Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) continues to invoke strong praise and criticism. Olivier not only produced, directed, and starred in the film, he also worked as text editor, condensing Shakespeare’s roughly four and a half hour play into a two and a half hour film. As the first actor to so overtly emphasize Hamlet’s “Oedipus complex,” on screen, Olivier helped shape the continuing debate over the correct interpretation of this classic character. Whether you’re a fan or critic, there’s no denying that with 1948’s Hamlet, Sir Laurence brought Shakespeare to the masses.
Peter Cushing's Long Road to Stardom
Playing the small but important role of Osric in the film, our Star of the Month Peter Cushing makes full use of his brief screen time. His work in Hamlet further proved it didn’t much matter what role or genre you put Peter Cushing in: whether playing comedy, drama or horror, Peter was going to shine. And steal the scene right out from under any actor around him.
But despite his obvious talent, success and financial stability were still years away for Peter Cushing. Peter experienced lulls in employment, a nervous break down, and insensitive insult from his own father before the course of his career finally turned for the better. Thanks to the enduring confidence of his wife Helen, Peter at last found steady work on the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) during the 1950s, becoming a television star in the process.
You can rent or purchase Hamlet here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot, and, for any diehard Shakespeare fans, I must remind you that Olivier’s Hamlet is condensed, with whole characters and plot points removed. The summary that follows is of the film, and as such, will vary from the play.
So don’t freak out.
Hamlet: The Plot
Our story takes place in medieval Elsinore, Denmark. Young Prince Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) unhappily attends a party in the palace celebrating the marriage of his mother, Gertrude (Eileen Herlie), to his Uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney). The marriage upsets Hamlet because his father “hadn’t even been dead a month” before his mother remarried.
And plus, it’s Hamlet’s dad’s brother she just married…
Oh, and Hamlet kind of has a thing for his mom. So that complicates things as well.
After the party, Hamlet is informed by his friend Horatio (Norman Woodland) and a few guards that while on guard duty, they saw a ghost. The ghost of Hamlet’s father, to be exact.
Hamlet decides to stand guard with his friends that night, hoping the ghost will appear and speak to him.
And it does.
After confirming that the ghost is his father, Hamlet follows the ghost up a secluded tower, where he’s told the story of how the ghost, his father, Hamlet, Sr., died.
As it turns out, Hamlet, Sr., was taking a nap one day when all of a sudden his brother Claudius came along and poured some poison in his ear. The poison killed Hamlet, Sr., almost instantly. With Hamlet, Sr., out of the way, Claudius then became king and married Gertrude.
After the ghost visit, Hamlet pretends to be “mad” to see if he can gain further evidence of Claudius’ guilt. Once satisfied that Claudius was responsible for the murder, Hamlet sets out to avenge his father’s death.
Hamlet Has a Plan
Hamlet concocts a great plan to get revenge on his uncle, and proceeds to carry it out:
He hires an acting troupe to reenact the murder in a show at the palace, hoping it will psyche his uncle out, and further prove his guilt.
As Hamlet hoped, Claudius completely loses it during the show, and runs out to pray for forgiveness. Hamlet finds him, and almost kills Claudius on the spot, but convinces himself to wait for another time when Claudius isn’t doing something so saintly.
Hamlet then goes to his mother’s bedroom to give her a talking to. He’s almost seduced by her and distracted from his plan, but Hamlet holds strong, especially when he thinks he hears his uncle hiding behind the drapes.
Hamlet thrusts his sword through the drapes to kill his uncle, only to find that it’s actually Polonius (Felix Aylmer) hiding there, his uncle’s advisor, and the father of Ophelia (Jean Simmons), the girlfriend Hamlet just dumped and told to go to a nunnery…
Polonius dies instantly, but Hamlet doesn’t seem to care a whole lot. He smooths things over with his mom, who’s now feeling really guilty for marrying so quickly. So Hamlet’s first mission is accomplished.
The Banishment and Return of Hamlet
Claudius deports Hamlet to England, with orders that Hamlet be murdered as soon as he gets there.
But it’s Hamlet’s lucky day, because pirates attack his ship.
The pirates capture Hamlet and spare his life, saving him from death in England.
Hamlet eventually makes his way back to Denmark, only to discover on his return that Ophelia, mad with grief over the death of her father by Hamlet’s hand, killed herself. Hamlet makes his presence known at the funeral, and Ophelia’s brother, Laertes (Terrance Morgan), vows to get Hamlet back for the deaths of his sister and father.
