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Although the onscreen credits include a 1970 copyright statement for Filmways, Inc., the picture was not registered for copyright until August 2, 2000, when Orion Pictures Distribution Corp. registered it under number RE-825-363. Executive producer Mogens Skot-Hansen is credited onscreen as Mogens Skot Hansen, without the hyphen in his surname. Several intertitles appear throughout the film, indicating the locales and explaining the characters' actions. As noted by reviews, the film does not have a musical score and instead features only sound effects, such as the howling wind of the rainstorm, and internal noises such as characters playing musical instruments. The film ends with Paul Scofield, as "King Lear," sinking out of the frame as he falls beside the body of his daughter "Cordelia," until only the sky is seen and the screen is completely white.
Director Peter Brook, well-known for his theatrical adaptations of Shakespeare, first directed a production of King Lear for television. Airing on the CBS network on October 18, 1953, that version starred Orson Welles as Lear. Brook's theatrical version for Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) opened in London in 1962 and starred Paul Scofield. Many theatrical historians consider Scofield's interpretation of Lear to be the most insightful and forceful of the twentieth century. Brook and Scofield took their version to New York, where it opened on May 18, 1964. Irene Worth, who appeared in the film version as "Goneril," also appeared as Goneril in New York, and Alan Webb, who played the "Duke of Gloucester" for the London version, reprised his role in the film, as did Tom Fleming, who played the "Earl of Kent."
As noted by contemporary sources, the picture was a co-production between the American company Filmways, Inc.; the RSC and Sam Lomberg's Athena Films, both English companies; and Denmark's Laterna Films, which supplied the entire technical crew, according to a March 1969 Variety article. In August 1966, a Variety article announced that with the aid of unspecified American funding, the RSC would be making "three major films in color within the next four years," one of which was to be King Lear, although it was ultimately shot in black-and-white. In May 1966, Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column stated that M-G-M was to co-produce the picture with Filmways, but no other contemporary source mentions M-G-M's involvement. According to a November 9, 1966 Variety news item, the project was to be made for "one-time showing on CBS, then domestic [U.S.] theatrical release," but an August 1969 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that CBS "bowed out" when Filmways' president, Martin Ransohoff, raised the budget from $400,000 to $1,000,000. It was then decided to distribute the picture solely as a theatrical feature, and on September 16, 1969, Hollywood Reporter announced that the budget had been raised to $2,000,000.
An April 1970 Variety article noted that Lomberg, who was British, and Skot-Hansen were responsible for interesting Brook in shooting in Denmark. As noted by contemporary sources, the picture was filmed on location in and around Aalborg and the Raabjerg Mile on Denmark's Jutland Peninsula. In a modern source, producer Michael Birkett recounted that while he and Brook were struggling to trim the lengthy play for filming, they consulted English poet Ted Hughes, asking him to "translate" the play "into his own idiom." Although Hughes did not contribute to the final screenplay, Birkett said that he helped the filmmakers decide to attempt to remain faithful to Shakespeare's original language rather than paraphrasing or changing it. In his autobiography, Brook noted that he chose to shoot in black-and-white, which he considered to be "simpler" than color, because the play's themes are so complex that "if you give the slightest bit of added complexity to it, you are completely smothered." He added that "in this story silence has an important place, as concrete as music might have in another story," which is why he chose not to have a musical score.
Daily Variety announced in February 1969 that Columbia Pictures would be distributing the picture worldwide except in the U.S. and Canada, and in April 1970, Daily Variety reported that the picture would be released "first through a major distributor, then Filmways' Genesis I and II." Contemporary sources did not list Genesis I and II, however, and Altura Films International, a distribution company headed by Clem Perry, was listed as the U.S. distributor. According to the Los Angeles Times review, the film, which had opened in late July 1971 in London, was going to play for only one week in Los Angeles in mid-December 1971 for an Academy Award-qualifying run.
The film received mixed reviews, with some critics praising Brook's bold visual style and others dismayed by the cuts and alterations he made to Shakespeare's text. King Lear marked Scofield's first leading film role since his Academy Award-winning performance in the 1966 picture A Man for All Seasons (see below). Although Brook had directed several films earlier, including The Beggar's Opera (1958, ) and Lord of the Flies (1963, see below), King Lear marked the first time he directed a motion picture of a Shakespeare play. Brook's subsequent film versions of Shakespeare have been done for television, such as his 2002 production of Hamlet.
Other versions of Shakespeare's King Lear include a 1909 short, directed by William V. Ranous; the 1916 Path release, directed by Ernest Warde and starring Frederick Warde ( for both); The Yiddish King Lear, a 1935 Lear Pictures release directed by Harry Thomashefsky and starring Maurice Krohner (see below); the 1970 Russian production Korol Lir, starring Yuri Yarvet and directed by Grigori Kozintsev; the 1983 British TV production King Lear directed by Michael Elliott and starring Laurence Olivier; the 1985 Japanese motion picture Ran, directed by Akira Kurasawa and starring Tatsuya Nakadai; and the 1998 BBC television production of King Lear, directed by Richard Eyre and starring Ian Holm. The play also figures prominently in the 1983 British production The Dresser. Directed by Peter Yates and starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtney, the film is about a devoted dresser who attempts to help his employer, a longtime, aging actor, through a trying performance of King Lear.