The first feature is also a fine feature
Mr Peter G George | Ellon, Aberdeenshire United Kingdom | 07/12/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Richard III would be an important film even if it were barely visible and of poor quality as a film. The reason for this is that it was made in 1912 and is the earliest surviving American feature film. However, Richard III turns out to be a remarkably entertaining film with good production values, fine acting and a well-told story. It is thus not merely of historical value, but also of value simply because it is a good film. The film starts and finishes with Frederick Warde, the actor who plays Richard, taking a bow before the audience. He appears in modern dress looking congenial and thus distancing himself from the character he plays. This device also emphasises that we are watching a play and thus anticipates the framing device used in Henry V (1945). The story of Richard III is conveyed with brief titles describing the action of the scene. There are no dialogue titles as such. Thus some of Shakespeare's most famous lines are not even hinted at. In this film there is no sign of Richard saying `Now is the winter of our discontent', and perhaps more surprisingly, because it could easily have been filmed, his despairing cry of `A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!' Nevertheless the film on the whole follows Shakespeare's play quite closely. Some of the detail may be lost but this is still clearly Shakespeare. The acting in the film is different from the style of later silents, not least because the actors do not appear in close up. It is thus not as subtle as later acting which could make use of the eyes and close ups of facial expressions. Nevertheless Warde's performance especially is good, conveying the menace of Richard without descending into caricature. The acting is helped enormously by the amount of effort and money spent on lavish sets and costumes. The film even has a full size galleon. The quality of the surviving print is first rate. Richard III looks better than many silent films from the twenties. The print is tinted using mainly pinks and blues and although at times the image is somewhat faded for the most part it is wonderfully sharp and clear. The film is enhanced by a moody score composed by Ennio Morricone. The DVD includes a short documentary Rediscovering Richard which is mainly of interest because it introduces the collector William Buffum who preserved the print of Richard III. Everyone who is interested in film should thank this man, for without him a fine film from 1912 would certainly have been lost for ever."
A cinematic and historical treasure
Daniel Jolley | Shelby, North Carolina USA | 02/01/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"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 in Richard III 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-back man who schemes and kills his way to the crown. According to the information on the back of the DVD (I must admit I have not yet read Shakespeare's play), 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 villainess 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 twentieth 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 mix 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, Richard III is an American treasure, and you can't help but be blown away by the remarkable clarity of such an early, feature-length film."