In the early 1500s, William Shakespeare wrote the most notable drama depicting the rise of King Richard III, a vile character who usurped the thrown and murdered children, but quite a while after Shakespeare penned his version Universal Pictures offered their own take when they paired Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff to depict this classic tale in a gripping film that would combine history, suspense, and a touch of horror.
The film revolves around the power-hungry Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone), who schemes and murders his way to the English throne. It is Richard’s insatiable thirst for power that drives him to eliminate all those who stand in his way, including his own family members, and as the bodies pile up the notorious Tower of London serves as the setting for his sinister deeds, with its labyrinthine corridors and secret chambers adding to the atmosphere of dread and intrigue. Aiding him in his journey of blood and regicide is the club-footed executioner Mord (Boris Karloff), a man who has no qualms about torture and is equally adept at swinging the headsman’s axe.
The filmmakers did a excellent job blending historical accuracy with elements of horror and suspense and while the script takes some rather big liberties with the historical events surrounding Richard III, Universal’s Tower of London does successfully captures the essence of the era, its political intrigues and the ruthless nature of the characters involved. It presents a grim and morally ambiguous world, one where treachery and violence often overshadow loyalty and honour. Of course it can’t be all murder and torture so the film also has a nice little love tryst between Lady Alice Barton (Nan Grey) and John Wyatt (John Sutton), as a couple who simply want permission from King Edward IV (Ian Hunter) to marry, sadly, this is not to be and their situation kicks off even more betrayals and on every level. Then we have the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price), who is caught between two brothers, one the King and the other a duplicitous monster.
• “Mord” means “murder” in Scandinavian languages, so did Karloff’s character change his name to “Mord” to help his career or were his parents amazingly prescient?
• Richard keeps a hidden diorama that contains dolls which represent the line of succession so that he can keep track of his murder plot to seize the throne. Some people scrapbook while others have murder dioramas.
• Rathbone was twice the British Army Fencing Champion and we get a nice sword fight between him and the Prince of Wales, unfortunately, like many films of this period they depict people using modern fencing techniques with swords that were meant for hacking and slashing, not thrusting and parrying.
• This film would later inspire a remake in 1962, with United Artists signing Roger Corman to direct his version of Tower of London.
Basil Rathbone delivers a captivating performance as Richard, showcasing his talent for portraying complex and morally ambiguous characters and it’s his commanding presence and his chilling portrayal of Richard’s descent into madness that makes this a truly memorable role. Boris Karloff, known for his iconic role as Frankenstein’s monster, adds another layer of darkness to the film with his portrayal of the brutal Mord, Richard’s loyal executioner, and Karloff’s physicality and intensity bring an eerie and unsettling quality to the character. The supporting cast also delivers exceptional performances, notably Vincent Price as the Duke of Clarence. Price portrays the tormented man with great emotional depth, which is a nice counterpoint to Karloff’s more brutal portrayal of the hunchbacked Mord, and the chemistry between these actors helps to bring these characters to life while also adding layers of complexity to the story.
The film’s production design deserves special mention for its impressive recreation of the Tower of London, the sets are atmospheric and detailed, effectively capturing the gloomy and claustrophobic nature of the infamous fortress. And making these set pieces all the better is George Robinson’s excellent cinematography which enhances the overall mood of the film, utilizing low lighting and shadows to create an ominous atmosphere, reminiscent of Gothic horror, and it should be noted that even though Tower of London is a black-and-white film it doesn’t diminish the impact of its storytelling as the lack of colour accentuates the starkness and brutality of the narrative, lending it a timeless quality that still resonates with viewers today. The absence of distracting visuals also allows the performances and the plot to take centre stage, resulting in a more engaging and immersive experience.
Despite being released in 1939, the film’s storytelling and pacing hold up remarkably well with the narrative maintaining a steady pace, gradually building tension and suspense as Richard’s machinations unfold. The script offers sharp dialogue and well-crafted scenes that keep the audience engaged and invested in the story, however, Tower of London does have some shortcomings as low budget impacts some of the action sequences – such as cardboard armour that melted in the rain and caused costly re-shoots – but they still managed to convey the necessary impact and are still quite impressive for that era of filmmaking, and with both Rathbone and Karloff chewing the scenery one can forgive a few production shortcomings.
In conclusion, Tower of London is a captivating historical drama that skilfully blends elements of horror and suspense in a most artful way, and while not quite Shakespearean in nature it’s still quite entertaining. Basil Rathbone’s commanding performance as Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Boris Karloff’s eerie portrayal of Mord add depth to the film, while its atmospheric sets, effective cinematography and compelling narrative make this an engaging watch, showcasing the dark side of ambition and power. The script may not be Shakespeare’s level of excellence but if you appreciate historical dramas with a touch of suspense and horror then Tower of London is definitely worth a watch.
Tower of London (1939)
Movie Rank - 7/10
Overall, Tower of London is a captivating historical drama that showcases the talent of its cast and crew. With its superb performances, atmospheric cinematography, and intriguing storyline, the film stands as a testament to the enduring power of classic cinema. Fans of historical dramas and those interested in Richard III’s era will find this film to be a rewarding and compelling watch.