May 8, 2014
[Shakespeare Month title sequence]
Oan: [reading Richard III] Now is the winter of our discon ... Ah, [puts the book down] let's move on to something more high-concept, a history play out of history.
Oan [v/o]: Richard III, addition to being one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, is also one of Shakespeare's most popular characters. It's hard not to see why: Every actor loves to play a villain and Richard of Gloucester is one of the most fun, and challenging. Brought to life by many of history's greatest Shakespeareans: Richard Burbidge, David Garric, Edmund Kean, John Barrymore, Laurence Olivier, Al Pacino, Peter Dinkledge, Kevin Spacey, and Mark Rylance have all donned the hump.
Oan: And so naturally, this character is quoted by everyone.
[cut to clip from the Family Guy episode "The King is Dead": Stewie is up onstage putting a shirt on his shoulder to look like a hump]
Stewie: Now is the winter of our discontent.
[Cut to clip from "The Goodbye Girl": Andrew Garfield (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is in the library reading Richard III]
Andrew: Now is the winter of our discontent. May I have a five minute break, please?
[Cut to clip from the Red Dwarf episode "Marooned": Rimmer attempts to quote Shakespeare to Lister.]
Rimmer: "Now..." (Long pause) That's all I can remember.
Oan: Really famous speech, overplayed in fact. And it takes a damn good actor to make you hear it new and fresh again. Thankfully ...
[Cut to a clip from Richard III: Richard (Ian McKellan) is tapping on the microphone and makes the speech]
Richard III: Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer.
Oan: [passionately] Oh, yes.
Oan [v/o]: Back in 1995, Sir Ian Mckellan was still mostly known for his remarkably impressive stagework and it only just begun to break into the movies. Gandalf and Magneto were were still a few years off. At the time, he was starring in a production of Richard III at the Royal National Theatre directed by Richard Eyre. While working on it, he decided to adapt it to the big screen, letting Richard Loncraine direct it. The basic concept of the production was moving a play set in the 1480's to the 1930's.
Oan: So, they did a history play by taking it out of history.
Oan [v/o]: Sounds weird, right? And it is weird when you think too hard about the concept. But, then again ... [A huge tank crashes through the War room] Tanks!!!
Oan: Tanks! Shakespeare with tanks! I love this!!!
Oan [v/o]: The cast is incredible, too. Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Annette Benning, Carson from "Downton Abbey" [Jim Carter], McNulty from "The Wire" [Dominic West], Darling from "Blackadder" [Tim McInerny], Appleby from "Yes Minister" [Nigel Hawthorne], that dude with the robot suit who makes all the money [Robert Downey, Jr], lots of great talent. But the best performance comes from the best character.
Richard: Was ever a woman in this humour woo'd? Was ever a woman in this humour won?
On [v/o]: Sir Ian's Richard is utterly flawless.
Richard: I, that killed her husband and his father, to take her in her heart's extremist hate, with curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes, and yet to win her. All the world to nothing! Ha!
Oan: It's just ... glee.
Oan [v/o]: Loncraine handled the direction, but, from what I could glean, this was Ian's Richard. He has a producing credit and a writing credit and only chose not to direct because he was uncomfortable behind the camera. Thank god it's not true for in front of the camera.
Richard: Bound with triumphant garlands will I come and lead thy daughter to a conquerer's bed.
Oan: Why, yes, I am going to bang your daughter. Drink?
Oan [v/o]: What I love about the movie is that it gets why the play works. Look at how they stage the "Winter of our discontent" monologue. They open at a banquet with Richard of Gloucester delivering the speech directly to the York royal family. And then, midsentence ...
Richard: And now, instead of mounting barded steeds to fright the souls of fearful adversaries, He [cut to Richard entering the water closet] capers nimbly in a lady's chamber.
