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Film / Macbeth (1971)

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Macbeth is a 1971 film directed by Roman Polański and co-written by him and Kenneth Tynan, and is an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth (and a pretty faithful one at that).

Macbeth, Thane of Glamis (Jon Finch), defeats the traitorous Thane of Cawdor in battle. On the way back, Macbeth and his good friend Banquo (Martin Shaw) are greeted by three mysterious witches, who greet him by saying "All hail Macbeth, Thane of Glamis...All hail Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor...All hail Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!"

The seed of ambition is planted in Macbeth's head, and he really gets excited when he and Banquo meet King Duncan of Scotland and Duncan grants Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor. When he tells his wife Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) of this news, she immediately goads him into murdering King Duncan and taking the throne, thus fulfilling the third witch's prophecy.

It's a bad idea.

This film was notably the first film Polanski made after his wife Sharon Tate, their unborn baby, and four other people were slaughtered at Tate and Polanski's home by the Manson Family. It was also produced by Hugh Hefner and Playboy Productions as part of a short-lived effort by Hefner to break into the movie business.


  • Adaptation Expansion: Lady Macbeth's body is shown, as is Macbeth's reaction to it.
  • Adaptational Skimpiness: Lady Macbeth is naked during her sleepwalking soliloquy. This was inspired by the fact that people slept naked at the time.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Ross, who is a sort of pointless character in the play, is made the Third Murderer in this film and participates in the killing of Banquo, as well as killing the other two Murderers.note 
  • Age Lift: Polanski deliberately sought out "young and good-looking" actors for the parts of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, believing that the characters of Macbeth were more relatable to young people than experienced, elder actors. Producer Kenenth Tynan believed that people over sixty were too old to be ambitious. On a second level, the historical Macbeth was 35 when he ascended to the throne and Jon Finch was six years younger at 29.
  • Anachronism Stew: Suits of armor like the ones Macbeth, Macduff and Malcolm wear in the climax did not exist in the eleventh century.
  • An Arm and a Leg: The three witches are performing some sort of ritual in the opening scene that involves burying, among other things, a right hand and forearm on the beach.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Macbeth's coronation, not shown in the play, is shown in the film. There's a ceremony where Macbeth is lifted up on a platform by some nobles while an outer circle of nobles hails him as king.
  • Beard of Evil: Macbeth, who is clean-shaven throughout the opening scenes, grows a beard when he becomes king after murdering Duncan.
  • Beastly Bloodsports: Bear-baiting is popular entertainment at King Macbeth's court.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverts this to hell with Lady Macbeth - who is shown as a beautiful blonde with Gorgeous Period Dress (even before she becomes queen). Yet her beauty conceals what a villain she really is.
  • Bloodier and Gorier: This, the first film Roman Polanski made after his wife and four other people were gruesomely murdered at his home, is quite a bit bloodier and gorier than any other stage or screen adaptation of Macbeth made prior to 1971. Banquo's ghost is drenched in blood when he shows up at Macbeth's dinner. The two guards that Macbeth frames for Duncan's murder are shown literally chopped to pieces, as are Macduff's younger children. And the murder of Duncan, which is not shown in the play, is shown in the film. Macbeth stabs Duncan a bunch of times and then stabs him once more in the neck as Duncan is still twitching on the floor.
  • Call-Back: Lady Macbeth makes her first appearance reading Macbeth's letter telling her about his encounter with the witches. Near the end, when Lady Macbeth has gone completely mad, she reads the letter again, shaking and sobbing as she reads the letter, which is a Call-Back to the beginning of the story.
  • Cock-a-Doodle Dawn: There's a fair amount of livestock at Glamis Castle, including the cock that's crowing at dawn the morning after Duncan's murder, as Macduff arrives at the castle.
  • Combat Breakdown: The final fight between Macbeth and Macduff turn into a protracted anything-goes match including punches, kicks, and Macduff swinging at Macbeth with a piece of firewood when he's been disarmed.
  • Composite Character: One of the weirder things about Shakespeare's play is how he sends two Murderers after Banquo and Fleance, but a Third Murderer shows up out of nowhere as the first two lie in wait. This film makes that moment less awkward by having Ross be the third murderer.
  • Death by Adaptation: The murderers who kill Banquo are drowned by Ross (the Third Murderer) for failing to kill Fleance. Thus, different murderers kill Macduff's family. Also, Seyton gets a crossbow bolt to the head from one of Macbeth's soldiers when he tries to stop people from escaping the royal castle.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Twice, Macbeth and the people at his castle are shown enjoying the "sport" of bear-baiting. The second time the corpse of the bear is hauled off through the castle after it's killed by dogs.
