Richard III Olivier vs McKellan

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\'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