Although markedly different in setting, style, and filmic mode, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus (2011) and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015) share an interest in the representation, construction, and destruction of masculine military identities.1 The labor, habitual violence, and price of soldierly life is made explicit in both films. We see the title characters and their brothers-in-arms in frenetic battle, their bodies beaten, muddied, bloodied, bruised, lacerated, and scarred. Moreover, both on and off the field of combat, the men are variously incensed, disoriented, and traumatized by their experiences. The physical and psychological impact of warfare is everywhere in evidence, and the viewer is left in no doubt that military life inscribes indelible marks on Coriolanus and Macbeth. Both films portray the male body as a weapon; each soldier is produced by, and then deployed in the service of, the state (whether it be Rome or the Scottish king). Of course, weapons are a kind of tool, and they may be used against the agents who wield them. In Coriolanus and Macbeth, the protagonists are exposed as apparatuses of aggression that will turn, inevitably, against their masters. Having been used by the state, society, and their own families, Coriolanus and Macbeth are rendered exterior to these structures, and their inherent isolationism and individualism intensifies. These films, then, seem to insist that Coriolanus’ and Macbeth’s soldiership, rather than their own personal shortcomings or decisions, makes them victims of the state.2 A central element of this victimization is that soldiering is not merely a job or temporary experience; instead, it is a permanent and all-consuming identity. The films show that being a soldier overwhelms all other aspects of the self, including the roles of son, husband, and father, and so, for these warriors, reintegration into ‘normal’ society is simply impossible. Yet the societies portrayed in these films demand a male hero who is not confined to a single role, a hero who is flexible and adaptable. War is packaged as an experience in which such a masculinity can develop, and be tried and tested.3 For all their hypermasculinity though, Coriolanus and Macbeth ultimately fail the test. In their study of male heroes, Kord and Krimmer observe that contemporary Hollywood films “define masculinity as a composite of varying parts of professionalism, intellectual superiority, learning, brute power, looks, and language” (8). Coriolanus and Macbeth meet many of the criteria, but, in the end, they both are and can only be soldiers. Their deaths are presented not as a natural outcome of their engagement in combat, but as the penalty for their inability to be the ‘all-rounder’ male that society requires. As I will show, while the protagonists’ deaths conclude their stories, Fiennes’ and Kurzel’s films refuse to offer clear-cut answers to the questions they raise and their final scenes deny any sense of closure, thus presenting masculinity as in crisis to the bitter, bloody end.
Writing about the Battle of Agincourt in Branagh’s Henry V (1989), Pascale Aebischer notes that, through the shots of the exertions of the muddied English forces, “[the] literally disabling experience of battle is thus transformed into something which, though physically taxing, can be eventually washed and slept off” (120). By contrast, Fiennes’ and Kurzel’s soldiers are afforded no such luxury or quick fix. The opening of Coriolanus invites the audience to compare two battle-hardened veterans.4 Seated in a darkened room, the Volscian Aufidius (Gerard Butler) absentmindedly sharpens a combat knife while he is fixated on the TV newsreel that shows Coriolanus (Fiennes).5 Aufidius is bearded, wears a khaki vest, and his bare muscled arms sport tattoos and leather bands. In contrast to this revolutionary, Coriolanus is a professional soldier. On the TV screen, we see Coriolanus in full clean fatigues, he is clean-shaven and shaven-headed, and his face is criss-crossed with white scars. The men’s weapons also distinguish them; Coriolanus is surrounded by standard-issue military hardware, while Aufidius is clearly invested in maintaining his personal weapon: a knife inlaid with Celtic designs. As Robert Ormsby succinctly observes, the film makes a clear distinction: “the Romans are invader-occupiers and the Volsces defender-insurgents” (229). In the news footage, Coriolanus appears polished and professional as he talks to his men, and a close-up shows the nametape “Martius” on his breast pocket. The label identifies him as the embodiment of the soldier – he is his martial uniform. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that this is all that Coriolanus can be. In contrast, while Aufidius can “appreciate the military ideology that drives the Roman warrior” (Friedman, 93), the film suggests that he is more than a soldier. Aufidius is repeatedly shown to be popular; he has a rapport with his people and his soldiers; he has empathy (he gazes with pity on the bodies of a family slain in Corioles), and he has a close friendship with his Lieutenant (Slavko Štimac), as evinced particularly in the film’s final scene. Coriolanus is denied such easy intimacy, finding pleasure and peace – ironically – only on the battlefield.
