A Defense of Olivier’s Richard the Third

olivier2Laurence Olivier once took a bullet for Richard.

Well, not a bullet, exactly, but an actual arrow shot into his unprotected calf from a professional archer during the making of his 1954 film “Richard the Third.”  Sir Laurence would go on to take many more arrows in his career – from being pilloried for “The Betsy” to many Ricardians who refuse to see any merit in his Shakespearean film adaptation.  I believe it is a great film and forms a bookend to the trio of classic movies that Olivier directed – the others being “Hamlet” and “Henry V.”  These three have secured his place as one of the most inventive film directors of the 20th Century.

Olivier had a great stage success with this role in 1944 at the Old Vic.  In this, he was following so many actors who are drawn, like catnip, to the engaging, witty, duplicitous, sexy and obviously fictional character of Richard III.  Their past and present names are Legion:  David Garrick, John Barrymore, Anthony Sher, Ian McKellan, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, Mark Rylance and now Benedict Cumberbatch – all have wanted to sink their sharp little teeth into this multifaceted part.

Olivier’s Richard the Third begins with a disclaimer on an illuminated scroll:  “The story of England, like that of other lands, is an interwoven pattern of History and Legend.  The History of the World, like letters without poetry, like flowers without perfume and thought without imagination, would be a dry matter indeed without its legends, and many of those, though scorned by proof a hundred times, seem worth preserving for their own sake.”  (Italics are mine.)  In other words, as the newspaper publisher in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” observes:  “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

One aspect of the charm of the film is Olivier’s Richard immediate establishment of a rapport with the audience- making us amused accomplices to his devious schemes.  To deny that Richard is attractive is to deny Olivier’s prodigious theatrical gifts and manly beauty which shine through the makeup.  His sensual wooing of the Lady Anne (Claire Bloom) and her almost instant capitulation to him (over her husband’s casket) manages to be sacrilegious, profane and yet deeply felt.  Despite the heavy facial makeup (Olivier always built up his nose after his acting teacher, Elsie Fogerty, pointed to the bridge of his nose and said:  “there’s something weak there,” which resulted in years of false noses and disguises) this Richard is a dynamic, sparkling, sardonic fellow undermining his own view that “since I cannot prove a lover…I am determined to prove a villain.”  Of course, all of Olivier’s amazing bag of tricks are on display:  athleticism and catlike grace, hectoring, staccato speech inflections,eye rolling and gesticulating arms and hands used for emphasis and irony.  A feast for discriminating audiences with its audaciousness that makes so much “modern” film acting seem anemic!

For Ricardians, this movie is at its most historic and sympathetic during the Bosworth sequence.  Suddenly, we see the wonderfully artificial, sumptuous sets and costumes, based on illustrations from a Book of Hours, with its blistering VistaVision colors dominated by murrey and blue, dissolve to reveal a realistic Bosworth.  Here Olivier and his masterful collaborators (including composer Sir William Walton) recreate the beauty, excitement and terror of medieval warfare – a distant mirror of whipping standards, flurries of arrows and brutal melees.  It is in these scenes that we finally realize the tragic Richard – mounted on White Surrey watching the conniving Stanley cross over to “Tudor’s” side.  Surely, the shocked and hurt expression on the King’s face would melt the heart of the most anti-Shakespeare Ricardian.

So, just as Olivier stoically continued to shoot the film with an arrow intact in his leg, I suggest we continue to watch this movie into the future and not to deny it’s greatness, or, I’m afraid, the Bard’s. For better or worse, The Tragedy of Richard the Third is here to stay.






  1. Lawrence was a Ricardian and wanted to make many changes to the film ,he did not want to use the hunchback ,club foot ,withered arm ..however the only concession he got from the Studio was Bosworth .


    1. The hump is almost invisible and the limp comes and goes according to Sir Larry’s wishes, I guess. (Actually, he seems to forget about for long periods of time!)


  2. This movie left a truly profound impact on me when I first saw it as a young girl. Although I understood that the character of Richard III was a master of manipulation, ambition and amorality, I couldn’t help but see Olivier giving it a deeper dimensionality – all of which you describe so well. I’m glad you mentioned that opening scroll, as he acknowledged the historical limitations of the play. Great post.


  3. Sorry, I forgot to mention one important thing about the movie. It was the first time in my life that I “rooted for the bad guy” – very much due to LO’s brilliant performance.


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