Monday, April 16, 2018

Orson Welles' 1950 Version of Macbeth

Macbeth. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan, Dan O’Herlihy, Roddy McDowall, Edgar Barner, and Alan Napier. 1950. Blu-ray. Olive Films, 2016.

Orson Welles' Macbeth was filmed in 1947, released in a limited way in 1948, and re-released in 1950. The 1950 version was shorter, and the voices—which had a Scottish burr—had been overdubbed with accents that sounded significantly less Scottish. I'd only seen the 1948 version (for a bit of which, q.v.) before this year, when Olive released a Blu-ray of the film that includes both versions in full.

Imagine my surprise and amazement when I started the 1950 version—primarily to see how the accents changed—and heard an introduction that sets the stage for the film. Olivier's 1948 Hamlet did something of the sort (for which, q.v.), but largely with Shakespeare's text.

It may be that the Republic Studio in 1950 wanted Welles' film to do something like Olivier's Academy-Award winning Shakespeare film, or it may be that they wanted their audiences to be guided rather than confused by the direction of the film. In any case, here's the opening of the 1950 version of Welles Macbeth (with the text below):

Our story is laid in Scotland—Ancient Scotland—savage, half lost in the mist that hangs between recorded history and the time of legends.  The cross itself is newly arrived here.  Plotting against Christian law and order are the agents of chaos: priests of hell and magic, sorcerers, and witches.  Their tools are ambitious men.  This is the story of such a man and of his wife.  A brave soldier, he hears from witches a prophecy of future greatness and, on this cue, murders his way up to a tyrant's throne only to go down hated and in blood at the end of all.  Now, riding homeward from victorious battle in defense of his true king, here on the blasted heath, the witches hail him king.  Here the spell is laid upon him, and the story begins. 
That introduction could be reductionist—and, to a certain extent, it is—but it also has something of Welles' vision of the story and the way it unfolds. And that's a helpful way to frame the narrative.

In a future post, we'll take a listen to some of those accents. Stay tuned!

Links: The Film at IMDB.


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Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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