Friday, June 3, 2016

The Twice Lost and Found King: Richard III (1912)

The 1912 silent feature length* rendition of Richard III, based on the famous Shakespeare play, was once a lost film; so famously lost that one cannot read a book on early film predating its rediscovery without reading lament after lament of it's "permanently lost" status.  What was more famously lost?  The body of the actual man himself.  Finding a copy of a feature length nitrate (see film base) dating from 1912 was considered impossible; the most anyone could hope for were extra nitrate prints that could be spliced onto surviving ones to produce some motion from the film.  Finding the body of the actual man King Richard III was considered an even more remote possibility; something along the lines of finding evidence of a historical Camelot.  Since 1996 both have found.  

Original title card for the 1912 film

The car park in Leicester under which the actual remains of Richard III were found (Leicester Mercury)

The story of the rediscovery of the film is a bit ironic, since a full copy of the film emerged not all that far away from the modern movie mecca of the world, Hollywood CA; the film was just north in Portland, OR. all along.  A complete and well preserved copy was simply handed over to the American Film Institute in 1996.  It had been stored in the basement of a retired film projectionist for more than 30 years.  Only one feature length film was produced earlier in the U.S.--Oliver Twist--and it only survives in partial form.  Richard III was produced as a vehicle for well known Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde, whose presence as an actor in plain-clothes frames the film.  At a time when live stage plays of Shakespeare tended to be not so true to the source material; had been "Victorianized" (to use a royal description); this film does just the opposite.  It shows Shakespeare's Richard III, the last king in the Plantagenet line, unflinchingly.  He is, in the capable hands of Warde, both charming and utterly evil.  One point of interest, is that there is no playing up of the hunchback look of Richard, which actually, as it turns out, pretty much is what was discovered in the body of the king himself, of what he actually looked like in life.  The film does not use any Shakespearean dialog; rather the film follows the action within the plays acts faithfully.  Being literal to the source directions, meant that the film came out in a very stripped down fashion, despite it's lavish production features.  It presents the story starkly and with no concern about offending "delicacies" of the time.  

Warde as Richard in Richard III  (1912)
Historical portrait of the actual Richard III

While the film was rediscovered in 1996, one full year after Sir Ian McKellan's film version of the play hit the theaters; it would be a further 16 years before the body of the actual man himself would be discovered.  This came in 2012, in the city of Leicester, where he was found buried beneath a car park (parking lot). By 2014, DNA proved that the skeletal remains of the man with a curved spine and fatal battle injuries, were in fact, those of the last monarch in English history to die on the battle field. Richard did suffer from scoliosis, a form of curved spine, and he had a pretty severe case of it.  But, this DOES NOT produce a "hunchback" look in people who have it.  As it turns out, this is the only direction from the actual Shakespeare play that the film does not take up.  The rest of the 55 minute film, is completely and unapologetically faithful to the play.  It shows the murders of royal family members front and center--there is no off camera inference of murder or covering the violence with a curtain, which was the norm o of the day.  In fact, the film actually shows murder for murder's sake, even of the two young princes, completely.  The later, taking place in the infamous Tower of London, is shown in blue tints to emphasize it's extreme violence. For a brief second, the shear evil of the acts makes one forget that this is indeed a silent film dating from over 100 years ago.  

Associated Press photo of Richard III's remains before being removed from his original grave.

Another still of Warde as Richard III from the film.

Of course, history is written by the victors, and Shakespeare was the patron of the House of Tudor, so his "historical" plays had to reflect that newly founded royal house is every positive light and with a history that gave legitimacy to it's very existence.  However, a few facts about Richard III can not be denied, and it goes to what Shakespeare is likely to have gotten right.  At least three things found in the play, and shown so starkly in this film, have solid basis in history. One is that Richard did actively seek out the throne for himself after the death of his older brother King Edward IV. He had actually been placed in the official royal role of "Lord Protector of the Realm," since Edward's heir Edward V was only 12 years of age upon succeeding his father to the throne.  Many of the moves that he is known to have made after Edward the Fourth's death do point to extreme plotting,  and even complaisance in deaths.  However what we know of the hard  facts, they do not match the plotted death's from the play--and hence the film-- save possibly the last two. In light of how Henry VII came to the throne in the wake of the demise of the Houses of Lancaster and York, it is easy to see how Shakespeare would twist the facts to make Richard III appear to be a truly illegitimate ruler and monster to boot.  In fact, many of his actions, were monstrous, but not against his brothers.  

