Scotland Saved from History: Welles's Macbeth and the Ahistoricism of Medieval Film

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I want to consider Welles's Macbeth in a different frame from the usual ones, viewing it less as a Shakespearean or Wellesian film than as a medieval one. From its opening words, the film stakes a claim to historicity-claiming to depict the period of Christianity's first penetration of a barbarian world-that is belied by virtually everything that follows: the visual invocations of westerns and film noir, the anachronistic grotesqueries of costuming, the fabular simplification of character to the demands of a parable about the resistible rise of gothic tyranny, what Michael Anderegg (84) has called the "post-nuclear" devastation of its landscape. In creating this notional and abstract version of the Middle Ages as a theatre in which to play out an estranged version of the political concerns of the late 1940s, Welles works against Shakespeare to suppress the Renaissance context of the original play, substituting in particular a myth of the eternal return of tyranny-"Peace, the charm's wound up"-for the linear and progressive development of Scotland and England invoked in Shakespeare's text. In Welles's version, as in Polanski's later and better one, Macbeth doesn't lead to King James; he leads to another Macbeth.

In so doing, Welles both conforms to and helps to shape the conventions that have controlled the depiction of the Middle Ages for at least the last fifty years of film history. Arguably, this film has had a greater impact, for better or (mostly) for worse, on medieval films than on Shakespeare or Shakespearean film. Part of that impact has been to reinforce the prevailing confusion of "dark ages" with Middle Ages; this Macbeth is, after all, an extreme example of that equation of the medieval with mud, murk, monks, and bloodshed common to people who know little about the period and care less. Welles's own attitude toward the period is concisely expressed in the version of the coming of the Renaissance given in his Introduction to The Mercury Shakespeare:

Down in Italy... men had taken the hoods of the dusty, dusky old Middle Ages off their heads and begun to look around .... Books were being written instead of copied; people had stopped taking Aristotle's word for it and were nosing around the world, taking it apart to see what made it run. (Qtd. in Kodar 210)

Cruel as it is to cite a man's popularizations against him, this constitutes fair warning. If you start from this view of the Middle Ages, you are unlikely to use them as anything except a pretext for talking about something else. In that, unfortunately, Welles is the precursor of an entire genre of medieval films. I want to put his Macbeth in the context of that genre.

For five years at the National University of Singapore I taught an honors-year seminar in Film and History, originally designed to compare and contrast the ways in which films of the Middle Ages and those dealing with recent history reconstruct the past. I quickly figured out that almost all the "history" was in the latter, modern half of the course. Soon after, I realized that virtually none of my medieval films-Welles's included-was reconstructing the past at all, at least not in the detailed, furniture-fixated way of, say, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993). Also unlike Scorsese but more importantly, the medieval films did not work from the assumption that the past was of inherent interest or historically connected to the present. While the recent past is customarily presented as causatively connected to the present, the medieval past is virtually always presented as an analogue-usually for our basest behavior-a distant, alienating mirror, as Welles's Scotland is an estranged version of Germany or that more abstract place, Fascism-land.

To see what I mean, let's look at one of the most familiar opening sequences in nominally historical film: the one from Bergman's The Seventh Seal (Sweden 1957), a work which shares to a remarkable extent the stylistic vocabulary of Macbeth. …