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Macbeth in the Movies – from Orson Welles to Geoffrey Wright

Updated on March 10, 2015
Orson Welles - actor and director
Orson Welles - actor and director

Orson Welles places Macbeth in a prehistoric setting, long before Shakespeare’s time. Here, Macbeth and his wife are victims of the evil forces of witchcraft. Akira Kurosawa subtly warns the spectator against the threat of the atom bomb that may eventually lead to mental and spiritual exhaustion. Fourteen years later, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth shocks the audience. He comes up with one of the most graphic adaptations. Last but not least, Geoffrey Wright’s movie may be viewed as a parody by some. Shakespeare is almost mocked at; he can hardly be spotted in the moral depravity of the Melbourne Underworld. Only the language, a reminiscence of the Shakespearian work, and the elements of the plot, remind the audience of the original play.

Banquo (Edgar Barrier)
Banquo (Edgar Barrier)

Macbeth (1948)

Shadows of Evil

Fog drifts above jagged rocks; drizzle keeps descending from darkness. There are dirty animals traversing the courtyard. This gloomy scenery reflects a universe in which man is doomed to lose touch with reality. These ominous elements are an indication of the dangers of witchcraft, a menace to those who live in its vicinity. Macbeth (Orson Welles) and his wife are somehow destined to have a tragic end because they find themselves too close to these wretched places.

Shadows and darkness are overwhelming – an influence of the expressionist movies. As the couple plans to murder Banquo (Edgar Barrier), Macbeth’s face is covered by shadow on one side. After the deed is performed, half of it slips into darkness. In the end, following the McDuff’s (Dan O'Herlihy) massacre, the Thane’s face is engulfed entirely in obscurity. Macbeth’s mind has been corrupted; he gradually allows his soul to be tainted by evil.


At the Crossroads of Religion

The spectator is swept away by a time long forgotten, when chaos ruled and civilization had not yet crystallized. Macbeth wears a helmet, which makes him resemble a prehistoric warrior. However, the director brings a few innovations to the movie. These changes bring Macbeth closer to the modern days. Wells introduces a new character, the Holy Man, who recites the prayer of Saint Martin and tells Macbeth about the agents of darkness.

Macbeth is torn between primitivism and Christianity: “I saw the witches as representatives of a Druidical pagan religion suppressed by Christianity – itself a new arrival”, adds Wells. England has been Christian longer than Scotland, so the New Religion was better established there. In this context, Macbeth’s killing of the innocent can be understood as the demolition of paganism and barbarism. By doing this, Macbeth purifies Scotland. Malcolm’s soldiers carry crosses, with the purpose of using Christianity as a weapon against primitivism. Symbolically, Malcolm and Macbeth meet in England under a huge cross.

The Witch Made Him Do It

Lady Macbeth (Jeanette Nolan) is seen as a witch, departing from the stage tradition of humble women merely suggesting nasty deeds to Macbeth. She is pure evil, surpassing even Macbeth’s moral corruption. Feminist criticism envisions Lady Macbeth as a victim of passions and supernatural forces, but Welles manages to erase any trace of female weakness from the character’s psychological structure. She is a devilish woman who speaks in a sharp, unmerciful voice. She seems to have a particular accent, which oftentimes is characteristic of the witches’ talk in the movies. Lady Macbeth stresses each word she utters, and the words come out carefully, as if crawling into Macbeth’s ears, slyly deforming the truth. The “unsex me” scene is quite telling, as far as the woman’s evil nature is concerned. Lady Macbeth lies on the bed, then slowly gets up, like a vampire from a coffin. Welles’s voice-over discloses her wish of allowing her womanhood to be absorbed by iniquity.

Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa | Source

Throne of Blood (1957)

The Japanese Way

Akira Kurasawa’s Japanese version of Macbeth relocates the story in the late 15th and early 16th century Japan – an ancient world which paradoxically reminds the audience of the tragedies of the Holocaust and of Hiroshima.

The director gives up most of Shakespeare’s poetic language and philosophic penchant, but not altogether. He finds his own way of converting them into beautiful, haunting images which inspired the critics to consider it one of the greatest movies of its time. The English translators attempted to bring the character’s dialog closer to Shakespeare’s time and mentality.

