10 Film Portrayals of Richard III | History Hit

10 Film Portrayals of Richard III

Sally Hawkins and Harry Lloyd in 'The Lost King'

The Lost King hit UK cinemas in October 2022, telling the story of Philippa Langley during the search that led to the discovery of Richard III’s grave under a car park in Leicester. Richard III makes several appearances in the movie. The medieval king died at the age of 32 at the Battle of Bosworth, but is frequently portrayed as significantly older.

Here are 10 actors who have portrayed Richard III on screen.

Richard III (1912)

This joint project between French filmmaker André Calmettes and American playwright James Keane resulted in a 55-minute silent film that adapted Shakespeare’s Richard III for the silver screen. It was lost, but rediscovered in 1996 and is believed to be the oldest American feature-length film and the first feature film adaptation of Shakespeare.

The part of Richard was played by Frederick Warde, an English Shakespearean actor who had moved to the States in the late 19th century. A pioneer of moving pictures, he retired before sound motion pictures became mainstream. When he played Richard, Warde was 62.

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Tower of London (1939)

Tower of London is a black-and-white film. It follows the Shakespearean view of Richard III as he works with an executioner named Mord to eliminate rival claimants to the throne. On the death of his brother he becomes King Richard III, his only remaining rival being the exiled Henry Tudor.

The part of Richard is played in Tower of London by Basil Rathbone, an English Shakespearean actor who appeared in more than 70 movies, most famously for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in several films. Rathbone received a Tony Award for his work on stage, was nominated for two Academy Awards, and has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Richard III (1955)

Directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, this production of Shakespeare’s Richard III is amongst the most famous and celebrated film adaptations of the Bard’s works. The initial release in 1955 was followed by a US re-release in 1966 which broke box office records. The prologue to the film points out that history without legends would be ‘a dry matter indeed’, signposting the artistic licence Shakespeare took with the story of Richard III.

Sir Laurence Olivier is amongst the most famous Shakespearean actors of the 20th century. His film credits are long and impressive and he received 4 Academy Awards, 2 British Academy Awards, 5 Emmys and 3 Golden Globes, as well as a knighthood and life peerage.

Tower of London

Although it shares a name with the 1939 film, this was not a remake. It mixes elements of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Macbeth to create a gothic horror movie starring Vincent Price as Richard III. The plot involves Edward IV appointing his brother George as Protector in his death (George had been executed by Edward five years earlier). An ambitious Richard stabs George, blames the Woodville family, and, encouraged by his wife Anne, takes the throne.

Horror legend Vincent Price appeared in films from 1938 to 1990, and also provided the monologue for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Price has two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, one for film and one for TV.

Richard III (1994)

In the early 1990s, the BBC created 12 half-hour animated adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. The first episode of the second series was ‘Richard III’. Using a paint on glass technique of animation, the character of Richard III was voiced by Sir Anthony Sher.

Amongst Antony Sher’s awards are 2 Laurence Olivier Awards. In 2017, King Charles III, then Prince of Wales, said that Sher was his favourite actor. He was 45 when this version of Richard III was first aired.

Richard III (1995)

Shakespeare’s Richard III was again at the centre of a movie adaptation with an all-star cast. The film sets the play in 1930s Britain, with Richard portrayed by Ian McKellen as a fascist leader seeking to steal the throne. It is perhaps the darkest portrayal of Richard III, likening him to the Nazi leaders of Germany.

Ian McKellen at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con International

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The cast also includes Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jnr, Nigel Hawthorne, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominic West, Tim McInnerny and Dame Maggie Smith.

Looking For Richard (1996)

Part documentary, part recording of portions of Shakespeare’s Richard III, this production was Al Pacino’s directorial debut, and also saw him play the character Richard III. The aim was to lead an audience through the plot and themes of Shakespeare’s play with scenes woven through the narrative in order to increase the play’s accessibility.

The White Queen (2013)

The White Queen is a BBC serialisation of Philippa Gregory’s novels in The Cousins’ War series. It covers the Wars of the Roses and offers the first more positive portrayal of Richard III in our list so far. In this interpretation, Richard is not blamed for the deaths of the Princes in the Tower, though he is positioned as planning to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York.

Aneurin Barnard was aged just 26 when The White Queen hit screens, making him by far the youngest actor to portray Richard III in the list so far.

Richard III of England is one of medieval history's most controversial figures. Known to many as a tyrant, a sleazy, greedy king who even murdered his nephew. But how much of this is true?
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The Hollow Crown (2016)

Shown on the BBC in two series, the first focusing on Shakespeare’s Richard II to Henry V, and the second on the Wars of the Roses, The Hollow Crown returned to a more traditional Shakespearean portrayal of Richard III. The depiction of Richard passed up an opportunity to reasonably represent his scoliosis. Richard III was played by Benedict Cumberbatch, reportedly a second cousin 16 times removed of Richard.

The Lost King (2022)

The Lost King tells the story of Philippa Langley, the woman who was the driving force behind the discovery of Richard’s lost grave in Leicester in 2012. As Philippa searches for evidence of the precise location of Richard’s grave, her internal monologue is presented to viewers by Richard III.

‘The Lost King’ display at The Wallace Collection

Image Credit: © The Wallace Collection

This is perhaps the most positive presentation of Richard III on our list, though he is not the real focus of the movie. He is funny, charming and likeable. The king is played by Harry Lloyd, whose other credits include playing Viserys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. Lloyd was aged 38 when the movie reached cinemas.

A wronged king?

Of the ten portrayals of Richard III on this list, all but two are negative, mostly following Shakespeare’s dramatic presentation. The ages of the actors listed when they played Richard ranges from 26 to 62. The average is 47 years old. For a man who died aged 32, that suggests the Richard III we see on film is most often far removed from the real historical figure.

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Matt Lewis