Hamlet (1948 film)

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theatrical poster
Directed by Laurence Olivier
Produced byLaurence Olivier
Screenplay byLaurence Olivier
Based on Hamlet (play)
by William Shakespeare
StarringLaurence Olivier
Music by William Walton
Cinematography Desmond Dickinson
Edited by Helga Cranston
Distributed by Rank Film Distributors Ltd. (UK)
Universal-International (US)
Release date
  • 4 May 1948 (1948-05-04)
Running time
155 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget£527,530 [1]
Box office$3,250,000 (US rentals) [2] [3]

Hamlet is a 1948 British film adaptation of William Shakespeare's play of the same name, adapted and directed by and starring Sir Laurence Olivier. Hamlet was Olivier's second film as director, and also the second of the three Shakespeare films that he directed (the 1936 As You Like It had starred Olivier, but had been directed by Paul Czinner). Hamlet was the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. [4] It is also the first sound film of the play in English. A 1935 sound film adaptation, Khoon Ka Khoon , had been made in India and filmed in the Urdu language. [5]

William Shakespeare English playwright and poet

William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's greatest dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon". His extant works, including collaborations, consist of approximately 39 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and a few other verses, some of uncertain authorship. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.

<i>Hamlet</i> tragedy by William Shakespeare

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, often shortened to Hamlet, is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1599 and 1602. Set in Denmark, the play depicts Prince Hamlet and his revenge against his uncle, Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet's father in order to seize his throne and marry Hamlet's mother.

Laurence Olivier English actor, director and producer

Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier, was an English actor and director who, along with his contemporaries Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud, dominated the British stage of the mid-20th century. He also worked in films throughout his career, playing more than fifty cinema roles. Late in his career, he had considerable success in television roles.


Olivier's Hamlet is the Shakespeare film that has received the most prestigious accolades, winning the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. However, it proved controversial among Shakespearean purists, who felt that Olivier had made too many alterations and excisions to the four-hour play by cutting nearly two hours' worth of content. Milton Shulman wrote in The Evening Standard : "To some it will be one of the greatest films ever made, to others a deep disappointment. Laurence Olivier leaves no doubt that he is one of our greatest living actors... his liberties with the text, however, are sure to disturb many." [6]

Academy Awards American awards given annually for excellence in cinematic achievements

The Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, are a set of awards for artistic and technical merit in the film industry. Given annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the awards are an international recognition of excellence in cinematic achievements as assessed by the Academy's voting membership. The various category winners are awarded a copy of a golden statuette, officially called the "Academy Award of Merit", although more commonly referred to by its nickname "Oscar".

Academy Award for Best Actor award presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

The Academy Award for Best Actor is an award presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). It is given in honor of an actor who has delivered an outstanding performance in a leading role while working within the film industry. The award was traditionally presented by the previous year's Best Actress winner.

Golden Lion the highest prize given to a film at the Venice Film Festival

The Golden Lion is the highest prize given to a film at the Venice Film Festival. The prize was introduced in 1949 by the organizing committee and is now regarded as one of the film industry's most prestigious and distinguished prizes. In 1970, a second Golden Lion was introduced; this is an honorary award for people who have made an important contribution to cinema.


The film follows the overall story of the play, but cuts nearly half the dialogue and leaves out two major characters.

The action begins on the battlements of Elsinore where a sentry, Francisco (John Laurie), is relieved of his watch (and questioned if he has seen anything) by another sentry, Bernardo (Esmond Knight), who, with yet another sentry, Marcellus (Anthony Quayle), has twice previously seen the Ghost of King Hamlet. Marcellus then arrives with the skeptical Horatio (Norman Wooland), Prince Hamlet's friend. Suddenly, all three see the Ghost, and Horatio demands that the ghost speak. The ghost vanishes then, without a word.

John Laurie actor

John Paton Laurie was a Scottish actor. Throughout a long career, Laurie performed a wide range of theatre and film work. He is perhaps best remembered to modern audiences for his role as Private Frazer in the sitcom Dad's Army (1968–1977). Laurie appeared in scores of feature films with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell, and Laurence Olivier, generally playing bit-parts or supporting roles rather than leading roles. He was also a stage actor and speaker of verse, especially of Robert Burns.

Esmond Knight English actor

Esmond Penington Knight was an English actor. He had a successful stage and film career before World War II. For much of his later career Knight was half blind. He had been badly injured in 1941 whilst on active service on board HMS Prince of Wales when she fought the Bismarck at the Battle of the Denmark Strait, and remained totally blind for two years, though he later regained some sight in his right eye.

