“Larry is deeply, and I mean deeply, stupid,” says Orson Welles to Henry Jaglom. But it can’t have been altogether true, can it? Of course, some great artists may be brilliant in their own field and painfully naive outside of it, but I’d hold up Olivier’s first three films as evidence that he had something on the ball. Of course, they each have one foot in theatre, and so does their star — how could it be otherwise? But when a filmmaker like Polanski comes out and says Olivier was a great movie director, one should take notice.
I enjoyed Olivier’s RICHARD III in its splendidly restored Criterion release, looking brand new and almost painfully crisp. Fiona disliked his nose and didn’t stay for the rest. “It’s not human!” she protested. I pointed to Douglas Wilmer, down the cast list a bit, sporting a comparable schnozzola. “I think Larry saw that and said ‘Get me one of those.’” Both snouts proceed at a thirty degree angle like an exact continuation of the actors’ foreheads. I was still marveling at this feat of nature and the makeup department when Stanley Baker shows up with his brow overhanging dangerously, a cranial escarpment that defies gravity. His eyes look like they’re straining to hold it all up.
Olivier apparently felt he made a mistake casting Ralph Richardson, and wished he could have gotten Orson for the part of Buckingham. I see his problem — Richardson is a shade too real. While Gielgud makes a song out of everything, and Olivier is Mr. Punch made flesh, Richardson plays a political villain with no hint of artificial “characterisation” — he just says the words beautifully, guided by their rhythm, letting his steely, slightly mad stare hold our attention. Explaining his decision to use theatrical sets in HENRY V, Olivier said he feared otherwise the audience would say, “So that’s a house, and that’s a tree, and that’s a field; why is everyone talking so funny?” Heightened artifice in the production design matches Shakespeare’s blank verse. So the problem with Richardson is that his very convincing-ness isn’t in keeping. It’s not that he’s naturalistic — Richardson was slightly unreal even in real life — it’s just that he’s not one the (putty) nose, like everyone else. If Olivier’s Richard is a villain, what is Ralph? I expected him to turn out to be a good guy.
We also get a nubile Bernard Hepton (I think I spotted him blowing a bugle), also credited quaintly for “sword play”, but most enchanting are the murderers, played by Michaels Gough & Ripper, two giants of the Hammer horror realm which doesn’t even exist in 1955. But who could be better? I’m reminded that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are both in Olivier’s HAMLET, separately. Presumably, when I watch HENRY V again, I’m going to suddenly recognize Madeline Smith and Ingrid Pitt.
Towards the end, Richard draws the positions of his troops in the dust using his sword-point. And Olivier cuts to a wide of Bosworth Field, and the full-scale army is painted into place by a giant sword-tip, descending lightly from the heavens. Maybe it’s the kind of thing that, when you have something like it, you need to have a couple more things like it to make it fit into the overall style. But it’s brilliant and bold and breathtaking — this man is not stupid.