Macbeth (1971 film)

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Original movie poster for the film Macbeth.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Roman Polanski
Produced by Andrew Braunsberg
Screenplay by
Based on The Tragedy of Macbeth
by William Shakespeare
Music by The Third Ear Band
Cinematography Gilbert Taylor
Edited by Alastair McIntyre
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • October 13, 1971 (1971-10-13) (United States)
  • February 2, 1972 (1972-02-02) (United Kingdom)
Running time
140 minutes[1]
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
Language English

Macbeth (or The Tragedy of Macbeth) is a 1971 British-American historical drama film directed by Roman Polanski and co-written by Polanski and Kenneth Tynan. A film adaptation of William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, it retells the story of the Highland lord who becomes King of Scotland through treachery and murder. The film stars Jon Finch as Macbeth and Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth.[2]



Macbeth was made by Polanski in the aftermath of the murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and several of his friends by members of the Manson Family at his house in Beverly Hills on the night of August 9, 1969. Following the murders, Polanski quit the film project he was working on, The Day of the Dolphin, and sank into deep depression, blaming himself for the tragedy. After months of grieving Tate's death, he set to adapting Shakespeare's Macbeth with the aid of British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan.

Major Hollywood studios refused to finance the project, but Polanski found a financial savior in his friend Victor Lownes, a senior VP of Playboy Enterprises in the U.K., who persuaded Hugh Hefner to finance the film. Some have construed Playboy's involvement as the reason for Lady Macbeth's nude sleepwalking scene; however, Polanski and Tynan have said they had written the scene before their association with Hefner. British producer Andrew Braunsberg also provided financial support and executive guidance.

Macbeth was filmed in various locations around the British Isles. Parts of the film were shot in Snowdonia National Park, Gwynedd, in northwest Wales.[5] A considerable amount of shooting took place in Northumberland on the northeast coast of England, including Lindisfarne Castle, Bamburgh Castle and beach, St. Aidan's Church and North Charlton Moors near Alnwick.[6]

The production suffered delays, caused by chronic bad weather and malfunctioning special effects as well as by Polanski's own perfectionism and his stubborn insistence on shooting multiple takes of difficult and expensively mounted scenes on colour film stock. The shoot went over schedule, ultimately taking six months to complete, and exceeded its $2.5 million budget by some $600,000.[citation needed]


As with most film adaptations of Shakespeare, passages from the original play were cut for time. Some soliloquies were changed to inner monologues for the sake of psychological realism. The film has a downbeat ending not present in the original: at the end, Donalbain is seen visiting the witches, presumably to repeat the cycle of usurpation.

Treatment of Ross[edit]

The character of Ross (played by John Stride) is developed far beyond that of the play. In the play, Ross is a relatively insignificant and innocuous character; but in Polanski's revision he is expanded into an amoral, opportunistic courtier and henchman who becomes a knowing accomplice in Macbeth's schemes once Macbeth kills Duncan and attains the crown, but later betrays his master. Polanski and Tynan achieve this effect without giving Ross any lines not written by Shakespeare, or putting him anywhere that Shakespeare does not put him (except when he becomes the Third Murderer); rather the new characterization is effected through small directorial touches and reassignment of lines between characters.

In the film, Ross is first brought to the attention of the audience during Macbeth's coronation ceremony at Scone when he shouts "Hail Macbeth, King of Scotland!" in a very ostentatious manner, and this causes Banquo to look upon him with suspicion. Ironically, in the penultimate scene of the film, when the tables have finally been turned, Ross removes the crown from the head of the slain Macbeth and presents it to the victorious Malcolm, loudly hailing him as the new king in precisely the same ostentatious manner as before. The implication is that Ross is unprincipled and self-seeking, and his only allegiance is to the one who holds the most power at any given time.