Anthony Quayle English actor and director

Sir John Anthony Quayle, was an English actor and theatre director. He was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his supporting role as Thomas Wolsey in the 1969 film Anne of the Thousand Days, and played important roles in such major studio productions as The Guns of Navarone (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Operation Crossbow (1965), QB VII (1974), and The Eagle Has Landed (1976). Quayle was knighted in the 1985 New Years Honours List.

Inside the Great Hall of the castle, the court is celebrating the marriage of Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and King Claudius (Basil Sydney); old King Hamlet has died apparently of an accidental snakebite, and his wife, Gertrude, has, within a month of the tragedy, married the late King's brother. Prince Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) sits alone, refusing to join in the celebration, despite the protests of the new King. When the court has left the Great Hall, Hamlet fumes over the hasty marriage, muttering to himself the words "and yet, within a month!"

Gertrude (<i>Hamlet</i>) character in Hamlet

In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Gertrude is Hamlet's mother and Queen of Denmark. Her relationship with Hamlet is somewhat turbulent, since he resents her marrying her husband's brother Claudius after he murdered the king. Gertrude reveals no guilt in her marriage with Claudius after the recent murder of her husband, and Hamlet begins to show signs of jealousy towards Claudius. According to Hamlet, she scarcely mourned her husband's death before marrying Claudius.

Eileen Herlie British actress

Eileen Herlie was a Scottish-American actress.

King Claudius character in "Hamlet"

King Claudius is a fictional character and the primary antagonist of William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet. He is the brother to King Hamlet, second husband to Gertrude and uncle and later stepfather to Prince Hamlet. He obtained the throne of Denmark by murdering his own brother with poison and then marrying the late king's widow. He is loosely based on the Jutish chieftain Feng who appears in Chronicon Lethrense and in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum. There had never been an actual Danish King of that name.

Soon, Horatio and the sentries enter telling Hamlet of the ghostly apparition of his father. Hamlet proceeds to investigate, and upon arriving on the battlements, sees the ghost. Noting that the ghost beckons him forward, Hamlet follows it up onto a tower, wherein it reveals its identity as the Ghost of Hamlet's father. He tells Hamlet that he was murdered, who did it, and how it was done. The audience then sees the murder re-enacted in a flashback as the ghost describes the deed – Claudius is seen pouring poison into the late King Hamlet's ear, thereby killing him. Hamlet does not at first accept this as the truth, and then prepares to feign madness, so as to test Claudius' conscience, without jumping to conclusions.

This feigned insanity attracts the attention of Polonius (Felix Aylmer) who is completely convinced that Hamlet has gone mad. Polonius pushes this point with the King, claiming that it is derived from Hamlet's love for Ophelia (Jean Simmons), Polonius's daughter. Claudius, however, is not fully convinced, and has Polonius set up a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. Hamlet's "madness" is constant even in this exchange, and Claudius is convinced.

Polonius character in Hamlet

Polonius is a character in William Shakespeare's Hamlet. He is chief counsellor of the king, and the father of Laertes and Ophelia. Generally regarded as wrong in every judgment he makes over the course of the play, Polonius is described by William Hazlitt as a "sincere" father, but also "a busy-body, [who] is accordingly officious, garrulous, and impertinent". In Act II Hamlet refers to Polonius as a "tedious old fool" and taunts him as a latter day "Jeptha".

Felix Aylmer English actor

Sir Felix Edward Aylmer Jones, OBE, known as Felix Aylmer, was an English stage actor who also appeared in the cinema and on television. Aylmer made appearances in films with comedians such as Will Hay and George Formby.

Jean Simmons British-American actress

Jean Merilyn Simmons, OBE was a British-American actress and singer. One of J. Arthur Rank's "well-spoken young starlets", she appeared predominantly in films, beginning with those made in Great Britain during and after the Second World War, followed mainly by Hollywood films from 1950 onwards.

Hamlet then hires a group of wandering stage performers, requesting that they enact the play The Murder of Gonzago for the king. However, Hamlet makes a few alterations to the play, so as to make it mirror the circumstances of the late King's murder. Claudius, unable to endure the play, calls out for light, and retires to his room. Hamlet is now convinced of Claudius' treachery. He finds Claudius alone, and has ample opportunity to kill the villain. However, at this time, Claudius is praying, and Hamlet does not seek to send him to heaven, so, he waits, and bides his time.

