Dircetor: Rowland V. Lee
Cast: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Ian Hunter, Vincent Price
1939 saw a rebirth for the horror genre, which had been dormant for over two years. That year, Universal released the third in the Frankenstein series with Son of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff(in his last turn as the Monster), Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone in the title role. It was an immense success and spawned a whole new era of movie horror. The follow-up was bigger and flashier, and was probably not intended as a horror film, though that is what it has been labeled ever since, due to it's stars and the focus on the more grotesque details of one of history's most ruthless characters.
Tower of London was something of a "prestige" film for Universal, a prize given to director Rowland V. Lee for his fine work on Son of Frankenstein. It was fairly lavish and well cast, including Basil Rathbone as Richard the Third and Boris Karloff as his dutiful servant, Mord, the executioner. The film has largely been attacked for playing fast and loose with the facts, and indeed it does, but so did the famous play by Shakespeare. What it ends up being is a very entertaining historical picture that may whet the appetite of the horror fan, regardless of it's supposed pretensions, though, art this is not.
Borrowing the heavy, imposing score from Son of Frankenstein, Tower of London begins with King Edward(Ian Hunter) having usurped the throne from mad King Henry. Basil Rathbone plays Richard, the King's brother, who is as a conniving madman and plots to eliminate all those in line to the throne. In a wonderful introduction, Boris Karloff is introduced as Mord, the executioner, sharpening his ax with a raven resting on his shoulder. It's a beautifully macabre character and the veteran boogeyman nearly steals the show from his costars! It's a delight to see him inspect his dungeon, thoughtfully adding more torture to his unfortunate inmates and performing all his deeds with glee. It's not a great part, especially in light of his earlier triumphs at Universal, but he makes the most of it and the film is made richer for his presence.
Rathbone is excellent here as Richard, proving why he was one of the screen's great villains, while being quite dashing, despite a hump on his back. However, perhaps it is a bit much to suggest that such a Machiavellian schemer such as he, would keep doll replicates of his enemies, in order to keep track of who he has to knock off!
There's also a wedding between the Prince(Donnie Dunnagan, the kid who said, "Why HELL-O!" from Son of Frankenstein!) and a little Princess(not Shirley Temple). And I have to mention the execution scene, that shows Mord's business. The "traitor" depicted is played by Basil Rathbone's son, John Rodion, and his Dad apparently had quite a laugh over Boris offing his head!
Richard and Mord bond over they're respective deformities and plot to rule the world, despite they're imperfections. Mord swears his allegiance and a pact is made that will be followed through.
Vincent Price, in one of his first roles and his first horror film, plays the wimpy Duke of Clarence, who is constantly at odds with Richard, which is not a good thing. Barbara O' Neil is a beautiful Queen, but overacts a storm with many broad gestures and wide eyed staring that is not necessarily in keeping with the melodrama, but surely not one of the stronger performances in the film.
Richard arranges for a battle with a rival to the throne, King Henry's son and eliminates him in battle. The battle sequences were apparently quite trying, but are effective when one considers the relative low budget of the picture and the difficulties that ensued. In order to keep down cost, the production designers opted for cardboard weapons and armor for the extras, which dissolved in the rain, the weather in which most of the battles were fought! Still, they are decent in the finished film.
John Sutton plays his usual duller than dirt persona, as John Wyatt, who refuses to be married to a crone, because he wants to marry Nan Grey and that's understandable, but not to the King, who has him exiled to France, so he can live with Henry Tudor(Ralph Forbes), who was far less heroic in real life, than he is here.
John tries to outrun the King's guards, but is tripped up by Mord, who pins the dullard down and reprimands him for trying to pull a fast one club-footed Mord!
Richard arranges for Anne Neville(Rose Hobart), whose Husband, Richard slayed in battle and whom Richard adores, be captured and made to marry him. This is the last we see of Rose and it's a shame. She was a beautiful actress and it would have been interesting to hear her side to Richard's villainy.
