Othello (1965) Review

Othello (1965) Director: Stuart Burge

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In a brilliant and justifiably controversial adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, Laurence Olivier portrays the Bard’s Moor as an exceedingly confident and bombastic elder general –often erratic, bordering on apoplectic, yet he is immensely believable, even if not particularly moving. Initially a wildly popular National Theatre play, in the film Laurence Olivier switched roles from his preferred role of Iago to Othello following a challenge from Orson Welles: “Larry’s a natural tenor, and Othello’s a natural baritone.” I wonder how this film might have turned out if Olivier had remained in the role of Iago?

In the film, Olivier struts with an effeminate gait and displays freshly trained deep vocal cords voice while performing his lines with a distinctly African dialect. It’s difficult not to draw comparisons to Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. Sadly, his disappointing decision to appear in blackface has mired the film in controversy for years –a decision which raised more than a few eyebrows even in 1965. And this controversy extends well into the present-day. In 2021, an internationally renowned professor of music (Bright Sheng) at the University of Michigan displayed portions of this film in his class without context or discussion regarding the appearance of blackface. Several students were upset and said professor was soon asked to step down. It was a sad situation all around –clearly, a discussion should have occurred regarding Olivier’s controversial portrayal in the film, however, the situation was equally sad for Dr. Sheng, a Chinese-American scholar whose family escaped the Maoist Cultural Revolution, who deeply apologized for misunderstanding the situation.

At any rate, since Othello has always been something of a dueling match between two actors –Othello and Iago. In the film, Iago is played by Frank Finlay as a subtle rationalist, less of a slimy, conniving schemer. His subtlety only serves to highlight Olivier’s explosive performance as Othello. Iago’s wife Emilia is played by Joyce Redman and the film’s true delight comes in Maggie Smith’s performance as Desdemona and Derek Jacobi as Cassio.

This first color film version of Othello is a unique venture in many respects. The sets employed are all evidently those of a soundstage –the film makes no effort to step much beyond the bounds of the limitations of the physical theatre. The aim was to recreate the experience of witnessing live theatre. It is deliberately minimalist and faithful in its adaptation though notably the brief Clown scene is omitted (in the original play, the unnamed Clown notifies Cassio when Emilia arises so he may entreat her to speak privately with Desdemona, and later he fetches Cassio for Desdemona).

Whereas this version is wonderful in many respects, Orson Welles’s version of Othello is the greater true cinematic feast as it makes the play come alive in a whole new light. It’s difficult to separate Olivier’s portrayal from being a stereotyped caricature. In this respect, Othello is a discomfiting film, and thankfully our culture has cast aside the widespread practice of white actors playing black characters, but for completionist viewers of film adaptations of the Bard, Othello may still be a worthy endeavor.

1 thought on “Othello (1965) Review

  1. “O” was my first ever introduction to what Shakespeare gave us with Othello and I must say it was the most profound introduction that I could have asked for. I’d like to read your review on it. For all the wisdom that Shakespeare could impart onto his classic tragedies, Othello may have had the most to say in certain respects. Thank you for your Othello reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

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