Hamlet is a British film adaptation of William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, directed by and starring Sir Laurence Olivier. Hamlet was Olivier's second film as director, and also the second of his three Shakespeare films. It is the only one of Olivier's directorial efforts to be filmed in black and white.
Olivier's Hamlet is the Shakespeare film that has received the most prestigious accolades, winning the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor. However, it proved controversial among Shakespearean purists, who felt that Olivier had made too many alterations and excisions to the four-hour play by cutting nearly two hours worth of content. Milton Shulman wrote in The Evening Standard "To some it will be one of the greatest films ever made, to others a deep disappointment. Laurence Olivier leaves no doubt that he is one of our greatest living actors...his liberties with the text, however, are sure to disturb many.
Casting and Filming
Herlie, who plays Hamlet's mother, was 28 years old when the movie was filmed. Olivier, who plays her son, was 41.
Olivier played the voice of the Ghost himself by recording the dialogue and playing it back at a reduced speed, giving it a haunted, other-worldly quality.
The cinematography, by Desmond Dickinson, makes use of the deep focus
photography previously popularized in films directed by William Wyler
and Orson Welles
The music was composed by William Walton
, and next to his score for Olivier's 1944 film Henry V
, has become his most celebrated film score.
The movie was edited by Helga Cranston.
The film follows the overall story of the play, but cuts nearly half the dialogue, and includes an opening voice-over that represents Hamlet's fundamental problem as indecision.
The film begins with a narrator quoting some of Hamlet's lines from Act I Scene IV:
- So oft it chances in particular men,
- That through some vicious mole of nature in them,
- By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
- Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
- Or by some habit grown too much; that these men -
- Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
- Their virtues else - be they as pure as grace,
- Shall in the general censure take corruption,
- From that particular fault...
The narrator then breaks from Shakespeare's words to inform us "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."
The action begins on the battlements of Elsinore Castle, the royal estate of the Danish monarchy, where a pair of sentries, Bernado (Esmond Knight) and Francisco (John Laurie) are met by a ghostly apparition of the late King Hamlet. Prince Hamlet's friend, Horatio (Norman Wooland), joins the sentries, and demands that the ghost speak. The ghost vanishes then, without a word.
Inside the Great Hall of the castle, the court is celebrating the marriage of Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and King Claudius (Basil Sydney); old King Hamlet has died under mysterious circumstances and his wife, Gertrude, has, within a month of the tragedy, married the late King's brother. Prince Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) sits alone, refusing to join in the celebration, despite the protests of the new King. When the court has left the Great Hall, Hamlet fumes over the hasty marriage, muttering to himself the words "and yet, within a month!" Soon, Horatio and the sentries enter telling Hamlet of the ghostly apparition of his father. Hamlet proceeds to investigate, and upon arriving on the battlements, sees the ghost. Noting that the ghost beckons him forward, Hamlet follows it up onto a tower, wherein it reveals its identity as the Ghost of Hamlet's father. He tells Hamlet that he was murdered, who did it, and how it was done. The audience then sees the murder re-enacted in a flashback as the ghost describes the deed - Claudius is seen pouring poison into the late King Hamlet's ear, thereby killing him. Hamlet does not at first accept this as the truth, and then prepares to feign madness, so as to test Claudius' conscience, without jumping to conclusions.
This feigned insanity attracts the attention of Polonius (Felix Aylmer) who is completely convinced that Hamlet has gone mad. Polonius pushes this point with the King, claiming that it is derived from Hamlet's love for his daughter Ophelia (Jean Simmons). Claudius, however, is not fully convinced, and has Polonius set up a meeting between the two. Hamlet's "madness" is constant even in this exchange, and Claudius is convinced.
Hamlet then hires a group of wandering stage performers, requesting that they enact the play The Murder of Gonzago for the king. However, Hamlet makes a few alterations to the play, so as to make it mirror the circumstances of the late King's murder. Claudius, unable to watch the play, calls out for light, and retires to his room. Hamlet is now convinced of Claudius' treachery. He finds Claudius alone, and has ample opportunity to kill the villain. However, at this time, Claudius is praying, and Hamlet does not seek to send him to heaven, so, he waits, and bides his time.
He instead confronts Gertrude about the matter of his father's death and Claudius' treachery. During this confrontation, he hears a voice from the arras, and, believing that it was Claudius eavesdropping, plunges his dagger into the curtains. On discovering that he has in fact, killed the eavesdropping Polonius instead, Hamlet is only mildly upset, and he continues to confront his mother. He then sees the ghostly apparition of his father, and proceeds to converse with it (the Ghost is uncredited in the film, but is apparently voiced by Olivier himself). Gertrude, who cannot see the ghost, is now also convinced that Hamlet is mad.
