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Historical Films: From Shakespeare to the French Revolution

Shakespeare in the Movies

Henry IV (1945),  Hamlet (1945), and Richard III (1945): these films were directed by Laurence Olivier,  Starring Laurence Olivier.

These three interpretations of Lawrence Olivier are universally considered both by audiences and critics the greatest cinematographic expressions of Shakespeare’s works, thanks to the exceptional skill of Lawrence Olivier, one of the strongest leading figures in British cinema who, incidentally, was accompanied by the best British actors in Shakespeare’s Plays. The text of Shakespeare was respected with philological rigor, and the same scene was deemed virtually perfect by any international criticism. For those who love Shakespeare’s Plays, these movies are a must see.

Macbeth  and  Othello

Macbeth (1948) and  Othello (1952), directed and interpreted by Orson Welles, are two Shakespearian films strongly desired by the same Welles. He agreed to work in prohibitive conditions, with limited funds, improvised and always different troupes, and with little time available. The obstacles were overcome by the lively mind of Welles, who managed to achieve two significant works by the visual point of view, thanks to a clever work both on photography and on direction. Despite these difficulties, Macbeth and Othello unfolded two fascinating and very intense films in acting. It is interesting to note that Welles later told all his difficulties to realize these films in a documentary film, Filming Othello, produced by the same Orson Welles in 1978.


Romeo + Juliet and Richard III


Romeo + Juliet by Baz Luhmann (1996), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is a movie where the text is that of Shakespeare’s tragedy, while the story is set in the United States, in a very colorful and fictional Verona Beach.  It has been stressed that its post-modern scenography seems like a frivolous fashion show, while the film seems a long video clips in some respects, characterized by a frantic rhythm and a strong visual impact. Richard III, by Richard Loncraine (1996), was interpreted very loosely by the same Director.  The tragedy of Shakespeare was heavily reworked both in text and in the environment. The plot revolves around the 30s of the 20th century, with the detection of alienation effects.

Barry Lindon, 1975

Barry Lindon, by Stanley Kubrick (1975), starred by Ryan O’Neal,  is set in England during the 18th century, and tells the story of an adventurer (both a spy and a compulsive  gambler). The film is based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray (born 1811) entitled The Memoirs of Barry LindonBarry Lindon provides a realistic portrait of 18th-century England.   Kubrick used only natural light, while the actors’ costumes perfectly reflect the dress in England in the Eighteenth Century. The soundtrack is evocative and consists of a mix both of classical and 1700 English folk songs of various types, with exceptional realistic effects, whereby the viewer is immersed into the daily Life in Eighteenth-Century England. Barry London is a true Classic Film that can be appreciated by everyone.

Rob Roy

The Eighteenth-Century England and popular environments are the absolute protagonists of a great movie by M. Caton-Jones, Rob Roy (1995), set in 18th-century England. The film has its setting in the Scottish Highlands, and the daring hero is Rob Roy (played by Liam Neeson). Rob Roy is considered by some a real bandit, while by others as a genuine hero of freedom, who fights against the injustices of a feudal power. Rob Roy is a film very spectacular with remarkable sequences, very fun and suitable for both children and adults.  The scene is extremely accurate, and offers one the most popular images in understanding both the eighteenth-century English folk culture, and the living standards of the people, far from the lavish English court entertainments.


Danton,  by Andrzej Wajda (1988) was played in a truly superlative way by Gerard Depardieu.  The film tells the dramatic conflict between two protagonists, Danton and Robespierre, in the period of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution (1).  Andrzej Wajda’s film had a great success with audiences and critics, because, metaphorically, it was referring to the difficult situation of Polish politics of the time, where the local Trade Union and the Catholic Church had conflictual relationships with the Communist regime of that time.



1)      The film is adapted from a play of the Polish writer Stanislawa Przybyszewska (died in 1995), The Danton Affair.






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