Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Richard III and Disinformation in TOWER OF LONDON (1939)

One probably doesn't go looking for timely political commentary in a film like Tower of London (1939), which offers a mashup of history and horror in its retelling of the bloody rise and fall of England's most reviled monarch. Much of the plot is familiar to viewers thanks to broad cultural awareness of Shakespeare's version and, perhaps, renewed 21st century interest that resulted from the discovery of Richard's bones in 2012. Tower of London, which was released in 1939, is very much a Hollywood vision of the Wars of the Roses, with Basil Rathbone starring as the murderously ambitious Richard. It generally favors the lurid and romantic over the strictly historical, a bent indicated by the presence of supporting players like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. It's striking, then, to recognize the way in which this film depicts the insidious use of disinformation and a weaponized mob to influence political forces. Just like the hidden political operatives who manipulate our elections today, Richard III and his henchman, Mord, utilize a massive, medieval version of social media to undermine their opponents and assist their own ambitions.

We might not, at first, recognize the importance of the disinformation campaign to Richard's ascent. Shocking physical violence often overshadows the subtler efforts that propel the repugnant royal toward the throne. In the film, Richard has his enemies executed, drowns one brother in a vat of malmsey, has his young nephews brutally murdered, and conspires in the deaths of numerous other rivals. While he is a skilled swordsman, he normally avoids holding the murder weapons himself, preferring instead to have Mord commit the crimes or to fabricate grounds to get his enemies sent to the scaffold. Richard's general preference throughout is for the most underhanded, devious means of accomplishing his goals; his double dealing keeps everyone around him off balance and guessing at his true motives.

That inclination toward secretive, secondhand villainy fits perfectly with Richard's deployment of the rabble to spread lies and gossip that support his rise to power. We see in the film how Richard conducts this propaganda campaign, with Mord once again as his intermediary. Richard gives Mord the funding and the message to circulate, which Mord then takes to a collection of beggars who function as his network of infiltrators and spies. Somewhat comically, we see the mob rehearse their assigned lines under Mord's direction and then repeat them as they pretend to be casual spectators interspersed among the crowds. They work exactly like modern Russian agitators and other operatives on social media, taking their orders from the top and then presenting themselves as independent, sincere peers to the unsuspecting community. Their misinformation and propaganda spread through the kingdom until citizens rally in support of Richard and demand that he be crowned king, never suspecting that their actions have been carefully manipulated for that very end. The people affected by Richard's lies don't seem to realize - or care - that he has the blood of so many people on his hands.

Fortunately for history, Richard's propaganda is only temporarily successful, and, as we now know, his thoroughly abused corpse ended up buried beneath a Leicester car park. Tower of London ends on a positive note, with Queen Elyzabeth (Barbara O'Neil) rejoicing that she has saved her daughters from Richard's murderous reign and will one day see an heir to her line once more on the English throne (in reality, her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, would become Queen to Henry VII and the mother of Henry VIII). The bloodshed and damage, however, were not undone for the many who lost their lives during Richard's rise and fall, and modern viewers can't assume that a new Henry Tudor will show up to right the ship of state in our current global political crisis. While we might rightly relish the horror-tinged spectacle that Tower of London offers, we should also take to heart its dire message about the insidious efficiency of misinformation and the deliberate manipulation of the masses through whisper campaigns, whether they're conducted in a marketplace or on Facebook. Now is the winter of our discontent, indeed, and Richard's modern counterparts are hard at work to ensure that no glorious summer follows.


  1. I would like to mention that the disinformation also emanated from Henry VII, who was no real hero. Richard III may not have killed his nephews. Take a look at for more on the real RIII.

  2. Very nice to have you posting again.