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A Desolate World

Kumonosu-jo, or The Throne of Blood does not lack words of wisdom and ambiguous talk, but Kurosawa chooses to place an emphasis on war and the desolate world it creates. Let’s not forget that the Japanese audience finds screen violence more acceptable than many other cultures. The spider is a powerful metaphor; the sinister creature has the ability to trap human souls in its web. People are made prisoners by war itself. Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) is not only a victim of his wife’s manipulation, but also of the barren world that hosts no hope for the future.

The setting of this black and white movie is quite creepy. We see huge gates, as compared to the minuscule soldiers. This discrepancy serves to illustrate the overpowering attribute of the artificial universe where people have lost touch with kindness and mercy. In such an environment, a man is prone to suffer a nervous breakdown, because humanity has been devalued. According to Dan Schneider, the war in Kurosawa’s movie is a state of mind: the armors of the soldiers are symbolic of the entrapment of destiny. The characters are engaged in a permanent battle against the anxiety of not being able to escape deterioration. They are surrounded by heaps of corpses and bones.

The White Faces of Malice

Kurosawa discards the idea of free will, suggested throughout the movie. In the original play, the characters have free will; Macbeth and his wife simply chose the wrong way, but Kurosawa condemns the protagonists to the web of self-fulfilling prophecies. According to the prophecy of the albino spirit (replacing the witches), humans are doomed to decay, both materially and spiritually. Washizu and his friend lose touch with reality, as a consequence of living in a desolate world, ravaged by incessant battles.

Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) is much more manipulative and complex than the previous Lady Macbeths, surpassing even Welles’s female heroine in terms of wickedness. Asaji’s whole life has been sacrificed to obeying her husband. The pressure of submission becomes a burden, and the woman feels the need to escape the inertia of her marital duties. As a consequence, she surrenders to insanity. Therefore her madness may be viewed as the result of realizing her own insignificance, as compared to her husband. Her face is dressed up in white make-up, which almost gives the impression that she is permanently wearing a mask and that she herself is a puppet. She hardly ever raises her head and her eyes do not meet with Washizu’s. Yet, her power resides in the low tone of her voice, very much resembling that of the albino spirit. It is a voice that springs from the depths of a tainted conscience, from the abyssal realms of darkness that consumes the world.

Macbeth (1971)

The Seductresses

In the politically-turbulent America of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Polanski makes use of excessive blood and creates a sexual tension between Macbeth and his very young and beautiful wife. “He insisted that sex and violence would be presented as logical extensions of the drama, now honestly depicted in the post censorship age.” (Brode 189).

Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) does not really resort to crafted words in order to provoke Macbeth (Jon Finch), but mostly to her feminine charms. The scene where she tries to convince her husband to kill Duncan is filmed on a bed. With her hair flowing, she pleads her cause entrancingly, constantly touching Macbeth, smiling and even whispering in his ear. She dances in front of the king, who is also under her spell, until she finally succeeds in defeating Macbeth’s initial hesitation. However, her controlling status changes in the end, when her feminine power crumbles, as she confronts with the terrible image of the murdered Lady MacDuff (Diane Fletcher). She faces the fact that it is not her power that governs her spouse, but it is his own viciousness and madness that enables him to take the lives of the innocent. And, like any obsession, it is prone to evolve into madness. Towards the end, the woman, having lost her mind, walks naked. The physicality of her body and its contortion give her death a sexual aura. Lady Macbeth has fallen victim of her own power of seduction.

The three Weird Sisters are also eroticized. They lure the Thane with their voluptuous gestures and magic. Thus, in a way, Macbeth is trapped not necessarily by his political ambition, but by the charm of women.


Make Thick My Blood

The witches pour blood on the sand after their ritual is over. It may be a foreshadowing of the tragedies that are about to poison Macbeth’s life, but also an allusion to menstrual blood, which seals the black magic that has been going on. Interestingly, the blood is not actually mixed with the rest of the concoction, but added at the end, just before the glass touches Macbeth’s lips. It is the main element which crowns the witches’ effort to emasculate the Thane of Cawdor.

There are many gory scenes involving the red liquid. The body of Banquo (Martin Shaw) floats in a stream, with an axe buried in his back. Lady Macduff is raped and left dead, along with her child, in a pool of blood. Banquo’s ghost bleeds from a slit throat. In one of his hallucinations, Macbeth “sees” a babe being “untimely ripped” from the womb. Macduff (Terence Bayler) beheads Macbeth and the head is turned into the main attraction of a gruesome parade. The mad display is similar to Kurasawa’s arrows scene at the end of “The Throne of Blood”. The crowd has a thirst for violence.

