the twentieth century coming.  That was right on the nose.  But Wells was a socialist.  Basically he might as well have been doing forward work for Stalin.  All that was missing was the hammer and sickle.  His belief that the socialists would build some kind of scientific utopia was laughably misguided.  And the smugness of the Massey character made me immediately think of Barack Obama.  All he needed to do to make the effect perfect would have been to say a couple of times “it’s not who we are.”  Honestly, I was solidly behind the “Chief” character and would gladly have put up with the lice and dysentery to avoid having to hear the speeches about “science.”

This really is a period piece and worth seeing just to get a flavor for what the British socialists thought the future should be.  It’s very enlightening.  And the histrionics by Massey are so over the top that they’re really quite funny to see and hear.