Macbeth (1971 UK/USA 140 mins)

Prod Co: Playboy Productions/Columbia Pictures Prod: Andrew Braunsberg Dir: Roman Polanski Scr: Roman Polanski, Kenneth Tynan, from the play by William Shakespeare Phot: Gil Taylor Ed: Alastair McIntyre Prod Des: Wilfrid Shingleton Art Dir: Fred Carter Mus: The Third Ear Band

Cast: Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, John Stride, Nicholas Selby, Terence Bayler, Stephan Chase, Paul Shelley

Since its release in 1971, Roman Polanski’s version of “The Scottish Play” (titled on screen as The Tragedy of Macbeth) has become noteworthy for a variety of reasons: for its status as a Playboy Production, for its gritty and realistic-looking milieu, and – perhaps chiefly – for its graphic violence and explicit nudity, the presence of which has been widely attributed to the fact that this was the first film Polanski directed after his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and a group of friends were murdered by Charles Manson and other members of the “Manson family” in August 1969. A number of critics at the time of the film’s release (including Newsweek’s Paul D. Zimmerman, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, Gail Rock from Women’s Wear Daily, and Pauline Kael in The New Yorker) claimed, to varying degrees, that the explicit violence shown in Polanski’s film resembled or reflected the events of the Manson murders in some way (1); while Barbara Leaming later claimed that “Like the best-selling books on the Manson killings, Macbeth was an imaginative repetition of simultaneously repugnant and fascinating events” (2). However, Polanski has always refuted these claims. As he wrote in his autobiography:

Most American critics assumed that I’d used the film for some cathartic purpose. In fact, I’d chosen to make Macbeth because I thought that Shakespeare, at least, would preserve my motives from suspicion. After the Manson murders, it was clear that whatever kind of film I’d come out with next would have been treated in the same way. If I’d made a comedy, the charge would have been one of callousness. (3)

Polanski’s film of Macbeth rarely seems to be looked at in terms of it being a successful film version of Shakespeare’s play, or an example of a distinctive Polanski film. Analysis of the film is often reduced to simply stating that its graphic violence is only present because of the events in the director’s life at the time. As Leaming states, “Ironically, for all the talk of showing everything, in Polanski’s Macbeth the fascination is off screen, in the director’s personal drama” (4). However, to examine the film – particularly its violence – solely in this context is reductive, and overlooks the fact that this version of Macbeth is recognisably “A Roman Polanski Film” in ways that are dramatically and thematically consistent with both his previous films, and some of his subsequent work. As David Thomson notes:

The violence in Polanski’s films is not especially prominent; it has seldom erupted with the force achieved by Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Fuller, or Losey. Much more characteristic is the underlying alienation and hostility: the feeling that people are cut off, unsupported by any shared view of life and society. From this solitariness, the move towards acts of violence is stealthy, remorseless, and even comic. (5)

By Polanski’s own admission, he avoided making a comedy film because of the circumstances of the Manson murders, but all the other characteristic elements that Thomson refers to are present in his Macbeth.

Shakespeare’s play seems perfectly suited to Polanski’s sensibilities: it is a suspenseful tale of intrigue and shifting power relations, with conspiracies and deception all around, and where the unpredictable elements of the supernatural are never far away. When three witches (played by Maisie MacFarquhar, Elsie Taylor and Noelle Rimmington) impart a prophecy to Macbeth (Jon Finch), telling him that he will become “Thane of Cawdor”, the prediction quickly reveals itself to be true. With this knowledge, Macbeth then attempts – with the help of Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) – to manipulate events to make sure that another part of the prophecy comes true; namely that Macbeth will become King of Scotland. The honourable and noble Macbeth is soon consumed with power, and conspires to murder Duncan (Nicholas Selby), the reigning King of Scotland, and assume the throne. Macbeth becomes an isolated individual and is eventually destroyed by his own arrogance: rather than seeking the informed counsel of friends and advisors he invests his faith in ambiguous predictions and bewildering visions.

Macbeth is similar to many other Polanski protagonists, who start off as self-assured, capable individuals, but grow increasingly fearful and paranoid. These characters are gradually consumed by an unhealthy obsession and end up in nightmarish situations from which there seems no escape. When the film shows the castle of Dunsinane high on a hill and cut off from the world, it is reminiscent of the isolated castle in Polanski’s earlier film, Cul-de-sac (1966), the title of which is an ironic summation of where Macbeth will end up after embracing the fate that the witches ascribed to him. The female protagonists of Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) also end up alone and afraid, confining themselves to their apartments, and seemingly driven mad by fevered dreams and visions.It’s also interesting to note that Polanski followed Macbeth with What? (1972), an off-the-wall comedy featuring a man who is also isolated in his private “castle”, and who seems to be gradually losing his mind.

