Richard III
directed by Andre Calmettes & James Keane
(States Right, 1912)

With so many of the earliest films lost to us forever, this 1912 production of William Shakespeare's Richard III is an absolute treasure, both historically and cinematically. It is, among other things, the oldest surviving American feature film, with the original five-reel production running just under a full hour. Not only that, the quality of this restored edition is absolutely amazing -- much better than even most 1930s silent films I've seen.

The lion's share of the thanks for this belongs to former projectioner and film collector William Buffum, who lovingly preserved the original nitrate film for decades before turning it over to the American Film Institute in 1996. It should be noted that nitrate films such as this were and are very unstable, highly flammable and prone to destructive deterioration (which is exactly why so many of these early films simply no longer exist). The restored tints differ somewhat among individual scenes, but every aspect of the film image, from actors to background props, is sharply delineated. I believe the intertitles may have been recreated, but everything else is just the way audiences saw the film almost a century ago -- probably even better, actually.

Obviously, it is difficult to capture the true essence of a Shakespearian drama with a complete absence of dialogue, but this production certainly captures the spirit of the Bard's original play -- the whole of it, not merely a particular act or two. It helps to have an accomplished Shakespearian actor playing the lead, and that is exactly what we have here in leading man Frederick Warde, an English tragedian who enjoyed a long career as an actor as well as a lecturer on Shakespeare after coming to America in 1871. A youthful 61 in 1912, his performance here offers viewers a rare window into the acting style of late 19th-century drama. Director James Keane also takes a turn in front of the camera as Richard's nemesis, Richmond -- I'm sure many a director has wanted to slay one of his stars at one point or another, but Keane actually does it, bringing to an end Richard's ill-gotten reign.

Before he became King Richard III, the man who would be king was the Duke of Gloster (the obviously Americanized version of Gloucester used in the film), a crooked-backed man who schemes and kills his way to the crown. According to the information on the back of the DVD, he supposedly earns a measure of sentiment from the audience in the final act, but I never warmed up to him at all. Having slain all of his enemies (including the two young princes born of the murdered king), the fact that he goes to war over the love of a fair maiden doesn't really rehabilitate him in my book. He is in fact so vile a creature that a prologue and epilogue were added showing Warde in his true, gentlemanly form bowing to the audience.

A new original score by composer Ennio Morricone accompanies the film. I can't say I particularly care for the music (early on, I think it sounds like something written by John Cage's cat), but it does finish strongly in the film's dramatic conclusion. The DVD also includes an informative essay by Douglas Brode and a 17-minute documentary called "Rediscovering Richard: Looking Back at a Forgotten Classic." The first half of the documentary is excellent, featuring an interview with William Buffum and a comparative glance at several other cinematic productions from the early 20th century. From there, though, it morphs into a look at the cinematic history of Richard III up to the present day rather than going into further detail on the making of this particular movie.

This early production of Richard III is pretty much invaluable as both entertainment and history. With its static shots of each scene, it doesn't push the envelope of early film techniques the way an early D.W. Griffith classic might, but it does make use of a huge $30,000 budget to include on-location shots from the New York countryside alongside standard in-studio shots, frame Richard's portentous dream outside Bosworth Field with a little double exposure magic, and fill the crowd scenes with plenty of extras. Basically, this is an American treasure, and you can't help but be blown away by the remarkable clarity of such an early, feature-length film.

review by
Daniel Jolley

11 August 2007

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