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Richard III

Sir Laurence Olivier vs. Ian McKellan



1. Presentation of the Play

2. Background

3. The Grand Finale



It seems that modern Hollywood filmmakers are as much in love with Shakespeare’s plays as were the 16th century audiences who first enjoyed them. Recent updates of Hamlet (1996) and Romeo and Juliet (1996), both highly successful movies, bear this out, as well as the two best film versions of Richard III; Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1954 “period piece”, and Ian McKellan’s more modern interpretation (1995).

In McKellan’s Richard III, we see Britain in the late 1930s, at the end of a savage civil war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster. This version works for a number of reasons: 1) it is made for a modern audience; 2) the social and historical events are part of the audience’s collective memory; and 3) the film’s conclusion has a stronger dramatic impact.

1. Presentation of the play

“Image is everything”, says the commercial, and with movies being almost entirely dependent on the visual element, the phrase rings truer than ever. Olivier’s version, along with being a “period piece”, is done very much in the classic style; the stage is static, almost as if it were a play and not a movie. The sets are colorful and spacious, but they also have a simplistic feel, as though most of the budget went into the costumes (again, very much in the classic style). The movie brings us almost immediately to the throne room of King Edward IV, recently victorious in England’s brutal civil war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster; the “Wars of the Roses”. After all but Richard have exited, we hear Richard’s opening soliloquy in its’ entirety. The setting is very much what we call a “period piece”; the costumes, sets, etc. are all of Richard’s time and place.

With McKellan’s version, one immediately grasps that money was no object to making this movie. It is done in the modern style, with lots of action and movement, primarily using existing buildings as sets, instead of rebuilding them on soundstages. Every scene is alive with movement and detail, a quality that is sadly lacking in Olivier’s version. The setting is Britain, but a Britain very much of the late 1930s. This much can be seen at once. Richard’s opening soliloquy is broken in half; the first half is spoken into a microphone before a crowd of merry-makers at King Edward IV’s victory celebration. However, just as Richard reaches “Grim-visag’d war has smoothed his wrinkled brow”, and the soliloquy becomes more a description of Richard’s plans, we cut away to Richard, alone, in the men’s room–taking a piss. As Richard relieves himself, he continues his soliloquy. Clearly, the movie is not above using anything–including Richard’s bathroom habits–to move the story along. A perfect fit for today’s audiences.

2. Background

When Olivier made Richard III, he had to work within the bounds of the 1950s, which makes it difficult for modern audiences (myself included, I’m ashamed to say) to stick with the movie until the end. The things that get audiences going nowadays are basically sex and violence (hopefully with a decent story keeping them together). Olivier’s version has very little of the former, and I think that he wouldn’t have put them in even if he could. I have seen several of his movies, and he seems to be a man who prefers to let his acting speak for itself.

Ian McKellan is less reserved in this respect, and it shows in the very first scene of the movie. A message comes in for King Henry VI over a teletype at his field headquarters just as the he is retiring for the evening. Suddenly, we feel a rumbling. Is it an earthquake? Maybe a T-Rex? Nope, it’s a tank, which bursts through the wall of the study. Men wearing gas masks and brandishing automatic weapons make short work of the command staff, especially one figure, which takes out the King with one round from a 9mm Mauser right between the eyes. He removes his gas mask…it’s Richard.

The graphic violence of the opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which never shrinks from the sight of blood. One scene in particular comes to mind, where Lord Rivers (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) is lounging on his bed with his girlfriend. Just as they are about to get more intimate, Rivers abruptly meets his end when a very sharp knife comes up through the bed and emerges from his chest. A very Friday the 13th-esque moment for a Shakespeare remake, and typical of the film’s attraction to graphic violence.

There’s also a little nudity and sex (very little) thrown in just for fun, after Lady Margaret Plantagenet (Queen Elizabeth’s daughter) marries Henry, Earl of Richmond (who later becomes King Henry VII), and they are seen just before the final battle. It’s the morning after their wedding night, and Margaret is seen nude (from the back only, though?). Richmond is also nude–but only seen from the waist up. That scene was not in the original play, but the dialogue is convincing enough so that novices will probably be fooled.

3. The Grand Finale

Well, we’ve been building up to it for the whole movie; the final confrontation between Richard and his enemies. Olivier, faithfully sticking to the classic style, engages Richmond in a final duel to the death. There is great swordplay here, and Olivier’s skill is plain to see. However, it again ends rather bloodlessly (that is, there is a lack of actual gore, as seen by the audience); rather a comedown for the modern audience.

McKellan, on the other hand, makes full use of his available materials, and starts the party with a bang as Richmond nails Richard’s camp with an air strike, disabling the troop train Richard is on and generally throwing the entire camp into a state of chaos. Richard quickly commandeers a jeep and races through the battle, trying to rally his men. Unfortunately, he comes face-to-face with an enemy tank–Richmond’s tank, to be exact. Richard frantically reverses, and manages to hang up the jeep on a log or a fallen telephone pole. “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Richmond–like Richard, now on foot–chases Richard through the battlefield, up a flight of stairs, and out onto the exposed girders of a building that has been hit by artillery fire. Cornered by Richmond, and unwilling to suffer the humiliation of capture, Richard allows himself to fall off the girder and into a blazing fire. We see him from above, falling in super-slo-mo (a tactic doubtless “borrowed” from Die Hard). Our last image of Richard is his smiling face as he is consumed by the flames.

In the text of the play itself, Richard’s death occurs offstage, although I’m sure that when it is performed, the final duel is seen onstage in all its’ glory. McKellan’s updating gives us a suitably melodramatic finish, which will no doubt prompt a standing ovation


There is no doubt that Lawrence Olivier’s version does a better job of sticking with the letter of the play, bringing us all the richness of the Elizabethan dialogue and costume, allowing us to experience the events as they happened.

But McKellan’s version, while radically different in presentation and style, is true to the spirit of the play, bringing the intrigue and violence to life in a way undreamed of in Olivier’s time. The point I am trying to make is that the new version really is very good, and appeals to modern audiences.


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