He instead confronts Gertrude about the matter of his father's death and Claudius' treachery. During this confrontation, he hears a voice from the arras, and, believing that it was Claudius eavesdropping, plunges his dagger into the curtains. On discovering that he has in fact, killed the eavesdropping Polonius instead, Hamlet is only mildly upset, and he continues to confront his mother. He then sees the ghostly apparition of his father, and proceeds to converse with it (the Ghost is uncredited in the film, but is apparently voiced by Olivier himself). Gertrude, who cannot see the ghost, is now also convinced that Hamlet is mad.

Hamlet is deported to England by Claudius, who has given orders for him to be killed once he reaches there. Fortunately, Hamlet's ship is attacked by pirates, and he is returned to Denmark. In his absence, however, Ophelia goes mad over Hamlet's rejection and the idea that her own sweetheart has killed her father, and she drowns, supposedly committing suicide. Laertes (Terence Morgan), Ophelia's brother, is driven to avenge her death, as well as his father's.

Terence Morgan British actor

Terence Ivor Grant Morgan was an English actor in theatre, cinema and television. He was the nephew of British character actor Verne Morgan. He played many "villain" roles in British film but is probably best remembered for his starring role in the TV historical adventure series Sir Francis Drake.

Claudius and Laertes learn of Hamlet's return and prepare to have him killed. However, they plan to make it look like an accident. Claudius orders Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a duel, wherein Laertes will be given a poisoned blade that will kill with a bare touch. In case Laertes is unable to hit Hamlet, Claudius also prepares a poisoned drink.

Hamlet meets Laertes' challenge and engages him in a duel. Hamlet wins the first two rounds, and Gertrude drinks from the cup, suspecting that it is poisoned. Whilst in-between bouts, Laertes rushes Hamlet and strikes him on the arm, fatally poisoning him. Hamlet, not knowing this, continues to duel. Hamlet eventually disarms Laertes and switches blades with him. Hamlet then strikes Laertes in the wrist, fatally wounding him. Gertrude then submits to the poison and dies, warning Hamlet not to drink from the cup. (Olivier thus makes Gertrude's death a virtual suicide to protect her son, while Shakespeare writes it as if it were purely accidental, with Gertrude having no idea that the cup is poisoned.)

Laertes, dying, confesses the whole plot to Hamlet, who flies at Claudius in a fit of rage, killing him, before finally expiring himself. Horatio, horrified by all this, orders that Hamlet be given a decent funeral, and the young prince's body is taken away, while the Danish court kneels and the cannons of Elsinore fire off a peal of ordnance in respect. (A few women can be seen weeping quietly in the background.)


The Royal Court Of Denmark

Men At Arms

[All of the above characters reappear at the end of the film, where they are three of the 'four captains' who 'bear Hamlet's body, like a soldier, to the stage'. They are accompanied by a fourth, unidentified, soldier and by Horatio.]

The Play Within The Play

Servants To The Court


Casting and filming
Eileen Herlie, who plays Hamlet's mother, was 29 years old when the movie was filmed in 1947. Olivier, who plays her son, was 40.

Olivier played the voice of the Ghost himself [7] [8] by recording the dialogue as an amplified whisper and playing it back at a reduced speed, giving it a deep, haunting other-worldly quality. However, for many years it was falsely assumed, even in film reference books, that John Gielgud had recorded the voice of the Ghost. (Gielgud would go on to play the role of the Ghost in three later productions – the 1964 stage, Electronovision and LP Album versions of Richard Burton's Hamlet, the 1970 telecast of the Hallmark Hall of Fame production starring Richard Chamberlain, and a 1992 BBC radio production starring Kenneth Branagh.) [9]

Olivier's first biographer, Felix Barker, described how the actor-director created the sound effects for the three appearances of the ghost:

To produce the eerie noise which preceded the appearance of the ghost Olivier...went to enormous trouble. He made as many as fourteen separate sound tracks. On one he had recorded fifty women shrieking; on another the groans of as many men; a third consisted of a dozen violinists scraping their bows across the strings on a single screeching note. These various tracks had then to be blended in different volumes and intensity until they produced a noise which seemed to him to resemble - on what authority is uncertain - 'the lid of hell being opened'. Supernatural horror was further increased by the pulsing heart-beat which heralded its every entrance. This sound, Olivier remembered, had been used by Jean-Louis Barrault in a stage production in Paris; he made it doubly effective on the screen by bringing the camera in and out of focus to synchronize with the pulsing. Before he would use it, however, he wrote to ask Barrault's permission and insisted on paying for the idea. Because no copyright is possible Olivier is particularly scrupulous about borrowing other people's production tricks or another actor's ideas. [10]

The cinematography, by Desmond Dickinson, makes use of the deep focus photography previously popularised in films directed by William Wyler and Orson Welles.

