Tower of London
1939, 92 minutes, b&w

The Tower of London

"No age is without its ruthless men--who, in their search for power, leave dark stains upon the pages of History." So reads the scrawl at the beginning of "Tower of London."

Basil Rathbone starred in this film playing Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who later became Richard III. Ian Hunter played his brother King Edward IV, and Vincent Price played their younger brother George, the Duke of Clarence. The spooky club-footed executioner Mord was superbly portrayed by Boris Karloff. The only wholly fictitious character in the film, Mord was Richard's devoted slave, and would do anything Richard asked him, including murder.

The dolls: one down, five to goThe film was based on the history of the House of York and the Wars of the Roses, 1471-1485. Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, the father of the three brothers played by Rathbone, Hunter and Price, had claimed a right to the throne for his family. Parliament agreed that the claim was just. King Henry VI (House of Lancaster) mustered an army of supporters, and thus began the Wars of the Roses. Richard Plantagenet was killed in battle in 1461. Parliament crowned Richard's eldest son Edward King Edward IV, and declared Henry VI a traitor. The film begins about 12 years later. Old King Henry has been imprisoned in the Tower and is completely incapacitated. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, (Rathbone) is the youngest son of Richard Plantagenet and sixth in line to the throne. Rathbone gave an excellent portrayal of Richard as sinister, heartless, base, and ambitious, much like the title character in Shakespeare's play Richard III. In "Tower of London," Richard has a display with small dolls representing King Edward (his brother), himself, and the five people who stand between him and the throne. Every time one of them dies, he takes the doll, throws it in the fire, and moves the doll representing himself closer to the throne.

In 1471 Edward, Prince of Wales (the son of old Henry VI), landed on the west coast and started his march to London to regain the throne. With him was his wife, lovely Anne Neville, whom he had wooed and won from Richard. Therefore Richard hated Wales doubly so. The armies met at Tewkesbury; Wales came to duel with Richard and was felled. Anne escaped and hid in London. Richard's spies found her and brought her to him. Richard tricked her into marrying him.

Anne Neville's sister Isabel was married to George, the Duke of Clarence. Their father (Warwick) was very rich. King Edward redistributes the Warwick wealth according to his own wishes, which doesn't please Clarence. Clarence conspires to kill Edward, and is arrested.

Clarence shouts "I have won!"Richard pretends to comfort Clarence, but Clarence doesn't trust Richard and accuses him of trying to poison him. Richard replies, "You insulting beast! I will kill you, but honestly and fairly.  I challenge you to combat with any weapon you choose.... The prize to the winner--the whole of the Warwick estates."   Clarence chooses to joust with malmsey. He is confident he can beat Richard in wine-drinking. Eventually Richard passes out and Clarence laughs gleefully "I have won!" Then Richard wakes up and glares at him. He knocks Clarence on the floor, then splashes wine on his face to wake up. With Mord's help he carries Clarence to a butt of malmsey and they throw him in. Clarence drowns. Richard removes his "Clarence" doll and moves himself nearer to the throne.

This malmsey-drinking contest is an especially great acting scene in the film. Vincent Price and Rathbone both get falling down drunk. They don't get giddy or silly, but are obviously staggering under the influence. Rathbone was restrained, yet calculating how to murder his brother. Vincent Price wrote about this scene:

Clarence drowns in a butt of malmsey.

"They used watered-down cola for the wine, and Basil and I had to drink quarts of it and slosh around in it....I can't stand the stuff to this day. Like a fool, I volunteered to do the drowning scene myself rather than be doubled. Basil and Boris were kidding me before hand and took great delight in throwing their cigarette butts and other trash into the vat. The stunt coordinator told me that when they dumped me into the vat and slammed the lid down I was supposed to grab hold of a bar at the bottom and count to ten before coming up. After I did all that the lid was still closed! Then I heard the crew breaking in with axes. Boris had sat on it and Basil leaned on it and it got stuck. They managed to pull me out before I drowned."

Richard and Clarence

 

 

Richard (Rathbone) is about to pass out.

Clarence (Vincent Price) is still going strong.

A murderous lookOddly enough, the story about Clarence drowning in a butt of malmsey may be true. But it wasn't at Richard's hands. Richard in fact pleaded with Edward to show mercy on their brother, who really did conspire to oust Edward from the throne. This treachery earned Clarence the death penalty. However, believing that the public should not witness the execution of a prince, Edward ordered the sentence to be carried out inside the Tower, in secret.

Later, Edward falls ill. On his deathbed he tells the Queen, "Richard is the wisest man in England. Rely on his judgment. He will take my place as a father to our sons." The Queen, however, doesn't trust Richard. On the death of Edward IV in April of 1483, his oldest son, a boy of 12, became King Edward V, and Richard is appointed Lord Protector of the young king. The Queen gives John Wyatt permission to steal the Royal treasure from the Tower so that he and Henry Tudor can mount an assault. John succeeds in getting the treasure away, but he is caught and arrested. Richard tortures John to try to get him to reveal where the treasure is hidden.John Wyatt is tortured

Richard is furious with the Queen. To crush her spirit, he imprisons the young princes in the Tower. Richard crowned himself King Richard III on June 26, 1483. Shortly thereafter, he had his nephews murdered.

