US Release Date: 10-27-1948
Directed by: Laurence Olivier
- Laurence Olivier, as
- Jean Simmons, as
- Basil Sydney, as
- Eileen Herlie, as
- Norman Wooland, as
- Felix Aylmer, as
- Terence Morgan, as
- John Laurie, as
- Esmond Knight, as
- Anthony Quayle, as
- Niall MacGinnis, as
- Sea Captain
- Peter Cushing, as
- Stanley Holloway, as
- Russell Thorndike, as
- Christopher Lee, as
- Spear Carrier
- Desmond Llewelyn as
Laurence Olivier as Hamlet.
Of the more than fifty filmed versions of Shakespeare's most famous play that have been made since 1900, Laurence Olivier's 1948 adaptation remains the most celebrated. It was the first English language sound film version of Hamlet. It was the first non-American film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture as well as being the first to also win the Golden Lion at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. In addition, Olivier remains the only actor to win an Oscar for a Shakespearean role and he was the first person to direct themselves to an acting Oscar (Roberto Benigni is, to date, the only other person to achieve this, for Life is Beautiful). Olivier lost the Best Director Oscar to John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
This version of Hamlet has lost some of its luster over the years chiefly because of Olivier's decision to omit almost half of the four hour play's dialogue. While other versions have edited Shakespeare's words, Olivier cut two of its most famous characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He chose to downplay the political angle while focusing more on the psychological aspects of the story (whereas other versions make it clear that Hamlet is playing crazy to fool his uncle, Olivier's interpretation makes him seem truly mad). He also said he did it to cut down on the running time. However, subsequent versions that included Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (including the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson version) have run shorter than this movie's still quite lengthy two and a half hours.
Another criticism is directed towards one line of voice-over narration that occurs at the beginning of the movie. Olivier sums up (some would say overly simplifies) the play's theme for the audience by saying, “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”
In his review for Mel Gibson's version Scott brought up the fact that Glenn Close was just nine years older than Gibson while playing Hamlet's mother Gertrude and that the Oedipal angle was played up strongly. That's nothing compared to this version. Laurence Olivier was forty when he made this movie. Eileen Herlie was a mere twenty-eight when she played Gertrude. And she shares several decidedly non-mother like kisses with Hamlet while wearing a low cut dress revealing her ample bosom.
There are two things that Olivier did very well however. The first is how he successfully cinematized (is that a word?) the play. He made great use of the innovative deep focus photography that had been recently used to great effect by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and William Wyler in The Little Foxes. The cavernous sets with steep and narrow winding staircases combined with sharp angles and deep shadows gives the movie a German Expressionist feel mixed with a bit of film noir style.
Then there is Olivier's central performance as that most morose Danish prince. He had an electrifying presence onscreen, and he delivered his lines with a razor sharp enunciation. A brooding melancholy permeates his performance which he contrasts with bursts of anger and outrage. The bloody finale is quite gripping. The highlight being his delivery of the line, “Then venom do thy work!” before leaping from a tower onto Uncle Claudius.
This was the last scene filmed for the movie for fear that Olivier would hurt himself performing the perilously high leap. He landed uninjured but the stunt double playing Claudius was knocked unconscious and lost two teeth from the impact.
Jean Simmons (like Olivier wearing a blonde wig) gave her only performance in a Shakespearean role here. She acquits herself well as the doomed Ophelia and was in fact Oscar nominated in the Supporting Actress category. The remainder of the cast includes many famous, or soon to be famous, British actors. Trivia buffs will also note this was the very first of many films in which both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appeared.
As a long, black & white film of a Shakespearean play, Laurence Olivier's Hamlet may seem like a nightmare to many modern viewers, but anyone with the patience to sit through it will discover a brilliantly rewarding movie experience as well as a unique interpretation of the Bard's most celebrated work.
Laurence Olivier as Hamlet.
Hamlet is one of the few plays I have read many times over. It is filled with so many quotable lines that it's no wonder that it is Shakespeare's most famous work. I have also seen several film adaptations, including this one many years ago. Could there be, I wondered, anything new for me to glean from it by watching it one more time? Turns out there was something new for me. For the first time, despite him being the tragic hero of the piece, I realized fully just how much of an asshole Hamlet really is.
Although he is often played by an older actor, as he is here by a 40 year old Olivier, and the text even implies that he is 30 years old, he is written and behaves like a teenager. Young adults are notoriously self-obsessed, seeing themselves as the center of the universe, and no character in literature has ever been as self-obsessed as Hamlet. And Olivier plays him with little sympathy. When the play begins, Hamlet mourns his father's death and scorns his mother, "Frailty thy name is woman!", but never does he consider things from her point of view. An aging widow, whose husband is dead and whose son's path to power has been usurped. By marrying the new king, she retains a grip on that power and insures her son's succession to the crown. All Hamlet can see is that she's moved on too quickly and with the oft played-up Oedipus angle, which Olivier uses again here, he is jealous that another man has taken his place in her heart.
Even the most celebrated soliloquy in the English language is all about "me, me, me". "To be or not to be?" Hamlet poses the question, but like an emo teen, he has no intention of going through with it. As soon as he broaches the subject, he finds a reason not to do it. "Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all." It's all a pose. He dresses in black and talks about suicide and death. You can hardly swing a dead cat in any high school in America without hitting half-a-dozen such teens.
Once the ghost of Hamlet's dead father appears, Hamlet proclaims that he will now seek revenge. So what's the first thing he does? He pretends to go mad. Olivier plays this angle down really. His madness is limited to a little moping. But what purpose does his false madness serve other than to keep Hamlet at the center of attention, because he can't bear it any other way. It's all about, "Look at me! Look at me!" Nothing in his madness aids him in his revenge against his Uncle. Instead, he uses it as an excuse to break-up with Ophelia and then murder her father.