  • Demoted to Extra: The film reduces a lot of Malcolm's bigger moments, including his Secret Test of Character to Macduff and his final speech after the battle.
  • Downer Ending: Adds a silent epilogue in which Donalbain, Malcolm's younger brother, goes to the witches, implying that the cycle of violence will continue.
  • Dramatic Thunder:
    • A clap of thunder is heard when Lady Macbeth greets her husband at Glamis Castle. Soon she's egging him on to murder.
    • The thunder kicks up again just as Banquo is riding into the fatal ambush.
  • Dream Sequence: Macbeth has a nightmare in which Fleance stands over his bed holding an arrow at his throat while Banquo laughs. Soon after he gives the order to have them murdered.
  • The Dying Walk: Macduff's son gets stabbed In the Back, walks over to Lady Macduff, says "He has killed me, mother," and dies.
  • Evil Cripple: Hinted at with Donalbain. In this movie, Donalbain walks with a serious limp, an idea not found in Shakespeare's text. This serves as subtle Foreshadowing for the last scene, in which Donalbain is seen arriving at the witches' lair.
  • Fan Disservice: Macbeth's second visit with the witches finds not just three of them, but a few dozen "secret, black, and midnight hags", all naked, mostly old crones, performing some dark ritual.
  • Fanservice: Francesca Annis is naked with Godiva Hair for the "out damned spot" mad scene. It's probably supposed to be Fan Disservice as her Naked Nutter freakout underscores her madness, but then again, she's awfully good-looking.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: Tolling church bells make the atmosphere more foreboding as the traitorous Thane of Cawdor is led to his execution.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Lady Macbeth is suggesting Duncan's murder at the banquet, the shadow of Duncan's crown falls on her face as he interrupts their conversation.
    • Shortly before Banquo's death, Lady Macbeth is doing needlework and hallucinates a drop of blood on her hands.
  • Godiva Hair: Francesca Annis's long hair hides most everything in the front when she's nude for Lady Macbeth's mad scene.
  • The Hecate Sisters: The three witches consist of a young one, a matronly one, and a blind and lame crone. It is an unusual example where both matron and crone are played by women in their sixties, mid and late respectively.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: Macbeth hesitates before killing Duncan, and in fact looks as if he's going to turn away. Then Duncan wakes up, seeing Macbeth standing over him with a sword. So he goes ahead and kills him.
  • In the Back: Banquo is still trying to fight off the murderers as Fleance escapes, when he is killed by an axe to his back.
  • Karma Houdini: Making Ross the Third Murderer means he gets away clean for the death of Banquo after he defects to Malcolm.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Unlike the play, Duncan's murder is shown onscreen. The king wakes up to see Macbeth looming over him with a knife and has just enough time to say "Murde—" before Macbeth stabs him.
  • Inner Monologue: Like many theatrical adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, the frequent asides are rendered onscreen as inner monologues.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Inverted. Lady Macbeth is young and ambitious, accompanied by bright colours (she's even wearing white when the murder happens). Lady Macduff is a little older and more down-to-earth; she's dark-haired and portrayed as sensible and rational.
  • Light Is Not Good: Francesca Annis in Roman Polanski's film has blonde hair and frequently appears in white dresses. Yes she's playing Lady Macbeth.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: Among the reasons this film was controversial in 1971 was Polanski's decision to show the 11-year-old boy who plays Macduff's son naked, as Lady Macduff gives him a bath.
  • Naked Nutter: Lady Macbeth performs the classic "Out Damned Spot" Sanity Slippage soliloquy while in the nude.
  • No Kill like Overkill: In the 1971 film, Macduff's house is also burned after his family and attendants have been slaughtered. Oh and a serving girl is shown being raped as the horror goes on.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: We never see exactly how Lady Macduff gets killed. Given what we see happening to the serving girl and her dead children, we can imagine it's not pretty.
  • The Queen's Latin: A minor example. Despite all references to Scotland remaining in the text, the characters speak with English accents. The 1948 and 2015 films had the actors speaking with Scottish accents.
  • Rage Against the Reflection: The last of Banquo's line of kings "bears a glass" in which he shows Macbeth many more kings from Banquo's line. Macbeth smashes the mirror in a rage, only to wake up alone in the witches' den.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: During the massacre at Castle Macduff, a serving girl is getting gang raped by the murderers.
  • The Stinger: Donalbain seeking out the witches, implying that the events that just transpired, for all their bloodshed and destruction, were ultimately meaningless and the same thing will just happen again.
  • Younger and Hipper: Roman Polanski chose to make his leads in their twenties, feeling that older characters wouldn't be as ambitious. This was in addition to hoping that attractive leads would draw in more viewers.