In addition, there are several other notable departures from Shakespeare's text with regard to Ross throughout the course of the film:

  • In the play, Macbeth has a conversation with an unidentified person who tells the king of Macduff's refusal to present himself at the Scottish court. In the film, Macbeth is directly informed of this by Ross.
  • In the play, the identity of the third assassin sent by Macbeth to kill Banquo is never specified by Shakespeare. In the film Ross is clearly the third murderer, sent by Macbeth separately from the first two murderers. Moreover it is Ross who eventually dispatches the two hired villains in a dungeon, when they have outlived their usefulness to the king.
  • During the banquet scene when Banquo's ghost appears and frightens Macbeth, the brief lines of dialogue each specifically attributed to Lennox and Ross in the play are spoken by exactly the opposite characters in the film—thus making Ross appear somewhat fawning and insincere in his stated concern for Macbeth's health.
  • In the play, Ross is apparently unaware of the slaughter of Macduff's household at Fife—even though he is the one who takes the news to Macduff claiming he heard about it from trustworthy sources. But in the film Ross is an active conspirator who has prior knowledge of the raid on Macduff's castle and deliberately leaves the doors wide open for the assassins to enter and massacre Macduff's family and servants.
  • Therefore in the film Ross is the bearer of bad news and just news in general, whereas in Shakespeare's version he barely has a role.

Also, in the film, Ross eventually betrays Macbeth only because he is not honored with Macbeth's former title of Thane of Cawdor, a rank symbolized by a ceremonial necklace which the king chooses to bestow upon Seyton instead.

Technical style[edit]

The soliloquies are presented naturalistically as voiceover narration and without the unambiguous emotional subtext of a conventional musical score. Instead, the actors' voices are heard sotto voce accompanied by the atonal wails and drones of the Third Ear Band. As in his earlier Repulsion (1965), Polanski employs ominously unnatural silences and amplified sounds to create a sense of enveloping discomfort and dread.

When Macbeth confronts the Witches a second time and is invited to gaze into their cauldron to glimpse his future, the scene becomes a cryptic, hallucinatory set piece in which Polanski makes a rare use of cascading montage imagery. Macbeth is warned by his Doppelgänger of the dangers to hand, culminating in a surreal visual allegory of the eventual, dynastic triumph of Banquo's heirs as each king is seen holding up a looking glass which contains the image of his successor. This mise en abyme effect is repeated eightfold until, ultimately, young Fleance is seen grinning and crowned in the final, eighth looking glass—an allusion to Shakespeare's original stage direction that the last Banquo appear holding a looking glass, as well as the historical myth that King James I of England was descended from Banquo by eight generations.


The film was screened at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition.[7]

Critical response[edit]

Upon release in October 1971, Macbeth received mixed reviews. Some critics found the film's graphic violence and nudity distracting, complaining that such blatancy and literalness diminished the complexity and ambiguity of the original text. Moreover, the single-minded bleakness and unrelenting brutality of Polanski's vision was faulted by less sympathetic commentators as being a crude and monotonous oversimplification of the play which, in Pauline Kael's view, ultimately "reduces Shakespeare's meanings to the banal theme of 'life is a jungle'".[8]

Many were particularly disturbed by the lurid manner in which Polanski depicted the bloody slaughter of Macduff's wife and children. Kael went so far as to say that Polanski seemed to stage the scene as a deliberate evocation of the Manson Murders.

Other critics, however, praised the film for its technical excellence, vivid atmosphere, fluid cinematic narrative and compelling modern interpretation of Shakespeare's tragedy. Roger Ebert (film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times) gave it 4 out of 4 stars, saying that "It's an original film by an original film artist, and not an interpretation". The U.S. National Board of Review named Macbeth the Best Film of 1971.

The film currently holds an 86% 'Fresh' rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus "Roman Polanski's Macbeth is unsettling and uneven, but also undeniably compelling."[9]


Main article: Music from Macbeth


  1. ^ "Macbeth (AA)". British Board of Film Classification. 27 October 1971. Retrieved 30 November 2016. 
  2. ^ Ain-Krupa, Julia Roman Polanski: A Life in Exile ABC-Clio Santa Barbara California 2010 pages 78-79
  3. ^ a b Mazierska, Ewa Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller IB Tauris and Co Ltd New York, New York 2007 page 201
  4. ^ Shakespeare, William author; David Bevington and David Scott Kastan editors Macbeth The New Bantam Shakespeare Bantam Dell division of Random House New York, New York 2004 page xxxv
  5. ^ This location is mentioned on the DVD release of the film.
  6. ^ BBC Tyne, Macbeth, April 18, 2006.
  7. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Macbeth". Retrieved 2009-04-17. 
  8. ^ Kael, Pauline 5001 Nights at the Movies Henry Holt and Company New York, New York 1991 page 444
  9. ^ Macbeth at Rotten Tomatoes

Ilieş Gheorghiu, Oana. (2011). "Cathartic Violence. Lady Macbeth and Feminine Power in Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1971)". Europe's Times and Unknown Waters Cluj-Napoca.

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