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Tower of London (1939)
On the surface Tower of London is not your typical Universal picture. While the studio's chief output in the 1930s had been monster movies sourced from 18th century literature, Tower is instead a historical saga set in 15th century England. But rather than focus on the romantic intrigue and grand costumes of these times (for that cinema goers could've grabbed a ticket for The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex released the same year) director/producer Rowland V. Lee draws back this veil to reveal real human depravity. After all this is the story of Richard III, a story that includes bloody war, mad ambition and infanticide. By looking to the past the studio wasn't making a departure, but rather continuing to indulge its obsession with monsters.
Beginning in 1471, Tower retells the rise and fall of Richard Duke of Gloucester, the 'crookback' English monarch made infamous by Shakespeare's Richard III. Staying close to the popular opinion that Richard (Basil Rathbone) was a twisted megalomaniac, the film watches him scheme his way from Duke, to Lord Protector of his nephew king, to eventual ruler of all England. The Tower of the title is centre stage for these ambitions. Its dungeon (overseen by Boris Karloff's Mord) is a nightmare of bizarre torture devices awaiting anyone who stands in Richard's path. Meanwhile the pinnacle becomes a prison for the doomed 12 year old king Edward IV - the last person standing between Richard and absolute power. But while he plots, civil war rages and Henry Tudor rides to England with a claim to the throne and a loyal army by his side.
While Tower does drink in some of the lusty decadence associated with this period, such as goblets sloshing, shining armour and ripe dialogue ("aye this does make the gravy thick!" being a favourite) the film is more focused on its dark antagonists. Richard moves snake-like through the courts, whispering in ears and conniving his way towards power. His appointment as Lord Protector is seen, rightly, as a, "foreboding of evil," and there is purity to his wickedness. He will stop at nothing achieve what he desires. Played by Rathbone the monarch is a looming figure with keen eyes that prey upon those around him. And with those sharp eyebrows and cropped hair he is the archetypal image not of the historical Richard but rather of Goethe's Mephistopheles. The glee he takes in committing acts of suffering further cements this parallel. In an early sequence he is seen presiding over the execution of a traitor and he can not suppress a tiny smirk escaping from the corner of his mouth. He is a man - a demon - delighted with evil.
By emphasising Richard's enjoyment of causing pain director Lee flirts with a perversity more associated with fellow Universal employee James Whale. This is also explored in Mord, a character absent from history and Shakespeare and another of Karloff's grotesques. His torture chamber is his playground and it is with sadomasochistic fervour that he hangs the film's bland hero Wyatt by his thumbs, brands him with hot irons and puts him to the rack. Later he commits assassinations for Richard and in an act of supreme blasphemy hides a knife in a crucifix and murders a man at prayer. Mord is another of Universal's weird creatures stalking chiaroscuro castles but the film seems to be reaching for something deeper. In Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) the title characters were somehow victims of what they had become, but here men transgress from their own free will - simply because it thrills them.
Yes, these characters share a bloodline with Universal's other creatures of the night, but they are also more familiar to us. Both Mord and Richard are larger-than-life, but are recognizably human - committing human atrocities. Indeed, fittingly for a director who served in the First World War, Lee shows Richard's final sin to be leading his men into battle. And the sequence is a visceral attack on the nerves. A ghostly mist hangs over the wet fields. The camera crawls along the mud and the picture becomes a tapestry of clanking armour, clashing steel and split skulls. As the mist clears bodies litter the ground and are spat upon by the victors. The battle shows what men are capable of, as if the evil festering in Richard has somehow infected them. And for his part, during the battle, amidst the screams and the anguish, he stops, raises his helmet and laughs.
For one of Universal's lesser known movies from their Golden Age, it is intriguing that the studio should have decided to sidestep fantasy to show a very real evil. And because of this focus on human dictators and deranged power it is the closet the studio ever got to a kind of direct allegory. After all in the 1930s men like Richard were re-emerging on the other side of the Atlantic. A new age of war was dawning and perhaps this is the final point. As the world again shifted towards darker times what Tower of London suggests is that history can produce monsters its own - and it always will.