Tower of London
1939, 92 minutes, b&w

"No age is without its ruthless menwho, 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 servant, and would do anything Richard asked him, including murder.

The film was based on the history of the House of York and the Wars of the Roses, 14711485. 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 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.

Tower of London

Here's a grim and grisly picture, if ever there was one. Some of the chillers of the Lugosi-Karloff school may be more lurid, but "Tower of London" will make your hair stand on end and the cold sweat break out just as surelyfor you'll suddenly realize that all the gruesome goings-on which are unwinding there on the screen, actually happened!

It's the story of Richard III of England, known as "Crookback" Richard to his pals. Torture and murder were to him what oatmeal was to his people—just an everyday occurrence. The King rode rough-shod over everything and every person who stood in his way to power—including his own flesh and blood. Basil Rathbone, portraying the ruthless Richard, gives a superb performance. Ian Hunter, in the role of King Edward VI, gives a sincere and believable characterization. Boris Karloff is right in there, too, with a role that must have made him shudder, himself. He's the crippled, bald-headed chief executioner by vocation, and Rathbone's stooge in the little leisure time allotted him. Barbara O'Neil, Vincent Prince, Ernest Cossart and Nan Grey deserve special mention. Outstanding throughout this picture is the wealth of pageantry and beauty in the background, and remarkable, too, is the fact that the story clings as closely as possible to actual history. directed by Rowland V. Lee.

Modern Screen, February 1940


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.

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.

Richard (Rathbone) is about to pass out.

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:

"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."

Oddly 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.



With his vivid picturization of the 15th Century, when cunning, heartless "Crook-back" Richard III, Dike of Gloucester, sought to sweep away all human obstacles in his path for the throne of England, producer-director, Rowland V. Lee has delivered one of the best historical pictures yet screened. He has gained brilliant characterizations from his cast, and interest is held to the end. Topping the list of performances is that of Basil Rathbone as Richard III, while Boris Karloff is his loyal, clubfooted executioner. Ian Hunter has never been better than as King Edward IV, while Barbara O'Neil is decorative and capable as his wife, Queen Elizabeth. Vincent Price does fine work, especially in his drunken bout with Richard, which ends with his death by drowning in a barrel of wine. Nan Grey, Ernest Cossart, John Sutton, Leo G. Carroll, Miles Mander, Robert Sinclair, Ralph Forbes, John Herbert-Bond, Frances Robinson, John Rodion, Lionel Belmont, Rose Hobart, G.P. Huntley, Walter Tetley and Donnie Dunagan are among the principals in the large cast. Robert N. Lee, who did much research work, supplied a gripping screenplay, showing the court intrigues and rivalry of the 14 years from 1471 to 1485. Jack Otterson's sets are eye-filling and impressive. Richard III in succession to the throne, is determined to make a short cut to the crown. He has John Wyatt (John Sutton), who is in love with Lady Alice Barton (Nan Grey), banished to France, and King Henry VI (Miles Mander), a weakling, slain by Mord (Boris Karloff). With the aid of Mord he puts the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price) to death. On this deathbed, King Edward IV orders Wyatt returned to England and names Richard for the protector for the boy King Edward (Ronald Sinclair) and his brother. With the death of King Edward IV, Richard loses little time in having Mord slay the young ruler and his brother. Henry Tudor (Ralph Forbes) returns to battle with Richard and in the fighting both Richard and Mord meet their death.

The Film Daily, November 21, 1939


Six years 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, becomes 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.

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.

You're more than a're a God to me"

Edward and Richard scheming and plotting

Tower of London was written by Robert N. Lee, brother of Rowland V. Lee, who produced and directed the picture. His narrative avoids the traditional Shakespearean version, but instead follows the actual historical records. That doesn't mean it's historically accurate, though. 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.

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.


Tower of London

Colorful historical melodrama of blood and intrigue as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, hacks his way through slaughter to England's throne; the "Tower" is the grim setting of the rack and the headsman's blockand plain and assorted royal villainy. (Adults)

London's majestic Tower occupies something of a central place in certain centuries in England's history. It was the temporary lodging of certain prominent "guests" of her kings, serving as a sort of royal hostelry with especial frequency in the reins of the Plantagenets and the Tudors. It is notoriously connected with the murderous goings-on of the last of the Plantagenets, Richard III, and unforgettably identified with the little murdered princes. In The Tower of London this famous pile of masonry takes on a brooding, powerful personality.

