Universal’s Tower of London, released in 1939, is an historical drama rather than a horror movie. However the presence in the cast of Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, as well as Basil Rathbone, makes it of considerable interest to horror fans. Roger Corman directed an inferior remake in 1962.
The story of the rise and fall of Richard III is so dramatic that it would be almost impossible to make a dull movie on the subject. And this movie is certainly far from dull.
Basil Rathbone has the starring role as Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later to become King Richard III). His brother King Edward IV (Ian Hunter) reigns. The previous king, the mad Henry VI, is a prisoner in the Tower of London. Henry VI’s son tries to wrest the throne from King Edward but is defeated and killed by Gloucester at the decisive Battle of Tewkesbury.
Edward IV has two young sons so the succession seems assured and clear-cut. The King however is suspicious of his brother the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price). He is not suspicious at all of the Duke of Gloucester, although he should be. Gloucester is a skillful and subtle plotter and he is determined to gain the throne for himself. In a rather nice touch the movie has Gloucester manipulating puppets in a puppet theatre, each puppet representing one of the people who stands between him and the throne.
There are numerous fairly complex sub-plots. I’m not really sure it would be possible to keep track of the complex inter-relationships and the byzantine machinations of the leading figures without having a reasonably good knowledge of the history of the period. The motivations of many of the leading characters are exceptionally complicated. This is especially true of the Duke of Clarence.
Despite the complexities of the plot the movie moves along at a brisk pace and there is plenty of drama.
Basil Rathbone was always a splendid villain, and in this movie Richard is most certainly a villain. He is cold-blooded and calculating, and a patient and remorseless schemer. This is one of the more subtle screen portrayals of Richard III and one of the most believable - Rathbone’s performance makes it possible to understand how Richard could have got away with his plotting for so long, hiding it under a veneer of charm.
Vincent Price plays Clarence as something of a fop, a man whose ambitions would be dangerous if he had the strength of character to back them up. The scene in which Clarence’s love of Malmsey wine catches up to him is rather well played.
The movie’s claims to being a horror movie rest mainly on Boris Karloff’s performance as Mord, the Duke of Gloucester’s chief executioner and general-purpose evil henchman. Mord is partly crippled by a misshapen foot, a clever echo of Gloucester’s own deformity (although Gloucester’s hunchback is downplayed in this movie). Mord is a classic Karloff villain.
The weakness of the movie is that we’re not really left with any sympathetic characters to identify with. Rathbone’s performance is good but it’s perhaps makes him an overly two-dimensional villain with the result that the audience might find itself not caring too much who comes out on top in the movie’s endless power struggles. The closest thing we have to a hero is John Wyatt (John Sutton), but he’s rather bland and too much of a peripheral character to count as a real hero.
Rowland V. Lee directed the production from a screenplay by his brother Robert N. Lee. Rowland V. Lee’s career included a number of horror and adventure movies, including the superb Son of Frankenstein, so he must have seemed a sound choice to helm this one. He does a competent if uninspired job. The battle scenes benefit from being dark and chaotic but suffer from being markedly unexciting. Universal were trying to keep the budget within reasonable bounds but they were also to a large degree aiming the movie at their traditional horror market which may also explain why it was shot in black-and-white. The production ran well over schedule and over budget although it managed to turn a profit.
Towards the end Tower of London suddenly becomes more of an adventure movie, in fact a bit of a medieval heist movie. And Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone deliver some genuine horror moments.
This movie features in Universal’s five-movie Boris Karloff Collection DVD boxed set. The transfer is quite superb. The boxed set itself is a worthwhile buy for horror fans.
Tower of London is a fairly entertaining historical melodrama with enough gruesome touches to keep horror fans happy. Rathbone and Karloff are the main reasons for seeing this film although Vincent Price has his moments as well. Had it been released on its own I wouldn’t recommend this as a purchase but since it’s included in a boxed set that is worth buying for other reasons there’s no reason not to give this one a watch.