Directed By: Rowland V. Lee
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Barbara O'Neil
Trivia: Originally, George Sanders was going to play the role of Edward IV
Despite the presence of both Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, 1939’s Tower of London is not a horror movie. It’s an historical drama, chronicling the rise of England’s King Richard III, who (if history is to be believed) murdered members of his own family to attain the throne. Yet in spite of its lack of things that go bump in the night, Tower of London did give the great Karloff an opportunity to play one of the most loathsome characters of his career.
The year is 1471. After deposing the weak Lancastrian king, Henry VI (Miles Mander), Yorkist Edward IV (Ian Hunter) ascends to the throne of England. His most trusted advisor is his brother Richard, Earl of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone), but what the new king doesn’t realize is that Richard is a cruel, conniving man who intends to set himself up as Edward’s heir by “eliminating” both of his nephews (Edward’s children) as well as their other brother, the Duke of Clarence (Price). With the help of the beastly Mord (Karloff), who serves as the Royal Executioner, Richard systematically murders anyone standing in his way. England’s only hope of removing Richard lies with Henry Tudor (Ralph Forbes), who, aided by Edward’s Queen, Elizabeth (Barbara O’Neil) and the noble John Wyatt (John Sutton), plans to bring an end to Richard’s reign of terror.
Tower of London marked the second pairing of Rathbone and Karloff, who had previously worked together in the criminally underrated Son of Frankenstein (released earlier that same year). While I wasn’t all that impressed with Rathbone’s performance in Son, he definitely rose to the occasion in this movie, giving all he had to the role of the treacherous Richard, whose ambition would lead to murder. Yet as good as Rathbone was playing the heavy, Karloff’s Mord is the film’s most imposing figure, a tower of a man who carries out Richard’s orders, no questions asked. Both suffer from physical deformities (Richard has a crooked back, and Mord a club foot), yet it’s the blackness of their hearts that will send shivers up your spine (after working together to eliminate a chief rival of Richard’s, who they drown in a vat of wine, the two turn their attention to the young Princes, giving the movie what is easily its most poignant and disturbing scene).
A strong supporting cast (especially Ian Hunter as the wily and unpredictable Edward IV and Vincent Price, in a very early role, as the feeble Duke of Clarence) as well as some lively battle scenes (the confrontation between Richard and Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field, which closes out the film, is particularly well executed) make Tower of London an entertaining watch, but it’s Rathbone and Karloff who make it an unforgettable one.