Who can deny that for his time, Laurence Olivier was the absolute pioneer in Shakespeare adaptations for the screen.
This masterfully crafted boxed-set by Criterion contains three of his best versions of the Bard.
The first is "Henry V", filmed during WWII, and as such it reflects a bit of the mood and the propaganda needs,
that were prevailing in England during those days.
Despite of this, Olivier shows us filming techniques, which for those days, were considered revolutionary.
Of course the speeches are held for an audience in need for motivation and are far less naturalistic than, say,
in Kenneth Branagh's own version.
Yet, the entire production, which actually starts on a stage at the "Globe" Theater in Shakespeare's times, just
to slowly switch to actual exterior shots (especially in the final Agincourt Battle), runs smoothly and very
Names such as Robert Newton, Leslie Banks, Leo Genn, Esmond Knight and many other famous British actors of the
time grace and crowd the screen with powerful performances.
The DVD transfer, at least to me, seems extremely well done.
Sharp images, vivid colors and details that on a VHS tape and even on the Laserdisc looked somewhat washed out
are now fully restored to their original showing vision.
The sound is impeccable, despite being in Mono, it is now more rounded up and fuller than previous versions
The second is "Hamlet", in which Olivier truly takes center stage, both as a director and as an actor.
This one is in Black and White, but due to the gloomy and complex subject involving the title character, it seems
very appropriate and adds to the "gray" mood that pervades the whole plot.
By now, Hamlet had already established himself as a leading actor and this is even felt in his directing of this
movie. One can feel his confidence with the subject, as well as with the optical side and visual depiction of scenes.
This time Elsinore is represented as a rocky island in the midst of nowhere, in a somewhat surrealist vision of
Denmark, surrounded by depressing fog. Rare are the clear and sunny days.
All this contributes to a scene of uneasiness and impending doom looming on everyone involved.
The cast again, is worthy of mention, with again Leslie Banks, Esmond Knight and Niall MacGinnis, almost carried
over from "Henry V" as competent Shakespearean actors, and adding later screen household names such as Patrick Troughton
(appearing later in Hammer movies), Anthony Quayle (Lawrence of Arabia, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Guns of Navarone),
Peter Cushing (another Hammer star and the original Doctor Who, as well as starring in Star Wars), Stanley Holloway
and Jean Simmons.
Again, and like the above, the Digital restoration and transfer are impeccable with smooth contrast variations and its
sound has been greatly improved, compared to earlier versions.
Dialogues are very clear and the sound effects are somewhat discreetly enhanced.
The third and final selection, can be considered to this day, Olivier's masterpiece: "Richard III" in a double-DVD version.
This is not your usual screen adaptation, but the dark look in an even darker corner of one of Shakespeare's more hated, and
at the same time, loved characters ever written on paper.
If one would set aside the historic figure of Richard III Plantagenet for a moment and take this, as his stereotyped and
simplified alter ego, then one could immediately jump into the character as depicted in this Elizabethan Drama.
Olivier's vision is impeccable, starting as he does, from the ending of "Henry VI" and dragging us swiftly by the hand, into
the plots and handlings of the Man who wanted a Crown, a Kingdom and ultimately be, the sole ruler of England.
Taking as a true premise and excuse the fact, that he was the legal Plantagenet heir to the throne, and therefore the only
true legitimate contender for this title, he then operates his plots.
But poor Richard makes a fatal mistake. He belongs to a long bygone era of battlefield warriors, absolutely not well versed
in diplomatic backstabbing and as such totally unfit to play such games.
The entire plot is revealed to us step by step and we are involved in it, as co-conspirators.
The decision by Olivier to address the Camera (therefore us), every time he is about to dispatch someone to his doom, was a
very risky one, but one that paid off handsomely, considering that he pulls us in with him, into the play and never to let us
In the end, at the resolution of the movie, one cannot but feel pity for this man's ultimate demise, precisely because by now,
we are one with the character.
As said, a very risky decision, but dramatically very clever and successful one.
Once again we are served with a cast worthy of such a movie. Starting from Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom and
Cedric Hardwicke, to Laurence Naismith and again Esmond Knight and John Laurie.
Add Stanley Baker, Michael Gough, Douglas Wilmer, Pamela Brown and Michael Ripper and you have some of the finest actors
assembled in one movie.
Like the other two, we are again served with an impeccable Digital remastering and transfer of the Film elements, and this
time, with more natural looking colors than ever and what seems to be a wide spectrum Digital Mono sound.
On Disc one you get the Movie, a very interesting and thorough commentary.
On Disc two you get an old, but highly informative and interesting interview with Laurence Olivier himself plus various
tiny gems and an essay by film historian Bruce Eder.
If one is really interested to watch true acting, good directing and well adapted versions of Shakespeare's plays, this
collection must be considered an insurmountable one.
It is an imperative one to have, even if you may have learned to appreciate newer versions of the same.
In such a case, they become a comparative study of what was, with what is and nevertheless a must for any scholar, or
passionate classic collector of movie gems such as these.