Claudius Plans Another Murder
Laertes works out a plan with Claudius to see to it that Hamlet dies: Laertes will challenge Hamlet to a duel. The tip of Laertes’ sword will be dipped in poison, so if he pierces Hamlet’s skin, Hamlet will die. For good measure, Claudius will also have a poisoned drink ready for Hamlet when he gets thirsty. Either way, they figure, Hamlet dies.
Osric (Peter Cushing), who will referee the duel, delivers the invitation to Hamlet, comically tripping down a flight of stairs in the process. (Hey, I told you Peter Cushing’s self-stated ability to “fall down a cliff without breaking his neck” would come in handy during his acting career.)
Hamlet accepts the duel invite. It seems the whole Danish court, Gertrude included, comes to watch Hamlet and Laertes.
A Mother's Intuition
Hamlet wins the first two rounds, and everyone seems to be having a great time. But then Gertrude has a burst of motherly intuition, and gets suspicious of the goblet Claudius so clearly wants Hamlet to drink from.
Wishing to save her son from a potential poisoning, Gertrude drinks from the goblet, to Claudius’ dismay. He knows his wife will soon die.
Then Laertes catches Hamlet off guard between rounds, and gives him a light scratch with the tip of his sword. That’s all it will take to kill Hamlet, but a few things will happen before Hamlet’s death.
"Venom, to Thy Work!"
Enraged that Laertes was so unchivalrous as to wound him during a break from the dueling, Hamlet goes at him full force. In the process, their swords get switched. So when Hamlet cuts Laertes’ wrist, Laertes knows he will soon die as well.
As soon as Gertrude collapses, Hamlet realizes the whole duel was a set up. He storms about the castle, and up a flight of stairs, with Laertes’ poisoned sword. At the top of the stairs, Hamlet realizes it was all his uncle’s doing.
With the uttering of the classic line, “Then venom, to thy work!” Hamlet dives off the top of the stairs at his uncle Claudius, stabbing and killing Claudius on impact. Hamlet has finally avenged his father’s death.
Now the poison finally catches up with Hamlet, and he too dies. Horatio arranges a funeral fit for a war hero, and Hamlet is buried with respect.
And that’s the end of the film.
"To Thine Own Self Be True"
Though Hamlet was the first time Peter Cushing and Laurence Olivier worked together, it wasn’t the first time they met.
In 1946, Cushing was still an actor hoping for steady work, while Olivier was an established star of film and theater. Peter attended an audition for Olivier’s production of Born Yesterday. An American play, Peter desperately hoped that Olivier’s take on the play would not require an American accent: Helen’s coaching had made her husband a pro at just about every accent except American.
Well, unfortunately, Peter was asked by Olivier if he could do an American accent. Olivier, aware of Peter’s time spent in Hollywood, kind of expected Peter to have the American accent down, and asked him to demonstrate one. In his autobiography [aff. link], Peter shared his answer to the “dreaded question”:
“I muttered something fatuous about having also been to Scotland, but I still couldn’t speak Gaelic…Desperately as I needed the job, I could never abide phony accents, and, rather self-consciously, quoted the Bard: ‘To thine own self be true…’”
"I Shall Remember You"
Peter left the audition that day without auditioning.
But Cushing’s confidence in knowing what he could and could not do impressed Laurence Olivier, who told Peter in parting that:
“Well, I appreciate you not wasting my time. I shall remember you.”
Peter had heard that one before, and considered it nothing more than a kind brush off. But Olivier would surprise Peter by making good on his promise to remember him.
An Impressive Accent
Not too long after Peter’s unsuccessful audition for Born Yesterday, Olivier’s “right-hand man,” Anthony Bushell, went to see a production of While the Sun Shines at London’s “Q” Theater. Bushell’s purpose in seeing the play was to scout out actors to cast in Olivier’s latest project, a film version of Hamlet. One actor in particular, who spoke English with a perfect French accent, caught his attention.
As Bushell recounts in The Film Hamlet, a book about, you guessed it, the film Hamlet:
“I was struck by a performance of the Frenchman in While the Sun Shines, so true in style and accent that I looked for a French name on the program. [But] It was Mr. Cushing, and he speaks no French. Here evidently was an actor, and his test for Osric disposed of the last of our problems…”
Peter Cushing wasn’t up for attempting an American accent, but his French accent was so obviously amazing, it won him the role of Osric in Hamlet, his most prestigious film yet.