There are five persons between Glouscester and the throne; so much that worse for them. Death removes all five, assisted in all cases save one by Richard's prompting. The Duke has the unswerving loyalty of one Mord, his smooth-skulled axeman, who carries out the murders hatched in his master's nimble brain. After Henry VI and his heir are dispatched, there is a breathing spell while Edward IV, Richard's older brother, occupies the throne. Edward dies a natural death and is succeeded by his young son with uncle Richard as Protector. While the royal treasure is being hidden from Richard to be an aid to the exiled Tudors, Richard strikes at last for the throne by killing the young king and his brother. By intrigue and murder he manages to retain his crown until the fateful day at Bosworth where he is killed and succeeded by the first of the Tudors. Through all this welter of royal blood there is the slender love story of John Wyatt and Lady Alice Barton whose romance is almost destroyed by the indiscriminate Richard in his zeal for rolling heads.

The atmosphere and story of The Tower of London combine neatly for smooth villainy of Basil Rathbone's best manner. Rathbone plays Richard to the hilt, literally as well as figuratively, it might be said, and yet achieves through his intensity a sort of honesty in the portrayal. Boris Karloff is sufficiently hideous as to make-up and satisfactorily repelling in his activities of the chopping block. The supporting cast is especially fine, with brilliant characterizations by Ian Hunter and Vincent Price. the battle scenes of Tewkesbury and Bosworth are lavish and spectacular. What with is frequent trips to the torture chamber or the block (or to the wine cellar in the case of the Duke of Clarence who is drowned in a butt of wine) the Tower of London offers itself for consideration as a super-thriller based upon historical fact rather than a serious study in the psychology of the Plantagenets. As such it achieves a satisfying success.

The Movies ...  and the People Who Make Them, 1939


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? 

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.

Lord DeVere (Rodion Rathbone) tips Mord for his services: "Here is a groat, the smallest coin I know."

Lord DeVere is beheaded.

Impressive sets duplicate the grandeur of 15th century London and the magnificence of court pageantry. Elaborate costumes of the period add to the spectacular effect and hundreds of extras appear in the crested armor for the battle scenes.


Historical Melodrama

Melodramatic political, military and personal events of English history in the exciting years 14711485 will be pictured in "The Tower of London." Naturally the show will be a costume production, and the scale upon which Universal is making it may be realized from the importance of the names it will present, the great number of persons who will be used, the scope, size and authenticity of settings, the prestige of the principals and the repute of the producer-director, Rowland V. Lee.

Directly the theme will trace the exploits of Richard III, an infamous plotter, who used fair or foul means to win his ends, yet is regarded one of the strongest character of all time. Basil Rathbone, expert in his part in "If I Were King," will interpret the title role. "Tower of London"  is also the story of a great many other persons. There are Boris Karloff as Richard's trigger man, the kindly queen Elizabeth, Edward IV, a strong man until he was killed, a young Englishman who remained loyal to his queen during six years imprisonment and torture, the young princes Edward and Richard, the queen's young lady in waiting who helped her lover escape to conquer the tyrant and win a crown.

To supplement the name value of Rathbone and Karloff and help make the grim melodrama of history real and human, the production will further make available such personalities as Barbara O'Neil, Ian Hunter, Nan Grey, Vincent Price, John Sutton, Leo G. Carroll, Miles Mander, Frances Robinson, Ralph Forbes, Ernest Cossart and Ronald Sinclair.

Motion Picture Herald, September 30, 1939


The battles of Tewkesbury (1471) and Bosworth (1485) were recreated at Tarzana, 20 miles from Hollywood. At the location site summer temperatures of 105 degrees belied the rain in which Tewkesbury was fought and the heavy fog in which Bosworth was waged. Four a.m. calls were issued for Bosworth battle scenes to 450 extras and the principals. The early call allowed fog-making technicians to work their magic before the late morning winds interfered.

