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Screenplay for Laurence Olivier’s Unproduced Macbeth Film Found

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

A researcher in the Great Britain has unearthed the supposedly lost screenplay for a projected film version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which was to be directed by Sir Laurence Olivier, starring Olivier and his then-wife, Vivien Leigh.

Olivier and Leigh had presented Macbeth on stage in 1955, but financing fell through, and they never got a chance to make the film; more’s the pity. As The Guardian’s Steven Morris writes, “Macbeth was going to be Olivier’s fourth cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare following successful versions of Hamlet, Henry V and Richard III. He and Leigh had starred in a much lauded production of Macbeth in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955 and Olivier was keen to adapt it for the cinema.

But the project was shelved in 1958, mainly because of financial problems, and Olivier later claimed there were no surviving scripts, only a ’sketch’. Since then the lost project has been seen as a gap in British cinema history and fed into the idea of the ‘Scottish play’ as an unlucky one. More than half a century later, it fell to Jennifer Barnes, a 31-year-old English lecturer from the University of Exeter, to provide some of the answers. She was going through papers for research on Olivier’s film version of Richard III in the manuscripts reading room at the British Library when she came across references to Macbeth scripts.

‘I was going through the catalogues and I pulled up a script and found it was Macbeth. I didn’t believe it because I knew it wasn’t supposed to exist.’ The papers were part of an archive bought for £1m by the library from Olivier’s family in 2000. ‘I guess the people who catalogued them didn’t know how important they were,’  Barnes said.

The screenplay opens not as the play does, with the three witches, but with an image of Macbeth gazing into a pit at a mortally wounded version of himself, ‘his blood colouring the water all around him.’ In the early part of the movie the misty landscapes (Olivier had planned to film on location in Scotland, and the script mentions Inverness, Skye and the village of Scone) provide a stark contrast to the solid castle interiors.

Later the distinction becomes less strong as Olivier envisaged the damp fog invading the enclosed spaces and the greys giving way to reds as the action turns bloody. At times Macbeth and Lady Macbeth morph into the witches and there is one shot in the script in which the Macbeth’s head dissolves and transforms into the witches’ cavern.

The biggest surprise, however, is the loss of part of Macbeth’s ‘Is this a dagger?’ speech. Olivier intended to miss out the opening lines and start the speech halfway through as Leigh’s Lady Macbeth dips her hands in the dead king’s blood. Olivier was not planning to show Macbeth carrying out the murder.

Barnes believes the screenplays shed an intriguing light on the relationship of Olivier and Leigh, which was breaking down by the late 50s. ‘One of the recurring stories was that Leigh was taking away Olivier’s power, making him a lesser man. I think there is an emphasis on the breakdown of the Macbeths’ marriage in the screenplay.’

You can read the entire story here; fascinating stuff, and a great find.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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