Recently discovered and now presented as the earliest American feature film of which a complete copy survives, “The Life and Death of King Richard III” is reviewed now for the record. Although Variety began critiquing motion pictures in 1907, it suspended the practice from March 1911-December 1912 and therefore missed this and the seven other initial American five-reelers that were released in 1912. Although understandably theatrical in style, pic is lavishly produced, has its lively moments and will actually benefit in its rounds of museums and special archival showings from following the two other “Richard III” films of the past year, those starring Ian McKellen and Al Pacino.
Budgeted at a then-considerable $ 30, 000 and evidently a hit in its time, production stars Frederick Warde, a British-born Shakespearean specialist who was 61 at the time and later starred in a silent “King Lear.” Warde appears in suit and tie at the beginning and end before a curtain, bowing ceremoniously to the camera. A certain knowledge of the chronology and text will be helpful to viewers, as even this highly simplified version of one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays could prove a bit baffling to the uninitiated.
Action begins with a victory march after the battle of Tewksbury, with Richard’s brother Edward entering London as the first king of the York dynasty. Pictorialization of the play’s highlights subsequently concentrates on the key moments in the bloody career of Richard, here referred to in the intertitles and credits as the Duke of Gloster, rather than Gloucester, including his murder of King Henry VI, the assassinations of his brother Clarence and the young princes Edward and York, the death of the sickly King Edward, Richard’s ascension to the throne and, after a dream in which his victims accuse him, his eventual defeat at Bosworth Field at the hands of the Earl of Richmond.
Each sequence is covered by a camera that remains fixed in medium-long shots save for an occasional slight pan to accommodate actors’ movements. Nor is there editing between different set-ups once a scene has begun except for cutaways to insert shots of letters and official documents.
Warde performs in a fist-pounding, glaring style that seems broad today, but remains entertaining nonetheless, as Warde’s Richard clearly pursues villainy for the fun and sport of it. Actor’s most memorable touch has him running his fingers along his sword after running through the elderly King Henry VI and then flicking the blood off them. Helmer James Keane enthusiastically portrays the drama’s savior, Richmond.
Shot on City Island in Long Island Sound and in Westchester County, N.Y., pic features some large sets, of varying realism, and quite a few extras in the crowd scenes. Battle sequences, however, are quite thinly populated. Print features some tinted scenes, mainly in caramel and green. Re-premiere was enhanced by an excellent original score by Robert Israel and played by the composer and a seven-piece ensemble.