In the film's most famous sequence, Richard instigates a fight with the Duke of Clarence, who challenges him to a wine drinking contest. It's a hoot to see Price totally wasted, letting off quips to a nonplussed Rathbone, who can barely stand up. However, it's a set up and Mord and Richard take the drunk Duke and drop him in a wine vat. How ironic, huh? Apparently, the "booze" was really cola and Price had so much that years later, he commented that he couldn't stand the stuff!
Years later, after slaying old King Henry, who was duped that he was still leading the country and leaving only his brother and his nephews still alive, Richard still plots. The King passes on and pardons John and allows him to return from exile, while his son, merely a child becomes King. Richard instructs Mord to pass around false information and rally the country against him by utilizing primitive propaganda. One has to wonder, considering the year this was made, was Richard's devious ascension, not a subconscious reaction to the Third Reich?
In the film's most infamous sequence and the one most falsified in history, Richard has Mord and his goons murder the Princes in the Tower of London. It's a credit to Karloff that he is able to make even such a despicable character sympathetic, as he pauses and contemplates his actions, showing repulsion at the inhuman task. The children are murdered and the Queen awakens at the sounds of they're death cries. It's an eerie scene and one that does indeed stay with you.
Meanwhile, John plans to overthrow Richard, but is caught stealing the treasure and is thus, tortured by Mord. However, he escapes with Nan Grey(I'm sorry, "Lady Alice") and makes his way to France, where he gives the treasure to Tudor, who raises an army to defeat Richard.
It was a poor move to save Richard's reign as King to the final five minutes(!) for we get no feel for his ruthless ambition that has been paraded the entire film, though he does have a nice bit with Mord as he welcomes him to battle, telling him that he'll need every friend he can get.
The battle commences and it looks an awful lot like the first one, this time with Mord going to town with a mace, smashing in quite a few heads, including a comical shot of him standing amass a pile of bodies, like something from a cartoon!
Henry Tudor arrives into combat and Richard shouts his name, so we know who he is, since they are clad in armor and they get in a sword fight and Tudor pulls an Errol Flynn and runs Basil through, becoming the new King of England in the process, while John hunts down Mord and runs him through as well, sending him off a cliff. Richard is last seen being dragged by horses with cries of "Baby killer!" on the soundtrack and images of knights spitting on the corpse. What a cheerful ending!
Tower of London is a poor history lesson. Much of what is seen on screen, never happened and/or is greatly exaggerated. Richard was undoubtedly, a ruthless man, but much of his horror was been exaggerated, particularly the murder of the two Princes in the Tower. However, what is presented makes for wonderful entertainment, if not very flawed.
Most of the cast are admirable, especially the leads, Rathbone and Karloff, with Boris making the best executioner seen on the silver screen. Rathbone's Richard is my favorite interpretation of the character, as he captures all the villainy and intelligence of the character, while also depicting him as one persecuted and tortured. Unfortunately, not enough of a psychological angle was afforded the character and this does weaken the impact. Maybe it's not much of a debit, though, when one considers the performance of Vincent Price(that's a coincidence) in the 1962 remake, which I don't recommend. That role dealt much with the character's madness, but was too cheap and poorly written to be very interesting.
I like Ian Hunter as King Edward and found him to be a likable and charismatic character, though one that was too shortsighted and indifferent to what was going on around him. A greater focus on his understanding of the deeds around him could have been very compelling.
Several character actors pepper the film with flavor, such as Leo G. Carroll, Lionel Belmore, Miles Mander and Ernest Cossart, who add life to the proceedings. The production looks good, too, with impressive sets and the Tower, being most memorable, standing in the back lot for over 50 years.
Many wonder why this film is considered a horror film after watching it. Tower of London is not really a horror film, but was sold as one and with the emphasis placed so strongly on the murders and on Mord, who just happened to be played by horror's biggest star, it's really no wonder, after all. I'm certain that the historical background may disappoint some fans, but I think there is enough meat there to work as both a horror and an adventure-drama, even though it's not the best place to turn for a serious take on the story. However, if you need an amusing and harmless way to spend ninety minutes, this may not be such a bad option, either.