Caesar Must Die
“Restoration” is a lovely word—at least when applied to a work of art rather than, say, an unlamented dynasty—with its promise that a lost or damaged object can be given back in its original state. With cinematic restorations the effect can be uncanny, as if along with the film the whole surrounding era when the film was first shown were being retrieved. The last day of the New York Film Festival this year was marked by the unveiling of a restoration (undertaken by the Film Foundation) of such exceptional quality that many of those watching seemed positively dazed.
Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III is far from being a lost film, but over the years it has often been seen in abridged and faded versions, and even though a Criterion DVD that restored it to proper length was released eight years ago, nothing could prepare one for the impact of this film on a large screen in VistaVision dimensions, with colors impeccably balanced and a resplendent soundtrack audible in its most delicate nuances. A movie that has come to be taken for granted—that has been amusingly parodied (notably by Peter Sellers and Monty Python), and at times dismissed as a relic of old-school stodginess—could suddenly be experienced as if for the first time. The first time, for me and for most other spectators back in 1955, was in truth nothing like this. Many millions of viewers saw the film’s world premiere televised on NBC, abridged, in black and white, and interrupted by occasional messages on behalf of General Motors—a cultural milestone but a grossly inadequate presentation.
When it opened theatrically in New York, as Martin Scorsese pointed out in his introductory remarks at the festival screening, Richard III’s spacious splendor was reduced to the capacity of a small art theater. The VistaVision restoration reveals a film scaled to the proportions of a 1950s epic—a very British epic, certainly, dripping with suggestions of national heritage, taking the Crown of England as its central visual motif and stinting nothing in the way of brocade and heraldic trumpets and all-around ceremonious pageantry—and keenly aware of what visual expectations a moviegoer would have in the era of spectacles like Ivanhoe and The Egyptian and Helen of Troy.
The vibrant reds and yellows that fill the screen have the eye-popping brightness of a widescreen poster. The corridors and throne rooms through which we roam are not moldering stone heaps but as spick-and-span as a model castle just out of its Christmas wrappings. It’s a bright and sharply defined medieval world being offered up, suitable for the kind of untroubled heroism so notably absent from the proceedings. Richard III could not have been better chosen as a vehicle for undercutting the moral assumptions of most epics of that era, an effect only enhanced …