Two years later rebel forces commanded by Henry Tudor, head of the house of Lancaster, defeated an army led by King Richard III. Soldiers from Richard's army deserted to fight alongside Henry Tudor. After Richard was killed in the battle, Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII, the first Tudor king of England.

Richard falls at the Battle of Bosworth

One of the early scenes in the film is the execution of Lord DeVere, played by Basil Rathbone's son Rodion. He is listed in the credits as John Rodion. Rodion also played a small part in "The Dawn Patrol." (See pages two and three for pictures of Rodion.)

"Tower of London" should be enjoyed as entertainment, not accepted as historical fact. Although the real Richard of Gloucester did usurp the throne, there is little evidence that he was as evil as he has been portrayed in Shakespeare's Richard III, and in this film. Shakespeare was writing for the Tudors, who needed to strengthen their claim to the throne. Indeed, when the public was told that Richard had murdered the two young Princes, they were horrified. According to history, Edward V and his brother disappeared soon after Richard's coronation, but there is no evidence that Richard was responsible for having them killed. Modern research has cast doubt on many of the assumptions surrounding Richard.

It's strange to see Rathbone with graying temples in the film. In actual fact Richard III was only 19 when he fought at the battle of Tewkesbury and only 33 when he died. Richard had nothing to do with the death of Henry VI. After Richard became king, he had Henry's body moved and reburied at Windsor with the other kings. Would he show such respect for one he had murdered? 

In "Tower of London" director Rowland V. Lee reused the musical score from "Son of Frankenstein," repeating the Monster theme for Karloff. Roger Corman remade "Tower of London" in 1962 with Vincent Price playing the role of Richard.

For more reading on the subject of Richard III and the Plantagenet kings, I recommend The Last Plantagenets by Thomas B. Costain (Buccaneer Books, 1994). Mr. Costain goes against the conventional history in claiming that Richard III was not a hunchback, not sinister, and did not murder his two nephews. He supports his claims with thoroughly researched facts and logical conclusions.

 

Ian Hunter, Rathbone, Vincent Price
The three royal brothers: Edward, Richard, and "Clarence"

 

More pictures on Page Two and Page Three!

 

Cast

Credits

Basil Rathbone..........................Richard III
Boris Karloff..........Mord, the Executioner
Barbara O'Neill.................Queen Elizabeth
Ian Hunter...................................Edward IV
Vincent Price...................Duke of Clarence
Nan Grey.......................Lady Alice Barton
John Sutton..............................John Wyatt
Leo G. Carroll.......................Lord Hastings
Miles Mander................................Henry VI
Lionel Belmore............Beacon Chiruegeon
Rose Hobart............................Anne Neville
Ralph Forbes..........................Henry Tudor
Frances Robinson.............Duchess Isobel
Ernest Cossart.............................Tom Clink
G.P. Huntley Jr...................Prince of Wales
John Rodion............................Lord DeVere
Ronald Sinclair.....................Prince Edward
Donnie Dunagan................
............................Prince Richard as a  child
John Herbert-Bond...Young Prince Richard
Walter Tetley....................Chimney Sweep
Georgia Caine...............Dowager Duchess
Ivan Simpson.................................Retainer
Nigel de Brulier........................Archbishop
Holmes Herbert........................Councilman
Charles Miller...........................Councilman
Venecia Severn...............................Princess
Yvonne Severn...............................Princess
Louise Brien......................Lady in Waiting

Jean Fenwick.....................Lady in Waiting
Michael Mark.............Servant to Henry VI
C. Montague Shaw.................Major Domo
Don Stewart........................................Bunch
Reginald Barlow..........Sheriff at Execution
Robert Greig......................Father Olmstead
Ivo Henderson............................Haberdeer
Charles Peck..................................Page Boy
Harry Cording...................Tyrell, Assassin
Jack C. Smith......................................Forrest
Colin Kenny.......................................Soldier
Arthur Stenning................................Soldier
Evelyn Selbie......................Beggar Woman
Denis Tankard...................................Beggar
David Thursby..................................Beggar
Claire Whitney...................Civilian Woman
Ernie Adams.....Prisoner begging for water
Ann Todd........Queen Elizabeth's daughter
Production Co. .........................Universal
Producer..........................Rowland V. Lee
Director............................Rowland V. Lee
Screenplay..........................Robert N. Lee
Cinematographer.........George Robinson 
Editor.................................Edward Curtiss
Art Director.........................Jack Otterson
Music Composer................Frank Skinner
Music Director..................Charles Previn
Set Decorator..........Russell A. Gausman
Costume Design......................Vera West
Make Up..................................Jack Pierce

Images on this page and pages two and three are from the film "Tower of London," copyright Universal Pictures.

 

 

click to go to top of page
Top of
Page

Site Map

All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2007