Getting Into Character for Hamlet
Peter immediately immersed himself in the role, and began growing his hair out for a Shakespearian look.
One day Peter went to the park to study lines, his hair and beard by this time at a self-described “scruffy” stage. As Peter recounts, he was:
“Squatting on a heap of rubble, deep in Shakespearean thought, [when] I gradually became aware of two figures [police detectives], standing with hands in pockets, staring at me intently.
Deserters from the armed forces were being rounded up, and they suspected I was one. They accosted me with a quick-fire interrogation, random questions which utterly confused my Osric-ridden brain.”
Luckily, Peter’s inability to answer a single question correctly—other than his wife’s name—worked out in his favor. The detectives took Peter’s confusion as a sign of innocence, and the only reprimand he received was to go home and shave.
Olivier's First Hamlet
Laurence Olivier first played Hamlet on the stage of London’s historic Old Vic Theater in 1937. Already an established film star, the move was an ambitious one for Olivier. He took a massive pay cut when he joined the Old Vic in late 1936—going from a weekly salary of 500 pounds in films to a weekly salary of 25 pounds at the Old Vic—but Olivier felt strongly that until he did Shakespeare, he just couldn’t consider himself a serious actor.
As Olivier said of his move towards Shakespeare for acting integrity:
“My ambition required it, I required it of myself. I knew it [becoming a serious actor] wouldn’t happen unless I crashed that market…and I just went on and on, and after about a year the Press referred to me as ‘that Shakespearean actor.’ Then I knew it had been done.”
Olivier's Motivation for Making Hamlet
By 1947, Olivier’s reputation as one of the premier actors of his generation was firmly in place. But there was one great honor that still alluded him: knighthood. Olivier’s motivation to bring Hamlet to the screen was actually sparked by pride and jealousy: fellow English actor Ralph Richardson, one of Olivier’s few peers in the realm of acting geniuses, was knighted at the start of 1947. Olivier was quite open about his disgruntlement that his friend and rival Richardson received the honor first:
“You should have heard the screams when Ralph had got his knighthood before I had. Deeply fond of Ralph as I was, I was unable to stop the cracked record from grinding round in my head: I’ve done every bit as much as he has…”
So what’s the best way to earn a knighthood as you try to one-up a frenemy?
Why, that would be to produce, direct, star, and act as text editor in the first English language film production of Hamlet.
And that’s just what Laurence Olivier did.
Hamlet: The Hair
Oh, and while you’re at it, die your hair platinum blond.
An interesting side note to the hair in Hamlet: Laurence Olivier seemed aware that the platinum color and cut he sports in the film were perhaps not the most flattering to his features. But at the end of the day, going platinum was all about being noticed: in the film, Olivier wanted audiences to be able to easily pick him:
“out from a distance. For Heaven’s sake, I wasn’t going to play Hamlet and have a whole world audience not know which the hell I was in long shots: [I was] the only one allowed to be blond.”
Olivier reportedly marveled to Peter Cushing one day that the two of them were the only cast members using their real hair, but were somehow the only two actors who looked like they were wearing wigs.
A Good Deal
J. Arthur Rank, the distributor of the film, gave Olivier a pretty awesome deal for Hamlet: Olivier would earn a monthly salary of 1,000 pounds to produce, 1,000 to direct, and 2,000 to star in the film.
In 2022 dollars, that’s about the equivalent of $170,000 a month.
On top of this, Olivier would receive 3/8ths of the film’s profit. Indeed, this lucrative financial arrangement was a sign of Olivier’s great prestige at the time.
Olivier certainly had his work cut out for him: Hamlet on stage ran (roughly) a staggering four and a half hours, much longer than a standard film. (For context, even Gone with the Wind (1939), which starred Olivier’s lovely wife Vivien Leigh, was capped at just under four hours.)
Making Some Cuts to Hamlet
Rank insisted that Olivier’s Hamlet run no longer than two and a half hours, and preferably, only 2 hours. To achieve this standard, Olivier quite literally had to figure out a way to cut the running time of Hamlet in half, while still keeping a cohesive storyline.
As he made the cuts, Laurence Olivier felt strongly about what to keep, and what to axe. Olivier wanted to take the Freudian Oedipus complex undertones from his 1937 stage portrayal of Hamlet, and make them more pronounced in the film: where the lustful element of Hamlet’s relationship with his mother may have gone unnoticed by many theatergoers in 1937, Olivier made it impossible to miss this time around, even casting Eileen Herlie, an actress 11 years his junior, in the role of Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. To anyone who had a problem with the retrograde age discrepancy between Olivier and Herlie, Olivier merely responded:
“For goodness sake, it’s Hamlet.”
