Retro Film Review: Macbeth

Among horror aficionados, Roman Polanski is perhaps well-known for directing such films as REPULSION, DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES, ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE TENANT, and THE NINTH GATE; however, this lesser known title is in many ways his greatest horror film. Despite the Shakespearian pedigree, this is no polite Masterpiece Theatre rendition; Polanski's interpretation of the play is a full-blooded (pun intended) graphic assault that is as violent as any outright genre effort. Rather than relying on the text to convey the horror of the title character's descent from honor into homicide, Polanski visualizes everything in explicit detail, filling the screen with bludgeonings, stabbings, and beheadings, all wrapped up in a muddy, grungy feel that accentuates the moral decay. (One can easily imagine that this film was a major influence on MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.)

macbeth71-07 castleAlthough the text has been slightly revised (by Polanski in collaboration with Shakespearian scholar Kenneth Tynan), the film retains the essentials of Shakespeare's play: Macbeth (Jon Finch) is a noble Scottish warrior who faithfully serves his king, but he harbors a secret ambition to ascend the throne himself. He meets three witches ("weird sister," in the dialogue), who play upon his unspoken desire, promising him that the throne will indeed be his but that his heirs will not reign after him; instead, the son of his friend Banquo will inherit the kingdom. Urged on by Lady Macbeth, Macbeth murders the king, then orders Banquo and his sons dispatched. Newly crowned, Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost seated at a dinner table. He returns to the weird sisters seeking more assurances. They imply that his position is secure until Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane and that he cannot be defeated by man of woman born. Lady Macbeth, wracked with guilt over her participation in her husbands perfidy, commits suicide, leaving Macbeth isolated and in despair. To his dismay, Birnam wood does come to Dunsinane; or, more accurately, an advancing army camouflage themselves with branches, so that the wood appears to be advancing. Still, Macbeth holds out hope that he can prevail against all opponents -- until his enemy Macduff informs him that he was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped" (presumably a Caesarian section, meaning that he was not born of woman). After a heated battle, Macduff severs Macbeth's head, which is placed on a pike and paraded for all to see. Afterwards, another character with a score to settle is seen paying a visit on the three sisters, implying that, even though the tyrant Macbeth is dead, the cycle of evil will continue...

Shakespeare's MACBETH is a tragedy in the classic tradition: its title character is essentially a good man who is destroyed by one fatal flaw -- in this case, ambition. Essentially, the story is about the numbing of the moral sense that prevents someone from acting out his sinful desires. Macbeth covets the throne, but his sense of honor and loyalty to the King hold him in check. Intellectually, he finds it easy to contemplate the concept of murdering the king and stealing the throne, but emotionally he has a visceral reaction against dispatching the rightful monarch.

Unfortunately, this moral behavior based on squeamishness is susceptible to corruption, which takes the form of his wife, Lady Macbeth, who chides him for not daring to act on his true desires. Eventually, Macbeth gives in and commits the murders he abhors, setting in motion a chain of events that lead to his inevitable destruction.

Typically, film versions, taking their cue from Shakespeare's text (which keeps many of the deaths, including Macbeth's, off screen), downplay the violence. Polanski wisely takes a diametrically opposite path in his film, and the result is one of the best Shakespearian adaptations ever, one that uses visuals, as much as the play's memorable dialogue, to tell its story. As gruesome as the film is, it is also dramatically sound: Macbeth would have no problem with these murders if they could all take place out of sight and out of mind; it is physical revulsion, at actually perpetrating the crime, that holds him in check (if only briefly). By showing the bloodshed, Polanski takes us on the downward spiral with Macbeth, numbing us with violence in the same way that Macbeth's once noble sensibilities are numbed.

The presence of the prophetic witches should be enough to warrant this film's inclusion in the horror genre. Polanski also employs surreal dreams and visions, such as a literal ghostly dagger floating in the air when Macbeth delivers his famous line "Is this a dagger I see before me?" And the explicit gore and grunge convey a disturbing sense of moral horror at the violence being perpetrated. Near the end, when Macbeth believes himself literally invincible, he takes on something of the aura of a movie monster (there's a good chance that the play was among the many inspirations for Bram Stoker's novel DRACULA).

Despite his previous genre efforts, Polanski had never made particularly violent movies, relying instead on suggestion. There is a critical consensus that MACBETH, his first directorial effort after the Charles Manson murders, represents a conscious effort by Polanski to come to terms with the violent death of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, who was killed along with several others by Manson's followers.

macbeth poster 1971As an adaptation of a classic play, Roman Polanski's R-rated version may be too extreme for purists who demand a subtle approach. But viewed on its own terms it is almost entirely successful in its goals. Clearly, the film is intended to be a cathartic experience for its director, and it serves the audience equally well.

TRIVIA

The film was financed by Playboy publisher Hugh Heffner, who receives an executive producer credit. This has led some viewers to theorize that the film's extensive nudity was included at his behest (for example, Francesca Annis performs Lady Macbeth's famous sleep-walking scene in the nude). However, it's hard to imagine that Heffner was particularly to show an entire coven of witches -- all of them old hags - without any clothes. More likely, the nudity is part and parcel of Polanski's explicit approach to the material.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.