Sam Worthington
Sam Worthington | Source

Macbeth (2006)

A Rebel with a Cause

Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth contains the rebel stereotype that is characteristic to Shakespeare teen movies (French 101). Marketers have found a way of making the youth relate to the old values and at the same time enjoy the present. The Bard is inevitably rubbed of the charm of a perfect match between language, setting and mindset. The Shakespeare teen movies mostly appeal to the youth subcultures, placing an emphasis on the life of the outlaws. Reading Macbeth can be a bore, but if the protagonist is a kind of mobster, juggling with drugs and arms, it’s much more likely that he'll draw the attention of the audience.

In this story, the Thane of Cawdor (Sam Worthington) deals with narcotics, spends most of his time in night-clubs and gets involved in gang wars. King Duncan (Gary Sweet) is a drug baron. The swords and daggers are replaced by machine guns, and the members of the crime unit drive Audi cars and dirt-bikes. The camera monitor gives the impression that the characters are very dangerous and need to be spied on. Their actions are recorded and will eventually constitute a proof of their guilt.

Macbeth has lost his respect for humanity and religion. That religion has lost its meaning for the new generation is suggested right in the opening of the movie. The three witches are teenage girls who desecrate statues in a graveyard. Macbeth is an outlaw. His thirst for power is still a significant issue in Wright’s movie, but it is not necessarily the element that triggers Macbeth’s downfall. The focus of the movie shifts from the individual to society. We are no longer interested only in Macbeth’s guilt as a factor of influence. The spectator is urged to look at the story in ensemble, taking into consideration that Macbeth is a pawn on a corrupt chessboard.


Magic or Smoke?

The atmosphere inspired by the setting is one of disillusionment, madness and perversion. Smoke surrounds the protagonist in the empty nightclub. Macbeth’s mind is clouded by it, as he is tempted by the witches. Every time he meets the women, he is shown in a state that hints at the effects of strong hallucinogens. It’s not so surprising that Macbeth should believe he can see Banquo’s (Steve Bastoni) ghost.

The three weird sisters are stripped of their supernatural superiority to a great extent, as the director seems to be more concerned with their sexuality. They are basically teenagers and they intend to corrupt Macbeth in a sensual manner, poisoning his mind, until he gets caught in his own nightmares. In one of those dreams, Macbeth witnesses his own shooting, which is one of the greatest fears of a gang leader. The witches know that by exploiting Macbeth’s fear, they can destroy him. Their erotic dance in the nightclub makes Macbeth vulnerable to their charm. In another scene, they are naked and feed the Thane with their drug-like potion, in the same voluptuous way. Lady Macbeth (Victoria Hill) is also young and beautiful, almost a temptress herself. But unlike the witches, she is easily corrupted by fear. Having an outlaw for a husband makes her be continuously afraid and careful. This is why she urges Macbeth to act fast against the enemies.

Works Cited:

  • Brode, Douglas. Shakespeare in the Movies: from the Silent Era to Today. New York: Berkley Boulevard, 2001
  • French, Emma. Selling Shakespeare to Hollywood: the Marketing of Filmed Shakespeare Adaptations from 1989 into the New Millennium. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire, 2006.


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    • Teodora Gheorghe profile imageAUTHOR

      Teodora Gheorghe 

      3 years ago

      Yes, he was great.

    • EdwardJLongo profile image

      Edward J Longo 

      3 years ago from New York, New York

      Oh, yes, Orson Welles - there was no greater.

    • Teodora Gheorghe profile imageAUTHOR

      Teodora Gheorghe 

      3 years ago

      Thank you, HSchneider! I'm glad you liked it. Yes, Shakespeare's work does possess a timeless value.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Wonderful Hub, Teodora. These diverse adaptations of Shakespeare's Macbeth show the timelessness and essential value of this work and most of Shakespeare's plays.

    • Teodora Gheorghe profile imageAUTHOR

      Teodora Gheorghe 

      3 years ago

      I'm glad you liked it, Lawrence. :)

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      3 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Orson wells always had an interesting take on things. I haven't seen the others but enjoyed your interpretation of them


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