Macbeth (1971)Macbeth (1971)
​Shakespeare Lives in Film
23 July 2016

A Bloody Tragedy

In his seminal 1939 study 'Shakespeare', the American academic and critic Mark Van Doren described 'Macbeth' as the "rapidest of tragedies," which "suggests whirlwinds rather than glaciers, and in fact that terror rather than pity is the mode of the accompanying music". It was the last of his four great tragedies, after 'Hamlet', 'Othello' and 'King Lear'. It is one of his shortest plays and barrels along, with all cylinders firing, as it tells of the rise and fall of the ruthless Scottish nobleman. With a plot perfect for cinematic treatment, it's no surprise that it has proven popular with filmmakers.

Before Roman Polanski's brutal and bleak 1971 adaptation, there had already been a number of notable productions. In 1916, D.W. Griffith produced a version starring the great stage actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree. It's director John Emerson may not have gone on to great things but the assistant director was Erich von Stroheim, who would go on to direct Greed (1924) and star in Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937) and Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950). The cinematographer was Victor Fleming who in one year alone, 1939, directed The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. And the text for the film was written by Anita Loos, who would adapt her own novel for Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

Orson Welles directed a version of the play in 1948, making the most of a small budget. (He would fare better in 1952 with his production of Othello.) Then there's the film noir Joe Macbeth (1955) setting the play amongst gangsters and Akira Kurosawa's masterful Throne of Blood (1957), arguably the greatest cinematic take on the tragedy.

More recently, the Indian director Vishal Bhardwaj began a trilogy of Shakespeare adaptations with Maqbool (2003), setting the action in the Mumbai underworld. And then in 2015 Justin Kurzel gave us a more sympathetic take with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as a now grieving, battle-scarred couple.

Polanski's version is a product of its times. It was made amidst the chaos of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Polanski had just made two very different horror films - the parodic The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and far more disturbing Rosemary's Baby (1968). Both were a marked departure from his earlier, taut thrillers Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966). The war in Vietnam had been raging for almost a decade. There was civil unrest in most Western countries. And then, in 1969, Polanski's wife, the actor Sharon Tate, and four others were massacred by the Manson gang. It is hard not to watch Macbeth without thinking about all these elements.

The film is set in the time Shakespeare wrote it. Polanski and co-screenwriter Kenneth Tynan chose to have much of the dialogue as voiceover, adding significantly to both the realism and tension. There were a few other changes. The character of Ross is given more screen time, but no more dialogue, transforming him into a turncoat who will always end up on the winning side. And Donalbain's actions at the end of the film suggest that no story is ever over - it merely begins again. The end suggests - in keeping with the times - that history is destined to repeat itself and we never really learn from our mistakes.

Unlike so many of the other characters Shakespeare created, Macbeth is an irredeemable soul. His desires are selfish and self-serving, and his greed consumes him. As Mark van Doren noted, "Macbeth has surrendered his soul before the play begins. When we first see him he is already invaded by fears which are to render him vicious and which are finally to make him abominable." Perhaps that's why we find him such a compelling screen presence.

Ian Haydn Smith

previous list of articles