May 2013

Richard IIIA Classic Restored to Glory

The Criterion Collection 213
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment

Picture Quality

Sound Quality


The recent discovery of Richard III's skeleton has called into question past assessments of his character and appearance. A facial reconstruction shows a young man of almost feminine beauty. There has been lots of speculation, but two things are certain: Richard III reigned but two short years and died a violent death at Bosworth Field in 1485. The wounds on his skeleton show that he was struck with many blows, including two extremely severe knocks to the head, lending credence to Sir Laurence Olivier's portrayal of his death, which shows dozens of soldiers pummeling the downed monarch.

Other than that, Olivier sticks with Shakespeare's observation of the king as a deformed and evil man who got to the throne by killing anyone in his way. We can surely forgive Olivier for going with what people knew of Richard in 1955, when the film premiered. Olivier committed his Richard to film 11 years after portraying him at the Old Vic in 1944, a portrayal that most say clearly linked Richard's rise to fame with that of Hitler.

Olivier maintained a sense of theatrical intimacy in his film version of the play by using close-ups and asides to the audience. It is rare that an arch villain is seen as protagonist, and it's unusual for him to take us, the audience, into his confidence as he murders his way to the throne. This time, through, I noticed more than ever how much Olivier looks like a bird of prey with the elongated nose like a beak, skinny legs, and costumes that often remind one of plumage. But while a bird of prey kills for food, Olivier's Richard kills for one thing: to obtain the crown of England.

Oliver not only starred in Richard III, but he also directed and produced it, and in the latter capacities he had the good sense to surround himself with first-rate talent. Revered Shakespearian actors such as Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud were on hand, as well as lovely Claire Bloom as the Lady Anne. Sir William Walton, who had written music for Olivier's other Shakespearian movies, Hamlet and Henry V, wrote one of his most regal and marvelous scores for Richard III.

When I first saw Richard III, I was quite young, and all I remember from that experience are the colors, especially the reds. I certainly didn't see those vibrant colors in any of the theatrical reissues. The film quickly deteriorated so much that it was impossible to tell what color the Bosworth Field sky was. It was just murky. But rejoice: there's been a total restoration for this great film, and it looks like it was minted yesterday. All of the rich colors are back -- not just the reds but the entire palette. Scenes that were excised for length have been reinserted, and there's a nice focus and sharpness. We shouldn't be too surprised because, after all, the original movie was shot in VistaVision.

The sound remains in the original monaural format, and it's been cleaned up to be a powerful mono track in which both dialogue and music are tremendously effective. I personally love the brief sound of whistling arrows during the battle scene, something carried over from Henry V.

There aren't many extras, but the ones that are included are of very high quality. The audio commentary is the same one from Criterion's previous release of the film, and it features playwright and stage director Russell Lees with further commentary from John Wilders, a former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The commentary sheds light on Shakespeare, English history, and Olivier's manner of acting. It's one of the most comprehensive and effective commentaries in the entire Blu-ray library of releases. There's also a fascinating 50-minute interview with Olivier on the show Great Acting, a BBC series hosted by theater critic Kenneth Tynan.

Olivier's film version of Richard III is exciting and exacting without ever seeming stuffy. It's thrilling drama, and Criterion's new release allows us to experience this great film in all of its Technicolor glory.

Be sure to watch for: The night before Richard is crowned, he speaks to citizens, who are so manipulated by his lies and pious attitude that they demand he be king. As they depart, Richard swings down a bell rope, his hand extended to Buckingham (Richardson) with the clear, unspoken message that it is now the king's hand to be kissed. It's one of the most malevolent scenes in cinema, and one of great acting accomplished without a single word of dialogue (though I must admit that Walton's music helps out a bit).

. . . Rad Bennett