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The Criterion Collection presents
Richard III (1955)

"Death and destruction dog thee at thy heels. Go, hie thee, hie thee from this slaughterhouse, lest thou increase the number of the dead."
- Queen Elizabeth (Mary Kerridge)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: February 22, 2004

Stars: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke
Other Stars: Alec Clunes, Laurence Naismith, Mary Kerridge, Pamela Brown, Michael Gough, Michael Ripper, Stanley Baker
Director: Laurence Olivier

Manufacturer: Sony Pictures Digital Authoring
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, brief gore)
Run Time: 02h:38m:02s
Release Date: February 24, 2004
UPC: 037429126721
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A+BB- A-

DVD Review

Richard III is the last of the three great Shakespearean film adaptations by Laurence Olivier (before he was a Sir or a Lord). The tale of Richard III, last of the kings of the house of York, was in Shakespeare's hands a propaganda tool to flatter the ruling Tudor family, who succeeded Richard. For the most part, it has been a very successful propaganda operation, and Richard is widely considered villainous, regardless of various attempts at his rehabilitation. Olivier plays it straight, however, and makes Richard as deformed in body and soul as Shakespeare makes him out to be.

Olivier stars as Richard, Duke of Gloucester (or Gloster, depending on your edition), who is fourth in the line for the throne presently held by his elder brother Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke). Spurred by ambition to have the crown himself, perhaps as compensation for his hunchback and deformed hand, Richard plots the eradication of all who stand in his way: his brother George, duke of Clarence (John Gielgud), as well as his two young nephews. Richard is aided in his plots by the corrupt Duke of Buckingham (Ralph Richardson). But even after securing the crown, Richard's cruelty and treachery do not go unnoticed, and before long the kingdom is under siege by Henry of Richmond (Stanley Baker), who claims the crown himself.

Olivier's interpretation is interesting, making the audience a co-conspirator with Richard. This is accomplished through the means of directing Richard's soliloquies not to himself, as on stage, but directly to the camera, as if confiding to us. This makes the delivery far more natural and less jarring to the film audience, even though we seldom have dialogue addressed directly to us. Olivier uses a voice quite a bit higher than his own normal speaking voice, as well as a reedy quality that makes his Richard seem like the incarnation of an oboe, somewhat serpentine in character. As is the case in any excellent presentation of Shakespeare, the delivery makes the meaning clear, even if the actual language used is obscure to the viewer, so the Shakespearephobic need not turn away. The supporting cast is a veritable who's who of the Old Vic, with many of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the period in full force here.

While the play has its weak parts on the stage, most notably the difficulty of portraying the Battle of Bosworth Field in the fifth act, that's not a problem here. The film medium allows the story to be opened up properly and Olivier makes use of location shooting (in Spain) to really portray the scope of the battle. Horses leap over the camera, and a crane shot over the field brings us into the action, while composer William Walton's exciting score increases the drama of the action. We also see the soldiers deserting and the army literally melting away before our eyes, a sensation that cannot be duplicated on a stage. Olivier could have been an action film director, one senses. In addition, the ghostly visitations of his victims to Richard the night before the battle work pretty well, though they're a bit crudely done. On the stage, they're much more problematic.

This DVD marks the first full-length presentation of the Olivier's film in many years; decades ago over 20 minutes was cut from it for length. Even the Criterion laserdisc was shorn of several minutes that had not turned up. Happily, that's cured with this DVD, which matches the original release shot for shot, finally. Patched together from numerous prints, the difference in prints is quite invisible for the most part.

Though Richard III is technically considered one of Shakespeare's history plays, Richard himself has much of the tragic hero, for his ambition and willingness to take any steps necessary parallel that of Macbeth. This film version is as good as it gets, with Olivier's knowledge of both stage and film making it a memorable and first-rate adaptation.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1 frame generally looks very nice indeed, with the Technicolor looking particularly splendid. There's heavy grain, but it's adequately rendered and not an issue. Detail is good, as is shadow detail for the most part. There's minor speckling, but otherwise no serious frame defects are notable. During the outdoor battle sequences at the end, where higher contrasts are seen, edge enhancement is readily visible, with annoying rings prominent through much of the last two reels.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 1.0 mono sound is quite clear throughout. Hiss and noise are variable, perhaps a reminder of the patchwork nature of this long-version print. Walton's score sounds decent for 50-year-old mono, with an unsurprising lack of bass and presence, but it's not overly distorted or unpleasant.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by playwright and director Russell Lees, and John Wilders of the Royal Shakepeare Company
Packaging: Double alpha
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:19m:03s

Extra Extras:
  1. Production gallery
Extras Review: Though this is a little thin for a two-disc set, there is nonetheless a sufficient quantity of extras. A full-length commentary provides analysis of both Shakespeare's text and Olivier's version, noting alterations and rearrangements as well as the cinematic devices utilized. It's entertaining in its own right as both commentators are knowledgeable and interesting to listen to.

Disc Two features a BBC television program from the series Great Acting that features Olivier speaking at length (47m:44s) with critic Kenneth Tynan. This is heavy on biographical details and learning the ropes, but it spends a good deal of time on Richard III, making it particularly apropos for this disc. A "TV trailer" is not just a typical television spot. This film was broadcast in America on the same day of its release in Britain, and this trailer (12m:43s in length) was really a behind-the-scenes featurette that gives a close look at the film and its filming. Wrapping up the package are a short essay by Bruce Eder and a set of stills interspersed with excerpts from Olivier's book On Acting that are particularly related to this film, and often closely tied to the visuals.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Olivier gives the evil Duke of Glouster an ambitious and memorable presentation, and Criterion gives the film a very good restoration and supporting extras to boot. Definitely worth seeking out, even for those unacquainted with the Bard.


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