Oan [v/o]: Smash cut into a bathroom and he delivers the rest of the speech metaphorically urinating on the new king. In public, he sings praises, while in private, he spits venom. We all know that the character's two-faced and here we are shown cinematically both of those faces. And it's a neat way to shake up a familiar speech. Richard's actions are two-faced throughout the play. He's courtial and sympathetic with his imprisoned brother while he hires assassins for him. He's playful with the princes whom he later kills. He pretends to be a lover, a humble statesman, a pious man, all pretending. Until he can't pretend anymore, to the point where his mother can't love him.
Duchess of York: You toad, where are the princes? And your wife?
Oan [v/o]: [whiny tone] Ugh, geez mom. Can't I just kill eight or nine people in my bloody road to absolute power without you getting on my case? God!! [normal] But, until that point, we the audience are the only ones who get to see both of his faces. And so, we see his schemes play out and we root for him as he climbs his way to the top. And so, we are all played Machiavells.
Oan: It's all propaganda, of course. The actual Richard was never this evil.
Oan [v/o]: It's more than likely that he didn't kill the princes in the tower for one. And his deformity may have been as simple as a curved spine. But Shakespeare was writing about a guy who was killed in a battle by Elizabeth I's grandfather. Making Richard a villain helps legitimize the Tudor claim to the throne.
Oan: And so, Richard is essentially no longer a historical character, he is every Machiavellian politician in fiction since.
Oan [v/o]: Many times, he's placed in his own element in history, as in the definitive 1955 version by Laurence Olivier, but Richard has left plenty of descendants. Look at Francis Urquhart, boldly sharing his most vile thoughts with the audience as he plots his devious climb with the ranks of the British government.
Franis Urquhart: Even the longest, most glittering rain must come to an end someday.
Oan [v/o]: His sly addresses to the audience became a signature of his in the BBC series House of Cards, and would again be used in the American House of Cards.
Frank Underwood: One heartbeat away from presidency and not a single cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated.
Oan [v/o]: Two-faced politicians and we see both faces. Both Francis Urquhart and Frank Underwood are descendants of Richard of Gloucester. And his line goes beyond Anglophone culture. In 2009, Kuwaiti director, Sulaymane Al-Bassam produced an Off-Broadway staging of an Arabic language of Ricahrd III, where the Emir of Gloucester was a 21st Century Arab dictator murdering his way to the top, under the guise of religion and defense against foreign influence. This real person has become a symbol for power lust. So powerful a symbol that he overshadows the actual man. So it actually kind of seems natural that eventually we would get to a point where ... ughhhh....
Oan: Well, remember when I said this was set in the 1930's?
Henry: Long live, King Richard!
[Henry Strafford steps aside and allows Richard to stand near the podium. The crowd of people applaud for his presence. Nazi-esque flags and banners lower. Cut to Oancitizen looking surprised. Cut to clip from Slings and Arrows.]
Geoffrey Tennent: Set...
Oan [v/o]: [obviously dubbed] ...Richard III...
Geoffrey Tennent: ...in Nazi Germany. They wore swastikas everywhere.
Oan [v/o]: [singing] Godwin, Godwin, God-WIN! Godwin, Godwin, God-WIN! Godwin, Godwin, God-WIN!
Oan: Typical, you've got one high-concept director trying to leave his mark and now suddenly, it's all [does the Nazi salute with one hand and uses two fingers as a toothbrush mustache with another hand.] "Nun, ist der Winter unsers Missvergnunens!"
Oan [v/o]: I would complain about the near-campy way this is handled, all subtlety thrown out the window by replacing a swastika with a boar's head and having a real English king appear in a black SS uniform in front of a chanting crowd accompanied by military marches. But ... honestly, the play makes sense from a story standpoint. I mean, the general oversimplified narrative the West has about World War II was that a hard one piece was destroyed by a lone man's ambitions to power, which he realized by manipulating everyone around him and bits of paranoia, hatred and blood lust.
Oan: In other words, once the winter of our discontent was made glorious summer by the armistice, one man, who was not shape for sport of tricks, became determined to prove a villain and hate the idle pleasures of those days.
Oan [v/o]: Yeah, yeah, here Hitler, there Hitler, everyone bad is Hitler. Because only Hitler would do things like claw their way to the top by paying people to murder guys.
