In Barbara Leaming’s book Orson Welles: A Biography, Welles described his film Macbeth (1948) as a bold charcoal sketch of the play.
Welles had convinced Herbert Yates, who headed up Republic Pictures, to fund the production, though he was given a budget of only $700,000. And when Republic’s board of directors grumbled about the decision, Welles agreed to personally pay any costs that might go over that amount.
Because of these constraints, Welles had only 23 days to shoot the film. To streamline the production, the actors pre-recorded their dialogue, which forced them to essentially mime their lines as their performances were captured on film.
Most of the costumes were rented from Western Costume, a Hollywood-based costume warehouse. Years later in a conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, Welles admitted that:
Mine should have been sent back, because I looked like the Statue of Liberty in it. But there was no dough for another and nothing in stock at Western would fit me, so I was stuck with it.
Welles also decided that the performers should have Scottish accents, to reflect the fact that Shakespeare’s play is set in Scotland. And he made changes to the original text. He created a new “Holy Father” character to emphasize a religious contrast with the three witches. That character was given new lines, as well as lines that were originally spoken by a now-eliminated character from the play.
The movie wasn’t well received by the film critics. And it didn’t do well at the box office. In an attempt to recoup its loses, Republic released a shorter 85-minute version in 1950. The dialogue was re-recorded—this time without the Scottish brogues.
This shorter version was the only one that was available until 1980, when the original uncut version was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Fortunately, time has been kind to both Welles and his interpretation of Macbeth. We’re now much more forgiving of filmmakers who alter Shakespeare’s plays to suit the film medium, especially if those changes help to bring a deeper understanding of the interweaving characters and plot.
Despite the severe financial constraints, Welles’ Macbeth is one of the best Shakespeare films ever make. And it’s the most visually striking Shakespearean film so far.
In fact, it’s the co-mingling of the theatrical performances and evocative visual backgrounds that makes this production so memorable. Macbeth is fully equal on its own terms to Welles’ other Shakespeare-adapted films: Othello (1951) and Chimes at Midnight (1965).
Olive’s latest Blu-ray of Macbeth provides both the uncut (107-minute) and truncated (85-minute) versions within the same package. It was recently released through the Olive Signature series. Both versions are fully restored from the best available print materials. And both look terrific, as each version gets its own disc with an appropriately high bitrate.
The original cut includes an excellent commentary by Welles biographer Joseph McBride as an alternate audio track. And there are plenty of extras on the second disc, including interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and UCLA Film & Television Archive Preservation Officer Robert Gitt. Highly recommended!
(1948; directed by Orson Welles; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
List Price: $39.95