In August 1969 Tex Watson and three other members of the Manson family invaded the home of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. Tex Watson announced, ‘I’m the Devil and I’m here to do the Devil’s business.’ Sharon Tate was pregnant and two weeks away from giving birth. She was stabbed to death despite her pleas that her killing could at least be delayed until after her baby was born. In August 1969 Roman Polanski was in London preparing a film. When he heard of the atrocity, the film was abandoned. Grief interrupted both the schedule and plans of Polanski. His first film after his wife had been murdered appeared in 1971.
Few were surprised that he selected Macbeth by Shakespeare. Polanski has a dark twisted sense of humour, and it is important to his effectiveness as a filmmaker. Rosemary’s Baby is a horror movie in which an innocent woman is abused and exploited by witches. Polanski tells the tale with a sly smile and not that much sympathy for the victim. Shakespeare was a safe option because it kept the humour of Polanski at bay. The director was able to show respect for his murdered wife and prove that he was not as callous as others thought. The play Macbeth would have also helped Polanski to brood on the terrible incident and use his thoughts in a constructive way. Today this kind of brooding is sometimes called therapy.
The crazed Manson family brought the hippy 60s to a premature end. As Tex Watson realised, the musings of the hippies had caught the ear of the Devil. Love and freedom had a dark side that consisted of both indiscriminate lust and violence without restraint. Irresponsibility and dreamy ambition was revealed to be a toxic mixture. The murder of Sharon Tate may have been a case of mistaken identity. Polanski and Tate rented the house from a record producer that had told Charles Manson he was as deluded about his supposed musical talent as he was everything else. Manson ordered the attack by Tex Watson and the others, and it may have happened because the failed musician thought the record producer was still living in the house.
When Polanski recreated Macbeth as a movie, he was still wondering how his own dreams had been ended by an insane and dangerous assassin. Macbeth is a violent man but he is not uncomplicated evil like self-aware Tex Watson. Macbeth begins the play as a valiant hero. He is a good friend to the decent Banquo. The other soldiers cheer when the name of Macbeth is mentioned. But Shakespeare does enough to make us aware of the limitations of judgements made by these violent and brave victors. The pronouncements we hear are a response to battle and victory. The soldiers lack any understanding of the character of Macbeth. Warriors survive because they need illusions about their comrades.
Macbeth is heroic but disturbed and contradictory. He is a man of action, courage and violence but there is also a passive element to his nature. He is willing to believe in a destiny being shaped by forces described by three old crones and he is dependant on the judgement of his not altogether stable wife. Macbeth, like Manson, is tempted by glory and celebrity and he is too willing to listen to the hippies of the day. Both men require a perverse and violent valediction, something that will convince them they are exceptional and worthy of superior entitlement. The violence of both men is not just callous cruelty but also a willingness to test ambition that they think is beyond ordinary men, those ‘born of women’. Polanski recognised this implication in Manson. The Polish director wanted more than his hatred of the murderers of his wife. He needed to understand the assassins. Macbeth becomes resentful of Banquo and his clean conscience. ‘Under him my genius is rebuked.’ This line could describe how many of the disenchanted of the 60s generation felt about themselves and their parents and authority. Most grumbled and sought relief in mind-altering drugs but eventually a modern Macbeth emerged. Listening to a ragged bunch of hippies, Manson refused to let his supposed genius be rebuked.
The movie version of Macbeth by Polanski was financed by Hugh Hefner through his Playboy Company. There is plenty of violence, and Francesca Annis takes off her clothes. The Polanski version is rare amongst Shakespeare movies. It attracted an X certificate. The nude scene features late in the play. Apart from a glimpse of a naked Annis for those who are curious it has little significance. The scene arrives after the point where Lady Macbeth has been corrupted by guilt and ambition. The pristine figure is no more than irony. But it kept Hugh Hefner happy, and he was funding the film. Polanski alters the play and text. He includes a couple of scenes not in the play. At his execution the treacherous and thoroughly unlikeable Thane of Cawdor spits final defiance and throws himself off the scaffold. In the play we are told that Thane is penitent and dignified. In the film, when we hear, ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it,’ it is a reference to an unpleasant man who who was prepared to live and die according to a certain code. This happens because Polanski was willing to acknowledge the capability and independent worth of the violent and cruel. At the end of the film Donalbin the younger son of King Duncan visits the cave where the witches live. The implication is that the tragedy of Macbeth will be repeated. Macbeth and Manson may be extreme examples of human ambition but they are not exceptional because the circumstances of the tragedy are typical. Whatever they think of themselves Macbeth and Manson are types of men. Some have power, and others do not. Many are compromised and inflict damage.
Polanski adds visual invention and presence to the play. Rolling vistas, broad flat beaches and rain-drenched hills provide atmosphere and suggest authentic human struggle against nature. Macbeth is best watched in a comfortable cinema on a wet English afternoon. If the gloomy spectacle fails as late night action entertainment, it comes to life while there is still the rest of the day to ponder and dry warmth to appreciate. The play presents a similar problem in the theatre. It does not lift evening audiences. Shakespeare adds his mighty intelligence and gift for language to the drama but the scenes prior to the slaying of the King fail to persuade us of the premature decision to commit murder. Macbeth has a grievance against the King and a prediction from three very dodgy women but that is it. The appearance of the ghost in Hamlet is effective despite the supernatural element. Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, and Lady Macbeth imagines blood on her hands. None of this convinces. Lady Macbeth has previously made a convincing case for the murder. The woman is too formidable and nasty for excessive guilt. Macbeth is ambitious and violent and has a destiny for consolation.
Polanski provides a natural setting and attempts to create mediaeval life. This brings certain benefits. Prior to meeting Macbeth the three witches walk across an empty beach. This is memorable, as is the arrival at dawn of the English troops. Naturalism, though, always weakens the impact of the poetic language. It distances the actors from the audience, and the point of the language is that it should connect the audience to actors. As in music, the intimacy between performer and listener is important. At its best we feel as if we are half-saying what we hear. Shakespeare used language to flatter and tease his audience. This helped them to become involved in what was an obvious artificial construction, a theatrical play. Deny the artificiality, and the language sounds distant and absurd. Polanski goes further than mere naturalism. Not only are the soliloquies spoken without the actor moving his lips, in some instances the actor disappears from the screen. Sometimes it works, the musings of Macbeth before the final encounter are moving. Most of the time, though, it weakens the adaptation. Nevertheless the nihilistic line, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot of sound and fury and signifying nothing’, has impact when all we see is the hard countenance of Macbeth.
The sword fights use a familiar trick. The actors perform the routine slowly, and the technicians then increase the speed of the film. The technique is obvious and a flaw in what elsewhere is a well-made film. Holy Island is a fine location but is well known as an English landmark and its presence in Macbeth jars. It feels like something from a Disney fantasy. What we know about the murders in the home of Roman Polanski adds to our morbid interest in Macbeth but even without that the film would be essential viewing. Polanski suffered because an insane man who had the same self-belief as Macbeth targeted his home. ‘Fear not Macbeth, no man borne of woman shall have power over thee.’ The violent ambitious man not only has to have more daring than others he needs to transcend both the humble beginning and arrival that we all share and the subsequent dependency on mere woman. What a horrible irony that Sharon Tate was eight and a half months pregnant when she was slain by a man who felt obliged to prove he had merit.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.