At Ophelia's graveside he once again demonstrates his need for attention and demands that his grief be taken more seriously than Laertes's--Ophelia's brother--grief. "Damn it, show me what you’re going to do for her. Will you cry? Fight? Stop eating? Cut yourself? Drink vinegar? Eat a crocodile? I’ll do all that. Did you come here to whine? To outdo me by jumping into her grave so theatrically? To be buried alive with her? So will I." Naturally he does none of those things of course, but he sure wants everyone to know that he could do those things if he wanted to. And when Laertes grabs him roughly, Hamlet proclaims in all surprise, "What is the reason that you use me thus? I loved you ever." Hmm, let's see. You killed his father and drove his sister mad. If this is how you love him, it's good thing you didn't hate him.
Prior to the film's climactic battle. Hamlet "apologizes" for his actions that might have hurt Laertes, saying, "What I have done That might your nature, honor and exception Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness. Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet. If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away, And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes, Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. Who does it then? His madness." Except this apology is so blatantly false because in Act I, Scene V, Hamlet proclaims that, "As I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on." Meaning he's going to fake being mad, which makes his madness excuse to Laertes a crock of bullshit. The entire motivation of the play is Hamlet seeking revenge for the death of his father, while he himself is the murderer of another's man father, a crime he does his best to go unpunished for. Taking it even further, some scholars have surmised that Ophelia is actually pregnant by Hamlet (this is all read between the lines stuff and based on the fact that the herb rue was used in abortions at the time, and when Ophelia is passing out the flowers, she keeps rue for herself), and driven to suicide by him, thus, under this theory, he could said to also be the murderer of his own unborn child.
It's interesting that although I've seen several actors play Hamlet, it is only Olivier's performance that made me dislike the character and see his selfishness. Note the scene when Hamlet is approached about the duel. Hamlet, who just in the previous scene was proclaiming that his grief was greater than Laertes' could ever hope to be, is suddenly in a playful mood as he banters with the courtier sent to deliver the message. There's just something about Olivier's performance that comes across as smug.
As for Olivier's decision of what to trim, clearly something had to go. I blame Tom Stoppard for modern audiences noticing the absence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Ever since that great playwright pronounced them dead in the play of the same name, these minor characters have taken on a greater significance. I think Olivier should be commended for keeping so much of the story and meaning of the play intact, while trimming it down to a manageable length.
Visually, Olivier produced something quite stark and visually striking. As Patrick noted, it's expressionist in nature and although nearly the entire story is filmed in the same castle with a bare minimum of furniture and props, there's is always something interesting to look at on the screen.
I agree with Patrick that watching this film is a rewarding experience. It's also a thought provoking one, even if the thoughts it provoked in me on this viewing came as a surprise to me. This isn't just the Bard's most celebrated work, but probably the most celebrated work in the history of the written word. It's certainly the most quoted.
Laurence Olivier and Terence Morgan cross swords in Hamlet
You will not read this from many critics about their own writing but I always feel unqualified to review a film based on a Shakespeare play. It is not that I am unable to see the beauty in the dialogue but he always took so long to say so little. Is it that I am not intellectual enough to comprehend it all? Perhaps, but before you climb on that high horse, remember that Shakespeare wrote for the masses and not the educated elite. It would be like a few hundred years from now, the intellectuals of the time embracing Rap songs and treating them like something to hold up, decipher and evaluate in every detail..
I cracked myself up in the first scene when one of the guards remarks, after seeing the ghost of Hamlet's father, "There is something rotten in the state of Denmark." In my mind, I recalled an episode from the Golden Girls where one of the ladies says that line only to have another yell, "It's their cheese!" Oh come on. A few minutes later we have the, "A lender nor a borrower be." scene and I was reminded of a Gilligan's Island episode. I also laughed when Hamlet is being told about his father's ghost and one man tells him, "...the morning cock crowed loud and at the sound shrunk away..." It happens to all men. Okay, so sometimes my sense of humor belongs on a thirteen year old but it elevated my enjoyment of this film. The final scene is hilarious as two men in tights point their manly bulges at each other and then slowly touch the tips of their swords together.
As far as the details of this version go, I thought I would find it a nightmare to watch such a slow paced, two and a half hour black and white historical drama in which half the dialogue means little or nothing to me but it grew on me. I agree with Patrick about the look of the film. The castle and all of its rooms, stairs and ramparts are like a maze, often covered in fog, hiding mystery and deceit.
As Scott noted, Hamlet has some of the most memorable of all Shakespearean lines and not just because I heard them on television sitcoms. "Murder most foul." and "The lady doth protest too much." are but a couple. Even if you are not a Shakespearean scholar you will likely recognize one or two verses, if not several.
As for Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, I enjoyed his "Get thee to a nunnery." scene. He truly plays him as insane. There is a hint of sexual longing in his performance. He is turned on by Ophelia. Note how he sniffs her hair. She is a weakness of his and wants her distraction gone. I was very bothered by the ages. Hamlet looks as old as his own mother. This is most obvious in the scene where he confronts his mother about her transference of love from his father to his uncle. We get a close up of both faces and each has as many wrinkles as the other. Even miscast, the scene remains explosively dramatic.
I was not looking forward to watching this movie but I ended up enjoying it more than I expected to. It is just too good of a story with such amazing lines not to find something to like in it. I like Mel Gibson's Hamlet better but he was still too old for the part. I would like to see a version where Hamlet is played by a younger actor. It may not make the story better but his self centered moping might seem more appropriate.
Photos © Copyright Two Cities Films (1948)