In the Battle of Corioles, when Coriolanus is left for dead, his miraculous reappearance leads his lieutenant Titus (Dragan Mićanović) to ask: “Who’s yonder, That does appear as he were flayed?” Coriolanus’ gory mask is a source of pride, and, by packaging it as a desirable sign of masculine valor and national loyalty, he attempts to use his “smeared” visage to inspire the young soldiers to renew the fight (see Figure 1). In contrast to the scene in the play, however, the Roman soldiers are reluctant and, only when Coriolanus dejectedly states, “Oh me alone” do they hesitantly raise their arms in support.6 Coriolanus’ injunction, “Make you a sword of me!” then becomes a celebratory rallying cry, as he leads the charge towards the Volscians. The soldiers are here representative of civilised society. Coriolanus, however, is clearly an outsider, and the group balks at the sight of this bloody misfit and his manic, near-suicidal drive to battle. He is the only one to experience a “weird ecstasy in the middle of […] this nightmare,” but with no other options, the soldiers follow him (Director’s Commentary). Contemporary “war films are […] prone to portray war as an arena of male maturation” (Kord and Krimmer, 138), and in Coriolanus, the Corioles scenes are a clear example of this tendency. With his face and bald head caked in his enemy’s blood, Coriolanus is a new-born model warrior, and he proves his masculine primacy by engaging in single combat with Aufidius.7 As Bruce R. Smith observes, Coriolanus “achieves manhood near the start of the play in a symbolic act of rebirth as he emerges, covered in blood, from the gates of the city of Corioles” (3). In the film, not only is Coriolanus symbolically reborn here, but. following the battle, he is newly baptised. When he is awarded the title ‘Caius Martius Coriolanus’ by the Senate, his military exploits are once again made explicitly fundamental to his self-identity. Soon after, the permanency and impact of his military life is shown to be inscribed on his very body. After his triumphant return to Rome, Coriolanus sits bare-chested in the family bathroom while his mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), bandages his fresh wounds. This intimate scene reveals that, beneath his uniform, Coriolanus’ body is a melange of new and old wounds, “a battleground of scars […] something monstrous. Stitched up. Patched together. Slashed around. Frankenstein’s monster” (Logan, 33).
In a similar way, Kurzel’s film foregrounds Macbeth’s identity as a warrior. In the opening Battle of Ellon, the Scottish troops are lined up for the attack, their nervous movement suggesting an eagerness to engage the enemy. Like his fellow soldiers, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is pale, grimy, and bloodied. But the stripes of black war-paint on his face at once displays his military identity and suggests that his true self is masked, inaccessible to us and his opponents. As the horde hurtles into battle, the slow-motion medium shot encourages the audience to focus on Macbeth, the super-soldier. His phallic sword is notably held higher than any other, and he vaults clear off the ground to skillfully deliver a fatal blow from above to his enemy. The extent of the injuries Macbeth earns in this encounter is evident when we see him later, stripped to the waist and standing thigh-deep in a bog-hole, cleaning up after Duncan’s murder. The bruises and gashes on his chest, arms, and face are startlingly purple on his white skin. This scene reminds us that Macbeth’s hands can never be free of the stain of Duncan’s blood (2.2.58-62), but so too does it show that Macbeth is newly baptised by his crime. Like Coriolanus, Macbeth earns a new identity through combat and violence. For his valor and service, Duncan (David Thewlis) confers the title of Thane of Cawdor on his most loyal soldier and, for his slaying of Duncan, Macbeth will become king. From early on in Fiennes’ and Kurzel’s films then, the male body is marked signally by war, and male identity is forged in the heat of battle. Importantly though, these inscribed bodies reveal not only the cost of war, but the absolute claim that military life has on the individual. When the American public endeavours to understand war, Guy Westwell writes, they draw on a “cultural imagination of war” built upon, among other things, news broadcasts, documentaries, print media, war memorials, literature, and, of course, film. “With time, this collected sense of war becomes a pattern of thought, a hard-wired set of expectations and desires that constrain the very ways we think about war” (Westwell, 5). One desire that seems to underlie many war films is that, when a soldier leaves war, he really leaves it behind physically, mentally, spiritually. However, this is balanced by the expectation that military life and the trauma of war will likely have a negative impact on the individual soldier. Using the cultural imagination of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Russia/Chechnya conflict, and the 1990s Yugoslav wars, Fiennes’ and Kurzel’s films suggest that neither Macbeth nor Coriolanus can leave the war behind them. Both soldiers are marked as the property of the state, trained, maintained, deployed, and compensated or punished as it sees fit.
