Two Cinematic Stabs at The Tower of London

Two films bear the title The Tower of London, both offering interpretations of events surrounding Richard III that exploit elements of horror.  I saw the first forty years ago, and when Chris Garcia proposed an  issue of The Drink Tank focusing on all aspects of the Tower of London itself, I decided to not only re-watch Basil Rathbone as Richard III with Boris Karloff as the non-historical Mord, but I’d also screen the Roger Corman version starring Vincent Price, which I’d never seen before.  You might choose to research actual facts about the Tower of London elsewhere, because historical reality in these films are like Bacon Bits on a very large salad.

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The Tower of London (1939) was released by Universal Studios.  Although the director and screenwriter, the brothers Rowland V. and Richard N. Lee respectively, were after historical drama, how could anything from Universal with Karloff not be horror?  Bodies caked with blood fall from iron maidens.  We see Mord the executioner and chief torturer sharpening his ax and smiling with glee while victims scream upon the rack.  Rathbone’s Richard is quite the conniver too, but he’s an expert swordsman and no weakling. Each time he eliminates, or has eliminated, a rival to the throne, he removes a doll representing that person from a diorama and hurls it into fire.  What a menacing pair!

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In fairness, the Lees do partially meet their historical goal, with explorations of Medieval marriage customs and politics, and how Edward IV lines up matches to strengthen his hold on the crown he’d taken from Henry VI.  Nonetheless, thrills and chills bring Universal fans to theaters. So do dark characters and plots.  However, a human element abounds like with earlier Universal pictures such as Frankenstein or Dracula. Arlene Okerlund, my Shakespeare professor at San Jose State University, once stopped a classmate complaining about what he termed Shakespeare’s “fast-and-loose history” with the following: “Shakespeare didn’t write history; he wrote the truth.”

I considered that statement while witnessing Mord, witlessly devoted to Richard, murder and maim, shielding his master from culpability at every turn.  Richard Lee created the fictional Mord for this film to instill horror, but also to dramatize how schemers employ cat’s paws to keep their hands clean.  I found myself pitying Mord despite his twisted workings down in the dungeon.  The film’s end tragically amplifies Mord’s blind love.  Long live Henry VII.

Remember how in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein Karloff’s Monster terrified us and evoked sympathy?  Karloff scores again in such a way with Mord.

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In 1962, Roger Corman directed his The Tower of London on a shoestring, and so much for historical drama.  Poisoned drinks in the first film become Woodville daggers here.  Vincent Price plays Richard, a leering, bent figure who takes a more direct hand in murdering and torturing his co-stars.  Ghosts enter the picture too, real ghosts, not metaphorical representations of Richard’s guilt.  Richard has accomplices, but no one’s protecting him now, nor does he care.  Rathbone delivers a skilled Machiavellian.  Price gives us an I-don’t-give-a-fuck Machiavellian.  We’ve moved into schlock with Corman and Price, but who doesn’t love schlock?

Price appears in both movies. In the first, he’s the Malmsey-loving Clarence, a much weaker version of Clarence than portrayed in Corman’s film.  I love Vincent Price.  I love how the smell of pork wafts from every scene.  He emotes at DEFCON 1 all the time, every time.  Never will he disappoint, and his excess ties both versions together nicely.

So, again, whiffs of accepted history roll through each film, but what viewers receive is two angles on the Tower of London’s legendary essence, how the Tower was both home and prison, how ghosts walked its halls and heads rolled, and how events surrounding Richard III, factual or not, reinforced these notions.  After reading what our wonderful contributors say about the Tower, you may want to enjoy a lazy afternoon taking in these two cinematic stabs (heh – sorry).  You might not be edified, but you will be entertained.

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