In the recreated Tewkesbury battle, man-made rain bogged down the fighters in deep puddles and a raging stream also hampered the battlers. Despite the ferocity of the warfare and the adverse weather conditions, not one serious injury was recorded. All men wore chain mail and breast plates as a protection against such deadly 15th century weapons as swords, maces, halberds and pikes.

The fog and rain were used for the battle scenes to cover up the bloodiness of the battles, to keep them from appearing too gory for audiences.

battle of Tewkesbury

In battle against the Prince of Wales, son of Henry VI.

on Bosworth field

on Bosworth field

Director Rowland Lee had previously worked with Basil Rathbone in Love From a Stranger (1937), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and The Sun Never Sets (1939).

"Imagine Basil Rathbone as the unscrupulous prince who's busy killing off everyone who stands between him and the throne; then think of the fun he'd have with all the torture devices of the old prison tower—and you'll have some idea of how gruesome this thing really is. It's first-rate mellerdrammer." —Photoplay, February 1940



They called him derisive names behind his crooked back, but they hesitated to show their hatred to his face because he was the greatest duelist of his day, and because his ruthless diplomacy was as deadly as his rapier. All too often actors show Richard the Third of England as a creature of such leering evil, of such obvious wickedness, that it becomes difficult to credit his tremendous influence on the court. Basil Rathbone makes him wicked, indeed, but virile and intense and, in a rather frightening way, immensely attractive. He makes quite believable the ugly story of the ambition that carried Richard closer and closer to the throne until only the two little princes who disappeared from the bloody tower of London, no one knows how to this day.

A truly excellent cast has been brought together for the film which is the most believable of this season's pretentious costume dramas. There is singularly little of the posturing, or of the acting up to doublet and hose that so frequently mars dramas of by-gone days. The writers of the script did not make the mistake of using modern slang, but neither did they drag in "Prithee" and "'s Blood" between every other word. The actors seem to have put on their very attractive costumes and then forgotten them. The director seemed determined to tell a story about violent people, rather than concentrate on impressive mob scenes. All together an entirely superior production.

Boris Karloff plays the club-foot executioner whose capacity for evil makes his own Frankensteinian monster seem a mischievous child at play by comparison. Barbara O'Neil makes Queen Elyzabeth, mother of the little princes, a convincing woman rather than the usual stock figure. Ian Hunter is a fine, hearty, roistering Edward. No one can feel very sorry when Vincent Prince is toppled with a splash into a butt of sack, there to drawn in his favorite liquid, so unhealthily evil does he make the Duke of Clarence. Excellent also are Ernest Cossart as the clownish chimney sweep, Joan Sutton, Miles Mander, Leo Carroll, Lionel Belmore, Ralph Forbes, G.P. Huntley, Rose Hobart and Nan Grey. This is a good way to catch up on a chapter of history.

Hollywood, February 1940


See Page Two for more reviews and screenshots from the film. See Page Three for pictures of posters, lobby cards and promo photos.


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 Company ... Universal
Producer ... Rowland V. Lee
Director ... Rowland V. Lee
Assistant Directors ... Fred Frank, Ford Beebe
Screenplay Robert N. Lee
Cinematographer... George Robinson
Film Editor ... Edward Curtiss
Assistant Editor ... Paul Landres
Music Composer ... Frank Skinner
Music Director ... Charles Previn
Art Director ... Jack Otterson
Associate Art Director ... Richard H. Riedel
Set Decorator ... Russell A. Gausman
Costumes ... Vera West
Costume Jeweler ... Eugene Joseff
Make Up ... Jack Pierce, Sam Kaufman, Otto Lederer
Sound Supervisor ... Bernard B. Brown
Sound Technician ... William Hedgcock
Matte effects ... Jack Cosgrove, Russell Lawson
Camera Operator ... Edward Colman
Background Photographer ... Henry Schuster
Process Photographer ... George J. Teague
Technical Advisors ... G.O.T. Bagley, Gerald Grove
Fencing Master ... Fred Cavens


Tower of London is available on DVD

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



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