Richard III: Through the eyes of Hollywood

With real king discovered, how close are the movie versions?

Boffins have dug up the actual remains of Richard III in a Leicester car park. Not only that, they’ve created a facial reconstruction that reveals (supposedly) what he actually looked like.

In the image, the king looks less sinister and a lot more handsome than we’ve been led to believe - he’s still got a slightly arched nose though.

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For many of us, our perceptions of the last Plantagenet king have been shaped by Laurence Olivier’s immortal performance in the 1955 film version of Shakespeare’s play.

It was the definitive portrayal from arguably England’s finest-ever actor, unforgettable with his black pageboy wig, enormous hump and false nose. He also sported a real-life limp, after a stunt archer accidently shot him. Ever the pro, Larry carried on with the scene.

As one review put it, the character was perfect for Olivier’s “detached approach and chilly magnetism”. His performance was so engaging that “the viewer can only root for his vicious but charismatic cripple”.

The film was a flop when it was released, so desperate producers brokered a deal with NBC that saw it broadcast on TV at the same time as its cinema release. It was the last time that Olivier directed a  movie version of Shakespeare, though it would end up highly profitable.

Olivier’s Richard became part of popular culture. It was parodied by Peter Cook in the first-ever episode of ‘Blackadder’. Cook spoofed Olivier’s Richard by playing the king as kind and generous, his opening words: “now is the summer of our sweet content”.

Lord Farquaad, the vertically-challenged villain in the ‘Shrek’ series, also bears more than a passing resemblance to Larry’s Rich.

Perhaps because Olivier’s incarnation was so definitive, there have been less attempts to bring the character to the screen than you might think.

Wisely, Sir Ian McKellen’s 1995 version did its own thing, ditching the medieval setting (and black wig), and relocating to an imaginary 1930s fascist Britain.

The Gandalf star co-wrote the screenplay himself, and his king’s gory ascent to the throne culminates in a Nuremberg-style rally. The film won mostly rave reviews from critics, despite ditching much of Shakespeare’s dialogue.

Two less well-known films about Richard III are the 1939 and 1962 versions of ‘Tower Of London’ - not directly based on the Shakespeare play, but still focused on Richard’s gruesome rise to the top.

The first saw Basil Rathbone play a rather more dashing version of the king, though more memorable was Frankenstein star Boris Karloff as his club-footed executioner Mord.

The ’62 remake - with Vincent Price as Richard - apparently had such a small budget that director Roger Corman was forced to re-use the battle footage from the first film. This classic old school horror featured a torture scene involving a rat and a ‘head cage’.

The Shakespeare play has also cropped up in two major Hollywood films. In ‘The Goodbye Girl’, Richard Dreyfuss’ actor plays King Richard as an “exaggerated homosexual” for a dreadful off-Broadway version that is soon cancelled. In real life, Dreyfuss won an Oscar for the film.

Even more meta was Al Pacino’s luvvy-fest ‘Looking For Richard’. It combined footage of actors discussing the play and Pacino hilariously doing vox-pops about Shakespeare on the streets of New York, with actual scenes (complete with medieval costumes) from the play. Odd but witty, it also convinces you that a younger Pacino would’ve made a superb Richard III in a more straight-forward version.