First Murderer: Where is thy conscience now?
Second Murderer: In the Duke of Gloucester's purse.
Oan [v/o]: Hell, he even goes full-on supervillain and kills Iron Man. [A knife goes through River's chest] Ooh, right in the arc reactor! But, honestly, this whole "Night of the Long Knives," Rise of the Third Reich thing works for these characters, and with the story. The movie does a plausible job of imagining alternate 1930's, where the House of Lancaster looks like Churchill's War Room and the Battle of Bosworth Field looks like a reverse D-Day and people sing classic jazz versions of sonnets.
Singer: Come live with me and be my love, we will all the pleasures prove.
Oan [v/o]: Hell, they even had a sort-of clever spin on one of the play's most famous lines.
Richard: A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!
Oan: Don't know how I feel about that, so I'm just going to give it a slow clap with reservations.
Oan [v/o]: And even the fascist imagery works with the context of the period. It's not necessarily German fascism transplanted to England, it's English fascism grown out out of England. The locations of the film are all real buildings in England that match the severity of Third Reich architecture. In the 1930's, there were Nazi sympathizers in the royal family and there were fascist movements in Britain at the time, a lot of them, well-documented ones. It could have happened here.
Oan: So, yeah, they lost the argument. Richard III is now worse than Hitler.
Oan [v/o]: And it goes far beyond that. Even beneath that goose-step appaloosa, the film has little reference points that connect Richard to other classic villains. Let's look at that opening again. Richard crashes through a wall driving a tank, awesome, and then, in the firefight, he works his way through the chaos wearing a gas mask. The sound mixing emphasizes his breathing.
Oan: Pop quiz: Name another movie villain introduced during a military skirmish marked out by his ominous breathing.
[Cut to a clip from Star Wars: A New Hope: The answer is of course Darth Vader.]
Oan [v/o]: Yep. The ending gives away another classic villain reference. Richard is at the corner by Henry at the Battle of Bosworth Field and, well, pay attention to the music. [Richard falls of the rigging of a building. Henry Tudor shoots him twice, and looks to the camera with a smirk. The music playing in the background is "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" by Al Jolson.]
Oan: ....Ever seen White Heat?
Cody Jarrett: Made it, Ma! Top of the world!
Oan [v/o]: I'm convinced that's a direct reference. James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat was one of the most famous gangsters in the Golden Age of the gangster movie.
Oan: So, Richard isn't just a Nazi, he's also a gangster and a cyborg space wizard.
Oan [v/o]: Hell, even with his deformity, the famous hunch, can link in to classic Universal Monsters. There's even a scene where he appears as a sigil the white boar in a... [Richard appears as a boar-like creature inside a man's dream. The man wakes up.]
[Cut to Oan looking disatisfied. Cut to a still of the Richard in the boar makeup]
Oan [v/o]: That is just goddamn ridiculous. Then again, any adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III is essentially historical slander, let's face it. Slander accepted as history. So accepting that, how well is the story told? Honestly, not as well as it could have been. The direction makes some things explicit and others are vague, but it never quite nails the complex personal relationships that drive the story. Olivier's Richard is still definitive, not just of Richard but of how Shakespeare was performed for quite a few decades after its release. And here, in McKellan's Richard, the story is basically told by analogy. A dictator rises and falls. Draw swastikas on the bad guys and remember who they are. I mean, it's definitely fun, check it out if you're curious, but a big part of me is worried that this film might simply be remembered as an interesting novelty, a gimmick.
Oan: Then again, Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian.
[Cut to Richard gleefully filing through pictures of murdered people on his couch; Cut back to Oan]
Oan: With a Richard this good, who cares.
Queen Elizabeth: Shall I be tempted of the devil thus?
Richard: Ay, if the devil tempt thee to do good.
Oan: And I have a crush on a child-killing Nazi. This Month has gotten weird.
[End credits: The music playing is "Springtime for Hitler" from The Producers.]