Macbeth (1971)

mac71a2016.48: Macbeth (Blu-ray) 

Having seen the most recent film of Macbeth, Justin Kurzel’s 2015 version, a few months ago, I was intrigued by comparisons in the press and online to Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, which I somehow had never even heard of before. Having issues with the 2015 version that was highly-rated elsewhere, I decided to try keep an eye out for this 1971 film and see how it compared, and how that might inform my opinion of the Kurzel film.

Maybe it was the release of the 2015 film that triggered it, but thankfully Criterion put their edition of Polanski’s film in the first batch of their editions getting official Blu-ray releases over here in the UK, so it wasn’t long before I had the opportunity to see it.

I don’t know why, but I was very surprised by just how dark and gritty this film was- indeed, it is very much in the same idiom and manner of the 2015 film, albeit more faithful to the original text and less inclined to go for style over substance as Kurzels film. It shares the use of location footage and favouring realistic sets and highlighting the dirt and blood. In retrospect, it’s perhaps inevitable considering the central themes of the Shakespeare play, but somehow I thought that a film from 1971 might be more mellow and restrained.

That said, there is a shadow over Polanski’s film that cannot be denied- it was made just three years after Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson Family. It is evident that this informs much of Polanski’s Macbeth–  it has a heart of darkness running throughout, as if Polanski was possibly using the film to exorcise some inner demons. It is a bitter and unsettling film, clearly as powerful as Kurzel’s version, and just as authentic-looking thanks to its use of location filming and weather conditions. In hindsight, it seems Kurzel’s vision wasn’t as unique as I had initially thought, and I can only imagine the impact a film like this must have had back in 1971.

The cast is terrific.  The brooding Macbeth is played by Jon Finch, an actor I’ve always been impressed by. How he never became a major star I’ll never know (I recall he was cast as Kane in Ridley Scott’s Alien but had to drop out on the second day of filming due to illness- one can only imagine how his career might have gone if he hadn’t become ill and gotten replaced). The beautiful Francesca Annis plays the Lady Macbeth and is the equal of Finch in every scene. The film also features Martin Shaw as Banquo, who Macbeth betrays before his guilt begins his madness. It’s quite a young cast but they all clearly relished the opportunity to be in what must have been, at the time, a bold and exciting take on Shakespeare.

mac71bLensed by Gil Taylor, the film looks breathtaking and quite revolutionary. There is a sense in every scene of how exciting this must have been to make at the time. It doesn’t feel like a film from 1971 somehow, it looks quite modern, and again, obviously informed Kurzel’s film which almost seems increasingly redundant in retrospect. It also reminded me of Ridley Scott’s early films like The Duellists and, indeed, Alien in its realistic sets and photography. I would imagine Ridley Scott would have been quite impressed by it and inspired by it- I don’t recall reading an interview with Scott in which this film was raised, more the pity. John Boorman’s Excalibur, also clearly must have been influenced by the Polanski film.

Its funny, really, seeing an ‘older’ film like this for the first time and seeing, in hindsight all these influences that later filtered through subsequent films I have seen. This is a great film and certainly one to rewatch, and the Criterion edition’s extras are very informative and interesting (although I would have welcomed a commentary). Though it might indicate more my tastes in film pacing and modern film tendencies for style over substance, and preference of 1970s film-making in general, I think this 1971 version is clearly superior to the 2015 film.

One thought on “Macbeth (1971)

  1. Looking forward to watching this again at some point (I picked up the Criterion but goodness knows when I’ll actually make time for it). I watched it when studying Macbeth for GCSE, so was more focused on the text and less aware of how it was shot, etc — especially as I watched it on VHS — so I think I’ll be seeing it with largely fresh eyes. I know I liked the Kurzel version more than you did, so it’ll be interesting to see how it compares, too.

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