By Stephanie Star Smith
April 1, 2003
The tale of Richard III is retold by Hollywood in a less lyrical, but no less compelling, manner than Master Will employed in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Starring Basil Rathbone as the man who would be king and Boris Karloff as his right-hand henchman, Mord, Tower of London takes a more visual tack than does Shakespeare's epic tragedy, providing less insight into Richard's scheming mind but more action and romance than the literary classic. Rathbone is also decidedly less humpbacked than the Duke of Gloucester is normally portrayed; in fact, it seems he left Mord to carry the burden of physical deformity, in this case a severe club foot. But the twisted intellect is very much intact, and the plotting Richard undertakes to ascend to the throne is more immediate and accessible, and thus more compelling. And except for little divergences here and there, the history is still mostly intact; there's no need for much embellishment when the actual history so fraught with intrigue, betrayal and bloodshed.
So why should modern audiences care?
One reason is the historic tale itself. If a studio received a script where an ambitious duke bent on ascending to the throne killed one of his brothers, sent the queen mother into exile, jailed or murdered all noblemen who wouldn't swear an oath of loyalty to him, then called into question the legitimacy of the heir to the throne before murdering the prince and the prince's brother, who are not only the duke's cousins but well under the age of majority, it would be rejected outright as too fantastic to be believed. And yet this is how Richard III came to be king of England.
Then there's Basil Rathbone. Before becoming Sherlock Holmes to much of the world, Rathbone played mainly heavies, and Richard III is perhaps one of the great villains in English literature. The malevolence-wrapped-in-charm that Rathbone wields like a rapier is amazing to watch. Especially chilling is the solicitousness Rathbone/Richard displays towards Edward V, for whom he has been appointed regent and who is the last impediment to his ascension. He has already started the rumors that Edward V is not legitimate; it is also becoming clear Richard does not intend that the boy ever sit the throne.
And although Boris Karloff's Mord is made up of whole cloth from a historical standpoint, his character serves as an interesting counterpoint to Richard. More disfigured than Richard, Mord is only slightly less sadistic, although more overtly so. He has a fierce and unquestioning loyalty to his master that leads to a particularly touching scene between Mord and the young princes he has been sent to murder. Karloff has an affinity for portraying the compassionate side of monsters, both human and paranormal, and it is well on display in this sequence.
But probably the best reason to watch Tower of London is it's an entertaining way of learning a bit about England's history, and a ripping good yarn in its own right.