Even if Polanski’s Macbeth does not reference what was going on in his life at the time, the director stated that the choice to make the film was – at least partially – dictated by the tragic events:

After the murders, everything I was considering seemed futile to me. I couldn’t think of a subject that seemed worthwhile or dignified enough to spend a year or more on it, in view of what happened to me. That may sound extremely pompous, but I couldn’t make another suspense story. And I certainly couldn’t make a comedy: I couldn’t make a casual film. In the state of mind I found myself, this type of project seemed most acceptable… I always had this great desire to make a Shakespearean movie someday, and when I finally decided I must go back to work, I thought to myself: “That’s something I could do, that’s something I could give myself to. That’s worth the effort.” (6)

After deciding to make a film of Macbeth, Polanski collaborated closely with theatre critic Kenneth Tynan on translating the play from stage to screen, and a number of the key decisions about the adaptation were made because neither of the men wanted to be restricted by theatrical conventions. For instance, instead of seeing just three witches, we also see a whole coven; when Lady Macbeth sleepwalks in the nude it is because it was felt that people at the time of the play slept naked, and that the nudity also made Lady Macbeth seem more vulnerable; and when Duncan is assassinated, it is shown on screen and not just alluded to as it was in the play, because, in Shakespeare’s day, a monarch could not be killed on stage (7).

In order to craft a Shakespeare film that honoured the play, but was at the same time cinematic, Polanski sought a way of “translating the play’s meaning into visual terms” (8). It was mined for its filmic possibilities and the narrative was streamlined for cinema audiences, ensuring that the visuals complemented – but never overwhelmed – the source material. The virtuoso camerawork (by noted cinematographer Gil Taylor, who also shot Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [Stanley Kubrick, 1964], Star Wars [George Lucas, 1977], as well as Polanski’s Repulsion and Cul-de-sac) succeeds in both evoking a realistic world from the past and visually expressing the themes of the play. For instance, during the murder of Duncan, the extended takes allow the actors to perform uninterrupted, whilst also threading together all the elements of Macbeth and his wife’s conspiracy. The cinematography also brings to life the multilayered and expansive castle sets, the clear views of which offer little that escapes the keen observer (both those in the audience watching and the inquisitive characters in the film).

Polanski and his collaborators also successfully integrated the supernatural into their adaptation. Whether it’s Macbeth’s visions of a floating dagger before the murder of Duncan or seeing a bloodied Banquo (Martin Shaw) while attending a feast (these two examples echo the dreams and visions in Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby), the visuals always feel appropriate, and not simply an example of flashy technique being used to open-out the play unnecessarily or make the material more superficially attention-grabbing. Like the visions that are shown in Polanski’s other films, these nightmares are surreal yet convincing: because they intrude on the real world, they have an unsettling air of reality about them. The filmmakers also include visual cues that hint at the drama to come. As Lady Macbeth conspires with her husband to kill King Duncan, the shadow of the approaching King and his crown falls upon them, literally foreshadowing Macbeth’s destiny. There’s also the red sunlight that floods a room as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth lie in bed, which serves as a reminder of the blood that has been spilled, and anticipates the blood yet to be shed. Attention is also paid to sound in the film: there are the soliloquies that segue into internal monologues; the eerie wind that accompanies the witches’ appearance; the agonising screams of the unseen women in Macduff’s castle as they are slaughtered by Macbeth’s assassins. Incidents like the killings in Macduff’s castle and the murder of Duncan are depicted in unflinching detail, and Polanski’s rationale for showing the violence so explicitly was simple: “If you make a film about a murder, you have to show the murder…. If you use the screen as a medium, then what you tell has to be told by visual means.” (9). Of course, some will argue that film violence can also be effective if it is just alluded to and not shown in detail, and critics will no doubt endlessly debate whether elements from the Manson murders made their way into Polanski’s film. Nevertheless, Polanski admitted that there was another aspect of his life, his memories of an incident from World War II, that did make it into the film:

My treatment of another scene was based on a childhood experience. This is the moment in Act IV when the murderers dispatched by Macbeth burst in on Lady Macduff and her young son. I suddenly recalled how the SS officer had searched our room in the ghetto, swishing his riding crop to and fro, toying with my teddy bear, nonchalantly emptying out the hatbox full of forbidden bread. The behavior of Macbeth’s henchmen was inspired by that recollection.(10)

Overall, Polanski’s interpretation of Macbeth stands as one of the most visually arresting and dramatically gripping adaptations of Shakespeare ever filmed, and one that can be ranked alongside Orson Welles’ 1948 film and Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation (filmed as Kumonosu jô/Throne of Blood) from 1957. However, Polanski’s Macbeth is also a key “Roman Polanski Film”, both because of its alleged links to Polanski’s life at the time of production, and in terms of the director’s recurring themes and ideas that are on display.


  1. Barbara Leaming, Polanski, a Biography: The Filmmaker as Voyeur, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1981, pp. 129-130.
  2. Leaming, p. 132.
  3. Roman Polanski, Roman, Heinemann, London, 1984, p. 297.
  4. Leaming, p. 133.
  5. David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th edition, Little, Brown, London, 2003, p. 689.
  6. Larry Dubois, Playboy Interview: Roman Polanski, Playboy vol. 18, no. 12, December 1971, p. 96.
  7. Polanski, p. 291.
  8. Virginia Wright Wexman, Roman Polanski, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1985, p. 80.
  9. Dubois, p. 98.
  10. Polanski, p. 291.

About The Author

Martyn Bamber has previously written for Senses of Cinema and is a contributor to the book: Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964–1999.

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