Olivier sacrificed the political storyline and characters (Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras) from Shakespeare’s play in order to meet Rank’s running time criteria, putting the focus of the film squarely on Hamlet’s psychology. Some critics viewed this as a mistake, while others applauded Olivier’s choice, which unquestionably brought more depth to the character by showing his inner turmoil.
The Hamlet Swan Dive: An Olivier Original
When comparing himself to previous Hamlets, Laurence Olivier would rightfully pride himself on being a more athletic Hamlet than any actor before him. This pride mostly came from the dive Olivier does at the end of the film.
From a fourteen-foot high balcony. With a sword. Onto the actor playing Claudius.
As Olivier biographer Terry Coleman points out, this “swan dive” was nowhere in Shakespeare’s play. It was pure Olivier.
As the crescendo to this two and a half hour-long film, Olivier knew that Hamlet’s stabbing of the traitorous Claudius needed to be grand. And he was willing to do whatever it took to make this finale worth waiting for. As Olivier states in his autobiography [aff. link]:
“It is not always by any means easy to find a way to make something look dangerous without it actually being so. The final dramatic gesture in a film of Hamlet seemed to require an action spectacular enough to involve such a risk.”
Olivier had decided on—and envisioned—his fourteen-foot dive onto Claudius long before filming finally took place. Wisely, Oliver chose to shoot this scene last. As Olivier saw it:
“[the] dangers involved in what I had conceived for this moment presented themselves to me in the light of the following five possibilities: I could kill myself, I could damage myself for life, I could hurt myself bad enough to make recovery a lengthy business, I could hurt myself only slightly, or I could get away with it without harm. The odds seemed to me to be quite evenly disposed among these five alternatives…I felt so strongly then that this film was by far the most important work of my life that I regarded the first of the five possibilities with an unworried steadiness that gave me a mild feeling of surprise; but I’ve always known when to take advantage of something.”
Olivier hired a few acrobats to show him how to dive elegantly, swiftly, and dramatically into Claudius.
But he wasn’t satisfied with their displays.
As Olivier writes in his autobiography [aff. link], when he asked the acrobats to show him some “variations,” perhaps starting the dive from a taking off point more distanced from the king:
“They looked at me as at a really stupid man who could not appreciate what he was asking…Not without a tinge of despair, I mounted the platform, from the edge of which I asked my King to move backwards away from me, further, further still. When he was at a distance I thought I could just cover in an outward dive including the decreasing downward journey outwards, I said: ‘I am going to say…‘Then venom, to thy work,’ and then I’ll jump onto him…Okay roll them.”
And with that, Olivier said the famous line, and just WENT FOR IT.
It’s not surprising that Basil Sydney, the actor playing Claudius, opted to have a stuntman take his place as Olivier dove down at him from fourteen feet with a sword…
But Olivier’s dive worked: he succeeded in passing his sword over the stuntman’s shoulder, avoiding piercing the man’s eye with his blade. Olivier also successfully avoided piercing his own eye on the ornate crown the actor was wearing. As Olivier recounted of his “moment of bravery” [aff. link]:
“In the following second and a half everything worked like a dream—in fact, like the dream I had so often rehearsed to myself. The landing was just right, my King fell back quite beautifully; unbelievingly I scrambled up off his body and was then frightened by his groaning. My weight hitting him under the chin had knocked him out. The one brave moment of my life was over.”
Hamlet: Totally Worth It
One knocked out stuntman, though not great, does seem small consequence for such a daring dive that is the crowning point of the film. Olivier’s bravery certainly paid off.
Olivier’s bravery paid off in other ways as well: not only would Hamlet win four Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Picture—becoming the first non-Hollywood produced movie to do so, Olivier was also finally knighted during filming.
On July 8, 1947, looking quite dapper despite the fact that he still sported his platinum Hamlet tresses, Olivier was knighted. At forty years old, Laurence Olivier became the youngest actor to achieve knighthood.
Off to Australia
Peter Cushing’s performance as Osric was scene stealing. The newly knighted Sir Laurence and Lady Olivier, also known as Vivien Leigh, took notice. They invited Peter to join them for a tour of Australia with the Old Vic theater company.