Hamlet is deported to England by Claudius, who has given orders for him to be killed once he reaches there. Fortunately, Hamlet's ship is attacked by pirates, and he is returned to Denmark. In his absence, however, Ophelia, goes mad over Hamlet's rejection and the idea that her own sweetheart has killed her father, and drowns, supposedly committing suicide. Laertes (Terence Morgan), Ophelia's brother, is driven to avenge her death, as well as his father's.
Claudius and Laertes learn of Hamlet's return, and prepare to have him killed. However, they plan to make it look like an accident. Claudius orders Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a duel, wherein Laertes will be given a poisoned blade that will kill with a bare touch. In case Laertes is unable to hit Hamlet, Claudius also prepares a poisoned drink.
Hamlet meets Laertes' challenge, and engages him in a duel. Hamlet wins the first two rounds, and Gertrude drinks from the cup, suspecting that it is poisoned. Whilst in-between bouts, Laertes rushes Hamlet, and strikes him on the arm, fatally poisoning him. Hamlet, not knowing this, continues to duel. Hamlet eventually disarms Laertes, and switches blades with him. Hamlet then strikes Laertes in the wrist, fatally wounding him. Gerturde then submits to the poison, and dies, warning Hamlet not to drink from the cup. Laertes, dying, confesses the whole plot to Hamlet, who flies at Claudius in a fit of rage, killing him, before finally expiring himself. Horatio, horrified by all this, orders that Hamlet be given a decent funeral, and the young prince's body is taken away, while the cannons of Elsinore fire off a peal of ordinance in respect.
The Danish court
- Basil Sydney as King Claudius. Claudius is the brother, and murderer of the late King Hamlet, and marries his widow only two months after the King's death. Sydney was a British actor who made many screen appearances, including a supporting role in Walt Disney's 1950 version of Treasure Island.
- Eileen Herlie as Queen Gertrude. Gertrude, now married to Claudius, does not suspect foul play, and fears for the health of her son. Herlie is a Scottish-American actress, who went on to a play a recurring role in the TV series All My Children. Herlie's role in Hamlet was secured by arrangement with Sir Alexander Korda, and she would repeat it in the 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton.
- Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and the voice of Hamlet's father's ghost. Hamlet is the conflicted son of the late King, who is now suspicious of his father's death. Olivier, considered by many to be the greatest actor of the 20th century, had played this role twice on stage in 1937, at the Old Vic Theatre and later at Elsinore Castle, the actual setting of the play. This performance was the only one of his to win him an Academy Award for Best Actor, despite three prior nominations, and five subsequent ones.
- Norman Wooland as Horatio. Horatio is Hamlet's level-headed friend. Wooland was a German born British actor, who later played another companion to Olivier's character in Richard III.
- Felix Aylmer as Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain. Polonius is suspicious of Hamlet, and is convinced his insanity stems from the young prince's love for his daughter, Ophelia. Aylmer had worked with Olivier on his Henry V, also alongside him in As You Like It.
- Terence Morgan as Laertes, Polonius' son. Laertes arrives in Denmark to discover his father killed by Hamlet and Ophelia, his sister, first driven mad and then to her own death. He vows vengeance against Hamlet. Morgan was a British actor, who joined the Old Vic company in 1948.
- Jean Simmons as Ophelia. Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius, and is driven mad by his death, as well as by Hamlet's rejection. Simmons' performance in this film won her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at that year's Oscars. She went on to become a major Hollywood star, appearing in such hits as The Robe and Spartacus.
- John Laurie as Francisco. Francisco is a weary sentry, who is present when King Hamlet's ghost appears. John Laurie was a Scottish actor who appeared in all three of Olivier's Shakespeare films. Laurie would go on to earn fame as the undertaker in the popular sitcom Dad's Army.
- Esmond Knight as Bernardo. Bernado is a sentry who is sent to relieve Francisco, however, in the process he sees the apparition of King Hamlet. Esmond Knight was a British character actor who appeared in all three of Olivier's Shakespeare films, including his The Prince and the Showgirl. He also portrayed the orchestra conductor in the film The Red Shoes.
- Anthony Quayle as Marcellus. Marcellus is a soldier stationed at Elsinore. Anthony Quayle was an English actor who would go onto a highly successful film career, appearing in such classics as The Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia.
- Niall MacGinnis as 'Sea Captain'. The Sea Captain (a character invented for the film) is the captain of the ship that Hamlet sets out on for England. MacGinnis was an Irish actor who made many screen appearances. He played Zeus in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts opposite Honor Blackman as Hera, and one of the four murderers in the film Becket.
