Tag Archives: Laurence Olivier

My Thoughts on: Spartacus (1960)

Thanks to my parents I watched my fair share of epic films growing up. The big three that we would watch at least once a year were Ben-Hur (1959), The Ten Commandments (1956) and Spartacus (1960). The latter is set out as a (very loose) retelling of the story of Spartacus (a real person by the way), who led a slave revolt in Capua that became known to history as the Third Servile War.

I used to have very mixed feelings about Spartacus. When I was little, the first half of this film used to bore me to tears because it was a lot of talking about things I didn’t understand while the “fun part” (all the fighting) didn’t happen until later. Now that I’m older, of course, I can appreciate the politics and intrigue that take up a big chunk of Spartacus. I particularly appreciate the political wrangling that takes place between Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and Crassus (Laurence Olivier). It’s especially amusing to watch them fight over the loyalty of Julius Caesar, as if both of them seem to realize how important the man will become in the future (keep in mind, at THIS point in history Caesar isn’t all that important just yet).

The story of Spartacus himself is always one of my favorite parts to watch. Watching him get trained to be a gladiator, it’s clear early on that something is going to give eventually, since Spartacus is singled out for particularly abusive treatment. And when the last straw is finally reached, everything explodes in epic fashion. If you’ve been paying attention, you feel like cheering when Spartacus’ primary tormentor gets what is coming to him. And after that, watching Spartacus organize the rebels into a pretty efficient army is fun to watch also. In fact, things go so well that (if you didn’t know your history) you’d be forgiven for thinking this story has a happy ending for the slaves, because they come within a whisker of reaching freedom forever. But…history went differently and when the climactic battle sequence comes, Stanley Kubrick did not shy away from showing the awful aftermath.

Seriously, the ending when all of the surviving slaves are crucified is difficult to watch. And yes, for the record, that really happened. The real Crassus, wanting to set an example for any other slaves who might be getting ideas, had all of the survivors crucified along the Appian Way and the crosses stood by the side of the road for YEARS afterward. Despite the horrifically dark ending, there is one bright spot in the form of Varinia (Jean Simmons) slipping away to Aquitania with the newborn son of Spartacus. What’s more, Spartacus gets to see his son (who will grow up free) just for a moment before he dies, which is one of the things he wanted most in the world. At least he can go to his grave knowing his son and the woman he loves will live their lives in freedom.

I should mention the version of the film I saw is the most recently restored version released on blu-ray and 4K. This means that this film includes a scene restored in the early 1990s, where Crassus talks to Antoninus (Tony Curtis) about “oysters and snails” which is apparently a metaphor for sexual preferences, though for my part the analogy went over my head for years until someone explained it to me. The thing is, when they reinserted that scene, the audio track had been lost and Laurence Olivier had died in 1989. So….for that scene only, the voice of Crassus is provided by Anthony Hopkins, as Olivier’s widow remembered that Hopkins had once done a dead-on impression of her husband. That being said, if you listen close, you can hear the difference. It’s a good impression, but it’s not quite the same. Still, I can appreciate that it allowed an important scene to be restored to the film.

It doesn’t even bother me that the film gets a number of historical details wrong. For instance, that whole thing about Crassus becoming First Consul of Rome? Nah, it didn’t happen like that. Gracchus (one of my favorite characters) wasn’t even a real person, he was an amalgamation of several people that lived DECADES before the Third Servile War ever happened. And of course, the famous “I’m Spartacus” scene didn’t happen either, as it happens the body of the real Spartacus was never found. However, as I’ve said, I’ve never let these issues bother me because the storytelling is so good I’m more than willing to just enjoy myself.

Spartacus is definitely one of those films you must see before you die, and that remains true over 60 years later.

Let me know what you think about Spartacus in the comments below and have a great day!

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My thoughts on: Richard III (1955)


Of all of Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare films, my absolute favorite remains Richard III (1955), one of the best (if not entirely complete) film renditions of the story. The play, as the title indicates, follows the titular Richard, brother of Edward IV (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) as he rises in power to become Richard III, last king of the Plantagenet dynasty. The cast is full of talent, the principal players are as follows:

  • Richard III: Laurence Olivier
  • Edward IV: Sir Cedric Hardwicke
  • Clarence (brother of Edward and Richard): Sir John Gielgud
  • Duke of Buckingham: Sir Ralph Richardson
  • The Lady Anne (Richard’s wife): Claire Bloom
  • Henry, Earl of Richmond (Henry VII): Stanley Baker

From start to finish, Olivier’s Richard dominates the story. Similar to Iago in Othello, the future king hides his true motives from all but a few (namely the Duke of Buckingham his confidante) and to most of the court appears to be brusque, awkward, but a gentleman regardless. Nothing could be further from the truth: Richard more than anything wants the crown of England, but his brothers Edward and George, the Duke of Clarence (not to mention Edward’s sons) stand in his way. To achieve this goal, Richard resorts to murder, threats, and outright playacting to get what he wants.


Olivier’s acting is so versatile, it’s a delight to watch him at work. When he talks directly to the audience, as in the “Now is the winter of our discontent” monologue, he speaks as if he’s talking to a fellow conspirator. When he woos the Lady Anne, he lays the charm on so unbelievably thick that you almost believe he’s sincere…until Anne leaves and Richard reveals that this was all part of the plan. The only time Richard lets his ‘mask’ slip is when young Richard of York, his nephew, taunts him by saying that his uncle Richard should carry him on his humpbacked shoulder. This invokes one of the oldest storytelling tropes: no villain can stand to be mocked. Olivier created this moment from scratch, there’s no precedent for it in previous adaptations. In that moment, he turns and stares at young Richard with an absolute death glare, sending the young prince stumbling backward in fright. Oddly, no one else (except for maybe Buckingham) seems to catch this moment.


