As I write this review, Sir Ian McKellen is making headlines for being one of the first celebrities to publicly get a COVID-19 vaccine. Clearly he realizes that we must inoculate ourselves against deadly diseases and is using his celebrity status to set a good example. While it remains to be seen how much of the public will follow his lead with the coronavirus pandemic, one thing is clear: When he made a film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in 1995 to inoculate the public against a different disease — that is, the disease of fascism — people did not heed his warning.
There are three reasons why McKellen’s “Richard III” works so well. The first is the cast, which is more than equal to the challenge of breathing life into Shakespeare’s dialogue: McKellen himself in the title role, Maggie Smith as his mother the Duchess of York, Jim Broadbent as his close adviser the Duke of Buckingham, Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth and Robert Downey Jr. as Rivers. The second is the writing itself. While it is customary to pay tribute to Shakespeare’s gifts as a wordsmith — and “Richard III” has plenty of great lines (“Now is the winter of our discontent…” or “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”) — his cleverness here was to have Richard III directly address the audience as he hatches wicked plots. Many writers before Shakespeare had told stories of evil men who conquered empires, but none had the talent and courage to make us root for them. Richard III is vile, but because he is charmingly comfortable with his sociopathic scheming, we are too — and therefore become complicit in it.
This brings me to the third great strength of “Richard III,” one that is unique to McKellen’s version of the story and has never been more important than right now. McKellen and director Richard Loncraine deliberately overwhelm their story with fascist aesthetics, from the costumes and architecture to its obvious World War II era ambiance. As I’ve written before, fascism at its core is less an ideology than a style, one that gratifies popular far right-wing grievances by merging them with the megalomaniacal ambitions of charismatic politicians. Under a fascist government, “the people” exist only to validate their beloved leader; that leader, in turn, owes nothing to anyone but himself. Society becomes an extension of the wishes and whims of the strongman at the top, who invariably was a monster before arriving to power and can act with unchecked monstrousness after attaining it.
By taking the fictional Richard III’s Machiavellian skulduggery and grafting it onto a fascist setting, McKellen and Loncraine demonstrate how fascism is the unavoidable consequence today of the kind of authoritarian manipulation that Shakespeare immortalized in his 1593 play, at a time when “fascism” wasn’t even a word. Take this bit of dialogue between two of Richard’s henchmen as they prepare to murder Clarence, the future king’s brother and a genuinely good man. When the assistant (Michael Elphick) has a prick of conscience, Sir James Tyrell (Adrian Dunbar) reminds him that they will be rewarded.
James Tyrell, Richard’s Chief Henchman: Remember our reward when the deed’s done.
2nd Murderer: He dies. I forgot the reward.
James Tyrell, Richard’s Chief Henchman: And where’s your conscience now?
2nd Murderer: In the Duke of Gloucester’s purse.
On the surface this may seem like standard cynical self-interest — and it is certainly that — but think of the larger implications. If Clarence’s assassins had listened to their better angels, England could have been spared the fictional Richard III’s heinous reign. The road to despotism is paved not only by true believers, but by calculating men and women who cast aside their principles to look out for Number One.
Right now the world is seeing a resurgence of fascist movements for precisely this reason. Behind Donald Trump in America, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia you have people who do not follow them out of personal affection or philosophical conviction, but mere political convenience. Successful fascist leaders recognize this fact and play on it; that is why, for instance, Trump has succeeded in getting Republican politicians to deliberately lie and claim that he won the 2020 election, even though it has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he lost. Trump is even breaking the precedent established by America’s first president himself, George Washington, by refusing to accept the results of an election which chose to replace him. Any authentic conservative would place honoring Washington’s anti-authoritarian legacy above all other considerations, yet Trump has convinced powerful right-wingers to go along with him by appealing to their pride, partisanship, ambition, vanity and greed.
There is another lesson we should learn from “Richard III.” We cannot take it for granted that the truth about the tyrants of our day will be preserved for posterity. The real-life King Richard III was actually a competent administrator who focused on helping the poor in his country. “Richard III” is a libelous smear against a good man who, if his reign had lasted longer than 1483 to 1485, might have even been remembered as one of the greatest of English kings. He simply had the misfortune of dying at the Battle of Bosworth Field. This meant that, when his story was told more than a century later, his chronicler needed to defile his good name in order to please England’s ruling class at the time.
When we tell the story of the 21st century’s fascists, they deserve to be regarded with the same contempt that Shakespeare wrongly heaped on Richard III. Fortunately McKellen and company told us precisely how to tell such a story, and do it right. In the year 2020, their version of “Richard III” is more than just a prescient movie. It is a brutal reminder that while we may be able to inoculate ourselves against diseases of the body, diseases of the mind will always flourish as long as fascist impulses remain undiagnosed.