- Christopher Lee, who would go on to become a celebrated horror film actor, has an uncredited role as a spear carrier.
The Play Within The Play
- Harcourt Williams as the First Player. The First Player is enlisted by Hamlet to alter their play to mirror his suspicions about Claudius. Harcourt Williams had appeared in Olivier's film of Henry V prior to this.
- Patrick Troughton as the Player King. The Player King enacts a mimed play that echoes Claudius' treachery. Patrick Troughton was a British actor, who would go on to earn fame as the Second Doctor in the popular series Doctor Who.
- Tony Tarver as the Player Queen. The Player Queen plays the King's wife onstage; in Olivier's film she is a satire of Gertrude, intended to catch the conscience of Claudius. This was Tarver's only screen appearance.
Servants To The Court
- Peter Cushing as Osric. Osric is a foppish courtier who referees the duel between Hamlet and Laertes. This was Cushing's first major role. He would go on to become a prolific actor for Hammer Films, and earn mainstream fame for his performance as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars.
- Stanley Holloway as Gravedigger. The Gravedigger is digging Ophelia's grave when Hamlet and Horatio come across him. Stanley Holloway was a British entertainer, who would later be most recognised for his role as Mr. Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
- Russell Thorndike as the Priest. The Priest leads the funeral ceremony for Ophelia. Russell Thorndike was the brother of Dame Sybil Thorndike.
The film's opening with Olivier's voiceover of his own interpretation of the play, was criticised as reductive: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.
Olivier excised the "political" elements of the play (entirely cutting Fortinbas, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) in favour of an intensely psychological performance. He played up the Oedipal overtones of the play, to the extent of casting the 28-year-old Eileen Herlie as Hamlet's mother, opposite himself (aged 41) as Hamlet. Film scholar Jack Jorgens has commented that "Hamlet's scenes with the Queen in her low-cut gowns are virtually love scenes. In contrast, Jean Simmons' Ophelia is destroyed by Hamlet's treatment of her in the nunnery scene: ending with her collapsing on the staircase in what Deborah Cartmell calls the position of a rape victim.
According to J. Lawrence Guntner, the style of the film owes much to German Expressionism and to film noir: the cavernous sets featuring narrow winding stairwells correspond to the labyrinths of Hamlet's psyche.
The 1948 Hamlet
was the only film in which the leading actor has directed himself to an Oscar-winning performance, until 1997, when Roberto Benigni
directed himself to an Oscar in Life Is Beautiful
. Olivier is also the only actor to win an Oscar for a Shakespearean role.
As of 2006, Hamlet is the only film to have won both the Golden Lion and the Academy Award for Best Picture.
was the second of Olivier's Shakespeare films to be telecast on commercial network television
(the first was Richard III
, which was given an afternoon rather than a prime-time showing the same day that it premiered in movie theatres in the U.S.). The American Broadcasting Company
gave the Olivier Hamlet
a prime time
showing in December 1956 but, like many theatrical films shown on television during that era, it was split into two 90-minute halves and telecast over a period of two weeks, rather than being shown complete on one evening, as The Wizard of Oz
had been, only a month previously, on CBS
In the past, the 1948 film was often considered the definitive cinematic rendition of Hamlet
. Over the years, however, it has lost some of its status, especially in comparison to Olivier's versions of Henry V
and Richard III
. This is primarily because Olivier, according to some critics, overemphasized Hamlet's Oedipal
fixation on his mother, and because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
, two of the most important supporting characters in the play, were completely omitted from this film version, robbing the film of what could have been some of its best comedic moments. (The fact that Rosencrantz and Guildernstern had been included in the 1969 Nicol Williamson
- Tony Richardson Hamlet
and the 1990 Mel Gibson
- Franco Zeffirelli
version, both of which are shorter than Olivier's, did not help Olivier's rationale that the play needed such drastic cuts to work on screen). In contrast, Kenneth Branagh
's 1996 film version of the complete Hamlet
included everything that Olivier had omitted.
Pauline Kael has asserted that
- "even if you feel that certain scenes should be done differently, when has the rest of the play been done so well? Whatever the omissions, the mutilations, the mistakes, this is very likely the most exciting and most alive production of Hamlet you will ever see on the screen. It's never dull, and if characters such as Fortinbras and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sacrificed, it's remarkable how little they are missed.
In North America, Olivier's Hamlet has been released on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, which has also released his film versions of Henry V and Richard III on DVD.
- The Great British Films, pp 113-116, Jerry Vermilye, 1978, Citadel Press, ISBN 080650661X
- Rafferty, Terrence "Hamlet", Criterion Collection essay