Another scene I like comes late in the story when Richard (with Buckingham’s help) has finally convinced the people to have him proclaimed king. As the people leave to prepare for the coronation, Buckingham walks up to congratulate his friend, only to be stopped short as Richard thrusts his hand out, signalling that Buckingham should instead kneel before him. It’s an abrupt moment, one that clearly shows that things are not as they were between the two.

I said at the beginning that this adaptation was not entirely complete and that’s because a lot of material is cut out. This is one of Shakespeare’s longer works, a complete performance would last upward of four hours, so for a film naturally some parts had to be cut out. One of the biggest changes is the removal of Queen Margaret (the widow of Henry VI) from the story. This is huge because Margaret’s ‘curses’ play a crucial role in the story. Also, the roles of the Duchess of York (Richard’s mother) and Queen Elizabeth (Edward IV’s wife) are severely reduced as well (you can see more of their performances in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses).

If you like Shakespeare on film, you will love Richard III. A fully restored copy can be bought from the Criterion Collection (in fact this was the first Criterion film I ever owned) and is well worth the price. Let me know what you think of Richard III in the comments below and have a great day 🙂

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My thoughts on: Othello (1965)

When I was in high school, I had to read several of Shakespeare’s plays for class. We read Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet; Macbeth; Julius Caesar and my favorite was Othello. This is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies and follows the ill-fated story of the titular character, a Moorish general serving the Duke of Venice who elopes with the beautiful Desdemona. Iago, a soldier who is bitter that Othello did not name him as his lieutenant, conspires to bring about the general’s downfall.

Of the Shakespeare works I’ve read, Othello is one of my favorites. Iago is a truly despicable villain, made more so by the fact that up until the final moments of the play, nobody realizes what he’s done and calls him “honest Iago.” The play has been adapted to film in English several times, but I think the best example is the 1965 film starring Laurence Olivier in the title role. The main cast is as follows:

  • Othello: Laurence Olivier
  • Desdemona: Maggie Smith (aka Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter)
  • Iago: Frank Finlay
  • Emilia (Iago’s wife): Joyce Redman
  • Michael Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant: Derek Jacobi (in his screen debut)
  • Robert Lang: Roderigo, a Venetian nobleman who wants to marry Desdemona even though her father already said no several times.


The first thing we must talk about in this version of the play is Olivier’s portrayal of the character. Controversially, remember this was the mid-1960s and the Civil Rights era was in full swing in the United States, Olivier plays the character in blackface from head to toe and also adopts a deep, booming voice. It seems shocking that an actor as well regarded as Laurence Olivier would do this, but in truth no offense was intended (though it would certainly not happen if the film were being made today). Actually, up until the 1990s, there was a long tradition (going back to the 1600s) of actors “blacking up” in order to play the Moorish general (this is because most interpreted “Moorish” to mean African and therefore dark skinned). This is not like some blackface that mocks Africans; Olivier plays it completely straight. Please don’t let this turn you off from watching this version of the play, Olivier’s performance is one for the ages (he earned an Oscar nomination for it).

In the story, after it’s revealed that Othello and Desdemona have eloped (to the shame and outrage of her father Brabantio), the Duke sends the general to Cyprus in order to deal with a Turkish fleet that is threatening the area. Desdemona accompanies him, as does Iago, Emilia and Michael Cassio, whom the aforementioned Iago is determined to ruin so that he might be lieutenant instead.


Manipulation is a big part of the story, particularly how Iago manipulates Othello to believe things that the audience knows are simply not true. For example, Iago begins by getting Cassio drunk and then has him purposefully provoked, knowing how the lieutenant will retaliate. He then spreads a lie that Cassio is like this often, and given the spectacle Cassio makes, Othello dismisses him from his service. But it gets worse: Iago then contrives to have his wife steal one of Desdemona’s handkerchiefs (one that her husband gave her) and ensures that it finds its way to Cassio’s hands. He ends up giving it to his mistress Bianca, but Iago tells Othello that it came straight from Desdemona’s hands, leading the general to believe that his faithful wife is sleeping with Cassio!

Iago is completely sure of himself for most of the story; he actually reminds me of Littlefinger in Game of Thrones. He manipulates everyone so well that no one realizes his connection to what has happened until the very end, when his wife puts two and two together and realizes Iago started everything. You will love Frank Finlay’s performance as Iago, he seems to be everywhere throughout the story (only Olivier has more screen time than he does).


This being a tragedy, it is no surprise when I say that Othello, Desdemona and Emilia end up dead. Having been whipped into a jealous frenzy, Othello smothers his wife and later commits suicide when the truth has been revealed to him. Emilia on the other hand, is murdered by Iago when she blurts out the truth to several witnesses (Iago tried to have Cassio murdered, but he survived albeit with a bad leg injury). Othello’s last scene is mesmerizing: this is a man who knows he’s killed a woman who was nothing but faithful to him and the guilt is eating him alive. Olivier pours all of his ethos into this performance.

The film is shot with minimal sets which are expanded from the sets used for a 1964 stage version of the play staged by the National Theatre Company. This is the first English-language version of the play to be filmed in color and also, of all Olivier’s Shakespeare films, the one with the least music. Except for one scene where the soldiers sing some drinking songs and some instruments are played, there is no music at all (contrast this with Richard III (1955) which has a HUGE score).

To conclude, if you want to see a masterful rendition of Othello, please check out this film. I don’t think anyone has done the story more justice than Laurence Olivier. If you’ve seen Olivier’s Othello, what did you think about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!

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