Warde as Richard III wooing Anne in the film

Actual bust of the historical Richard III based on a reconstruction of his recovered skull

A second fact that Shakespeare got right, was the disappearance of the two young princes at the Tower of London.  This was a fact that was too glaring and horrible to embellish on.  In the 1912 version of the film, the prince's are shown being strangled to death after their nightly prayers on Richard's direct orders.  If this 104 year old scene is shocking today; one can only imagine how it was received by audiences in 1912!  In reality, all that anyone knows is that the two princes were kept in the Tower of London awaiting the official coronation of 12 year old Edward V, and that they simply disappeared.  What is certain: there were persistent rumors of the location of their burial, suggesting that someone knew something solid about the deaths not being down to natural causes; and that allegations and fears of murder spread like wildfire after the disappearances.  Spreading even to France, who also had a very young king at the time.  That being said, not all sources cited Richard as being directly, or even indirectly, involved.  There were rumors that the murders occurred independent of Richard, by a person who wished to see him on throne.  What is known, is that two small skeletons were uncovered in 1674 in the area that they had long been rumored to have been buried all along by a stonemason remodeling the Tower at the time.  King Charles II had them placed in Westminster Abbey four years later, assuming they were the bodies of Edward and his younger brother who was also named Richard.  The bones were disinterred in 1933, examined and measured, then reburied.  No further disturbance has been made since, so, of course, no DNA samples have been obtained.  The problem with these types of "historical facts" verses the "propaganda facts" put out during the early years of Tudor rule, is that they look good on the surface, but blur easily upon further scrutiny.  These two bodies were not the first children's skeletons discovered in the Tower.  Another set of skeletons had been uncovered earlier in a walled up chamber.  To make matters worse, a couple of unaccounted for coffins were found in the burial chamber of Edward IV and his Queen in St George's Cathedral.  At first it was thought that the caskets, though unnamed, were for two of their children who had died in childhood before the demise of Edward and historically accounted for:  George 1st Duke of Bedford--died aged 2, and Mary of York--died aged 14.  But a later excavation in the early 19th century to provide room for the house of King George III turned up two additional (and traditional) lead lined coffins marked with the names of George and Mary; leaving a huge mystery as to who the children were in the coffins originally thought to be these two children.  Given the tomb was for Edward and his wife Elizabeth, speculation sparked that the two princes had been disinterred from the tower and properly laid to rest with their parents.  But who would do this??  Richard III???  What is known, is that these coffins do not match any burial records for children of the royal couple that died within their lifetimes, and again, the caskets bear no names.  This leaves a huge mystery that would require a royal decree from Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II to investigate, which has not been granted; but then again, no formal request has been made.

Warde as Richard III utilizing a fully working set in Richard III (1912)

Richard III body reconstructed in lab, showing spine curvature. Photo: BBC

The third thing that is absolutely undisputed as a fact in Richard III's life that Shakespeare gets right, is actually the manner of his death.  Richard III the 1912 film was very sophisticated in it's use of outdoor filming, complete with actual processions, boats and even battle scenes--staged fully with actual horses.  In the film, we see Richard's death at Bosworth, in full riotous gear.  Henry Tudor AKA the Earl of Richmond in the film is his killer; Richmond, who looks more the grinning villain than Richard III does, has an expression as if he just got away with one big crime from which he knows he will benefit. The role is played by the person most directly responsible for the film's existence, writer/director James Keane.  He is the one who adapted the play to the script, and he was the shadow director.  It is unclear what he means to convey by having the future King Henry VII appear in the film with such vicious features and wild over-acting.  At first, the viewer is tempted to just assume he's simply bad at acting; but upon repeat viewings I do not believe this to be the case.  I do think that he is deliberately leaving wiggle room for a lurking menace below the surface of the grandfather of Elizabeth I.  This having been said, the real death of King Richard III at Henry Tudor's "hand" at Bosworth turned out to be right on par with what is in the play, and hence the film, save that Henry probably didn't strike any of the blows that lead to the king's death.  When found, the body bore more than a dozen life-threatening wounds.  A clear and very large laceration is visible in his left temporal lobe, this wound alone could have sent him to his grave.  Additionally, he had a large hole in the back of his skull, clearly a wound by some type of mace.  It was a fact:  Richard III was the last English king to die in battle; he was killed on 22 August 1485, he was 32 years of age.  He was buried in the floors of the little church that served the small community near by.  Over time the location of the original church was lost, and it was assumed by most to be lost for all time.  After research revealed that history had gotten the location of the actual battle wrong, a small group of dedicated individuals from several walks of life, gathered themselves in effort to uncover the proper locations of the other historical buildings and landmarks from the 15th century.  This quest, of course, paid off beyond most people's expectations.