The music was composed by William Walton and, alongside his score for Olivier's 1944 film Henry V , has become his most celebrated film work. [11]

Box Office

The film was popular at the British box office. [12]

Critical reception

The film's opening with Olivier's voiceover of his own interpretation of the play, was criticized as reductive: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." [13]

Olivier excised the "political" elements of the play (entirely cutting Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) in favour of an intensely psychological performance, partly to save time. Olivier himself stated that "one great whacking cut had to be made", and the cut he chose to make was the omission of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. [14] This was not much criticised at first, but later critics did take more notice of it, especially after shorter productions of Hamlet that did not leave out these characters were presented on television. John Gielgud took much the same approach years later by also leaving out Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras from his 1951 radio production of the play, broadcast on the program Theatre Guild on the Air . Gielgud also followed the lead of Olivier's film version by giving the final lines of the play to Horatio instead of to Fortinbras. [15]

Olivier also played up the Oedipal overtones of the play by having Hamlet kiss his mother lovingly on the lips several times during the film. Film scholar Jack Jorgens has commented that "Hamlet's scenes with the Queen in her low-cut gowns are virtually love scenes." [16] In contrast, Jean Simmons' Ophelia is destroyed by Hamlet's treatment of her in the nunnery scene.

According to J. Lawrence Guntner, the style of the film owes much to German Expressionism and to film noir : the cavernous sets featuring narrow winding stairwells correspond to the labyrinths of Hamlet's psyche. [17]

Awards and honours

The 1948 Hamlet was the only film in which the leading actor had directed himself to an Oscar-winning performance, until 1998, when Roberto Benigni directed himself to an Oscar in Life Is Beautiful . Olivier is also the only actor to win an Oscar for a Shakespearean role. Hamlet was the only film to have won both the Golden Lion and the Academy Award for Best Picture until The Shape of Water in 2018. It is also the first non-American film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

Academy Awards

Award [18] Name
Best Actor in a Leading Role Laurence Olivier
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White Roger Furse
Carmen Dillon
Best Costume Design, Black-and-White Roger Furse
Best Picture J. Arthur Rank-Two Cities Film
(Laurence Olivier, producer)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role Jean Simmons
Best Score William Walton
Best Director Laurence Olivier

Other awards


In the past, the 1948 film was often considered the definitive cinematic rendition of Hamlet. Over the years, however, it has lost some of its status, especially in comparison to Olivier's versions of Henry V and Richard III . [19] This is primarily because Olivier, according to some critics, overemphasised Hamlet's Oedipal fixation on his mother, and because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of the most important supporting characters in the play, were completely omitted from this film version, robbing the film of what could have been some of its best comedic moments. The fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had been included in the 1969 Nicol WilliamsonTony Richardson Hamlet and the 1990 Mel Gibson/Franco Zeffirelli version, both of which are shorter than Olivier's, did not help Olivier's rationale that the play needed such drastic cuts to work on screen. In contrast, Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film version of the complete Hamlet included everything that Olivier had omitted. However, the parts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and also Osric) are considerably reduced in the Richardson and Zeffirelli versions, and Branagh's version is almost 90 minutes longer than Olivier's - the length of an entire feature film.

Noted film critic Pauline Kael asserted that

even if you feel that certain scenes should be done differently, when has the rest of the play been done so well? Whatever the omissions, the mutilations, the mistakes, this is very likely the most exciting and most alive production of Hamlet you will ever see on the screen. It's never dull, and if characters such as Fortinbras and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sacrificed, it's remarkable how little they are missed. [20]

James Agee in his Time magazine review wrote in 1948: "A man who can do what Laurence Olivier is doing for Shakespeare is certainly among the more valuable men of his time." [21]

Television debut

Hamlet was the second of Olivier's Shakespeare films to be telecast on American commercial network television – the first was Richard III , which was given an afternoon rather than a prime-time showing by NBC on 11 March 1956, the same day that it premiered in cinemas in the U.S. The American Broadcasting Company gave the Olivier Hamlet a prime time showing in December 1956 but, like many theatrical films shown on television during that era, it was split into two 90-minute halves and telecast over a period of two weeks, rather than being shown complete on one evening.

Home media

In North America, Olivier's Hamlet has been released on DVD as part of The Criterion Collection, which has also released his film versions of Henry V and Richard III on DVD. The film has been released on Blu-ray Disc in the UK, however this disc is Region B locked and will not work in most American players.

Related Research Articles

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