If you remember from my introduction article on Peter Cushing, he and wife Helen decided at the start of their marriage to never let work separate them. So it was a good thing that Olivier happily invited Helen to join the company at Peter’s request. As Olivier told Peter:
“there were enough separations during the war. Of course your Helen shall be one of us.”
And so the Cushings were off to Australia.
A Thoughtful Gift
While performing in theaters across Australia, Peter was gifted a very generous addition to his collection of model soldiers.
By none other than Vivien Leigh.
As Peter shares in his autobiography [aff. link]:
“Another dear lady who added generously to my farmyard and battalion was Vivien Leigh. I was in Laurence Olivier’s Old Vic Company which toured Australia for a year in 1948, and one day she caught sight of me looking longingly through a shop window, nose pressed against glass, hopelessly captivated by a boxed set of The 11th Hussars…
‘Would you like that for your birthday?’ she asked.
‘Oh, so very much,’ said I, wistfully.
Several weeks later, when the day dawned, I was a little dismayed not to find it amongst all the other wrapped gifts…But in the evening when we got to the theater, there it was on my dressing room table, with a card saying ‘AH-HAH!—you thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?! Love—Vivien and Larry. X”
It was a gift Peter kept and treasured his whole life, and just one of many thoughtful acts by Vivien that friends would comment on over the years.
The Cushings' Financial Worries
After returning home from the year abroad, Peter and Helen experienced a period of financial difficulty. Finances were bad enough that in Peter’s words, the Cushings were “close to insolvency.”
Laurence Olivier offered Peter a role in his latest play, which Peter accepted. But just weeks into rehearsals, the travel of the last year, coupled with the stress of live performances and the Cushings’ dire financial situation, were just too much: Peter suffered a nervous breakdown.
Olivier recognized his friend’s distress, and, as Peter writes in his autobiography [aff. link]:
“He was at my side immediately, consoling and compassionate, and told me to go home to Helen…he also paid me a retainer until I was fit to resume work, an act of kindness not to be forgotten.”
Peter’s nervous breakdown lasted six months. When he resumed work, though in a better mental state, things were still difficult: Helen suffered a hernia, and was admitted to the hospital for treatment.
"Forty and a Failure"
In desperate need of funds, Peter asked his father for a loan. It was then that George Cushing said perhaps the most hurtful words his son would ever hear:
“You are nearly 40, and a failure.”
As Peter later recollected, his father’s cruel words were:
“Just a statement of fact, and not meant unkindly, his criterion for success being based entirely upon how much was in the bank. On that basis, he was dead right, but it hurt deeply, and I went back to Helen feeling lower than a snake’s belly. She asked me how I’d got on, and I noticed her lips tighten when I told her, but she made no comment.”
Helen Cushing: An Extraordinary Woman
Helen Cushing was an extraordinary woman. Recognizing her husband’s deep pain over the situation, one day she went to visit Peter’s father alone, to smooth things over, and make sure George Cushing understood just how talented and hard working his son was.
Helen’s conversation not only gave George Cushing an appreciation for his son’s talents, it also strengthened the father/son relationship that had always been somewhat difficult. As Peter marveled in his autobiography, because of Helen’s conversation with his dad:
“I felt more relaxed in his company than I had ever been before.”
Helen Cushing’s confidence in her husband’s talent didn’t stop there. She realized that for Peter to reach his full potential, he needed to stop accepting minor roles in repertory theater. Peter Cushing’s future was in television.
And it took the wisdom and spunk of his wife to not only recognize this, but make it happen.
Capitalizing on Peter’s years in Hollywood and time touring with Olivier, Helen wrote letters to all the television producers whose names she could find in the Radio Times , a British weekly broadcast listings magazine. In her letters, Helen informed the producers that Peter was back, had “chosen to remain England,” and was available for television work.
It was a genius plan.
And it worked.
Through her letters, Helen secured Peter the first of the thirty-one live television plays he’d star in for the BBC over the coming years.
A Television Star
During the 1950s, Peter Cushing became a television star. His appearances on “the box” each week were so frequent and loved by fans, a running joke of the time said that television was nothing more than:
“Peter Cushing with knobs on.”
Television was only the beginning of Peter’s success. His great television popularity caught the attention of Hammer Film Productions, and soon, Peter transitioned to film stardom.
By the end of the decade, Peter Cushing was one of the horror genre’s biggest stars.
That's it for Hamlet
And that’s it for Hamlet (1948).
Join me next week for 1958’s The Horror of Dracula, and Peter Cushing’s prolific years as a Hammer horror film star.