Active battle scene from the film

The reburial of the actual body of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral

Finding a complete copy of a nearly hour long film on nitrate in good condition 84 years after it's release is close to unheard of, as nitrate has many ways of deteriorating.  Finding the body of a king that had almost passed into myth 527 years after his death and hasty burial, is a near miracle. The film was restored and given a full premiere cycle in both New York and Los Angeles.  Later, the completely restored print was released on DVD by Kino, with a new score by famed movie composer Ennio Morricone. The king was sealed into the traditional lead lined casket and reburied in Leicester Cathedral after a 3 days of allowing the public to pay their respects.  He was given a full reburial ceremony, with at least one member of the current royal family in attendance--Sophie the Countess of Wessex.  His casket was borne by a guard of honour drawn from successor Army regiments that fought at Bosworth (both sides).  Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a distant relative of of the king, read a poem written for the occasion by the current British poet Laureate.  His tomb was then sealed and revealed to the public the following day.

*feature length is usually described in terms of time length and being longer than 40 minutes

Leicester Cathedral re-burial market, noting the location of Richard III's original grave.

Frederick Warde, in plain clothes, taking a bow at the end of the film.
For More See:

Wikipedia  page for Richard III

Wikipedia page for the Princes in the Tower

Wikipedia page of Henry VI

Wikipedia  for the film

University of Leicester Full interactive history of discovery of the king's grave.

BBC Article detailing the reburial of the king

1996 New York Times Article on the discovery of the film.

Viewing:  the PBS episode "Resurrecting Richard" for the series Secrets Of The Dead.


  1. Hello Its Emily Thanks for writing- This is the most interesting post I have read today! So many amazing parallels between the Man himself and the film- SO incredible that both were found. As you can guess I'm really into History- especially British Monarchy- (haha- hence the blogathon theme!) and this was such an interesting read. I remember reading on twitter when they founf the body thinking "wow- the great king Richard under a parking lot". You did a fantastic job researching! Thanks again for writing X Emily

    1. Emily, thank you so much (wado!--it's Cherokee, just means thanks). I am obviously a silent movie nut, but just couldn't pass up the chance to compare the two. I remember when the film was "found"--more like dropped off (like Goodwill). Then finally, the grave of Richard III was found, I was just OMG!! I am glad that he had a proper funeral, even the Queen made a statement (and I completely understand why she didn't attend!). If you love history, I highly recommend the Secrets of the Dead episode, not to be missed, if you haven't already seen it. I learned so much from it when it was first broadcast. I am enjoying everyone's posts on the blogathon that I have managed to read so far! I home-school my son, so it will take some time, but will get to all of them. Thanks again for hosting!

  2. That was fascinating! Both the stories of finding the film and the body are great and nearly unbvelievable. I'm glad both have been recovered. You wrote a splendid article!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed it. I will be sure to read yours, and everyone else's contributions! :-) I home school my special needs son, so I little behind on reading up. Will get there though!

  3. Wow! Warde certainly looked the part (too old, but still)!

    This was a wonderful read, as a combination film and history buff, I loved it and the parallels between the lost king and the lost film. I was glued to that episode of Secrets of the Dead when it first aired, and I might give it a watch again soon because of this.

    I haven't seen the film, but it sounds interesting and very much worth looking into.

    Great post! Really wonderful!

    1. Wado! Thank you so much. I love that episode, the young man that they get to train in the armour and the horse-borne battle training! Watched it again, while writing this. Thanks again!

  4. This was a really interesting and informative read. I love silent films so I definitely need to check this out. Thanks so much for the great article.

    I'm also hosting a blogathon, and would love to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details.

    1. Wado/Thank you! If you watch the film, let me know what you think of it. I would love to be a part of your blogathon, give me a day or two to work up a title. I home school my son, and I have another blogathon entry at the end of the month--I'm a bit slow. I'll get back with you shortly. Thanks for the invitation!