While Coriolanus and Macbeth’s independence, authority, and machismo seems to be self-evident, the films suggest that their bodies only nominally belong to the individual. For all their capacity to wage war (Coriolanus almost singlehandedly takes the city) and their virility (the injured Macbeth still manages to have sex with his wife on the chapel altar), at times the heroes have little agency. At the Roman war-council, General Cominius (John Kani), Coriolanus, Titus, and other military and political personnel, discuss the Volscian advance. It seems that Coriolanus’ deployment to Corioles is a foregone conclusion. The “lion,” Aufidius, demands a worthy adversary, and so Rome sends its best weapon. Cominius is “a Roman field general in the text” but in the film he is “a high-ranking military official who leads his forces from a war room rather than a combat zone. This alteration removes the patriarch from the combat zone” (Friedman, 90). The alteration also affirms Coriolanus’ distance from state power. He is in the war-room, but an armchair general, Cominius, and the suited politicians make the final decisions. Due to his superior military skills and relentless passion for battle, Coriolanus cuts an isolated figure; he is left alone, at the end of the scene, to stare fixedly at a video-screen image of Aufidius. Later, when Coriolanus visits the Senate to gain their support for his bid for the consulship, he notably leaves the room when his praises are extolled. Filmed in the Serbian national parliament, the chamber is packed with politicians while Coriolanus and Cominius stand out in their dress uniforms. As he stands in a corridor, a series of extreme close ups of Coriolanus’ eyes, scarred chin, and ears, suggest the pressures attendant on him and the increasing fragmentation of his self. A middle-aged cleaner, balding and in a dull jumpsuit not unlike military fatigues, approaches Coriolanus and draws to a halt. As the cleaner silently pauses to stare at the heroic general, the film makes a clear point: both men are servants and are, thus, outside the circle of true power. We are again reminded that Coriolanus belongs to his country when he stiffly receives the news that he has the Senate’s backing for the consulship and pronounces, “I do owe them [the Senate] still my life and services.”
As Ormsby argues, the real threat for Coriolanus is not in war with foreign enemies or in skirmishes with the Plebeians, but in “exposure to public rituals at home” (231). Coriolanus’ reunion with his family, his appeasing of the citizens in the marketplace, and his final confrontation with the Plebeians and tribunes, are all depicted in the film as large-scale social and media events (Ormsby, 231-235). Manipulated by Menenius (Brian Cox), Volumnia, the Plebeians and the tribunes, Coriolanus neither desires nor can handle the publicity and physical interaction, and collectively the events push him to breaking point. When he is conferred with the title ‘Coriolanus’, camera bulbs flash jarringly while close ups show a dizzying sea of faces as dignitaries throng to shake the hero’s hand, and in the group photos, Coriolanus is patently ill at ease. During his subsequent speech in the marketplace, he is hemmed in by the crowd. He looks almost at the point of vomiting as he tells the citizens that he has fought for “your voices.” His anxious repetition of this phrase demonstrates his social awkwardness and lack of verbal savvy. The film ups the stakes for Coriolanus by situating the Patricians’ last-ditch effort to appease the Plebeians on the set of a day-time talk show. In response to the jeers and hisses of the hostile audience, Menenius presents Coriolanus’ military experience as his defining feature and as an excuse for his social awkwardness: “Consider further, that when he speaks not like a citizen, you find him like a soldier. Do not take his rougher accents for malicious sounds, but as I say, such as become a soldier.” The Patricians’ peace efforts fail however, as Coriolanus becomes apoplectic at Sicinius’ accusation of treason, bellowing “You common cry of curs!” at the assembled audience, his snarling face puce. It is clear that Coriolanus’ life as a soldier has left him ill-equipped to deal with the media and scheming politicians, and his combat experience has estranged him from his fellow Romans.8 Believing that his national service is enough to prove his merit, and having striven to be the exceptional individual he thought Rome desired, Coriolanus is enraged to learn that he has been misled and must labor to win the hearts and minds of his own people.9 He howls, “I banish you” at the crowd, leaves the studio, and soon after, joins with the Volsces in Antium.
Like Fiennes’ Coriolanus, Fassbender’s Macbeth is an instrument of state violence, deployed and maneuvred at Duncan’s command to battle foreign and domestic foes. Duncan and Macbeth’s relationship however reveals the tensions between the state and the individual, between the legitimate ruler and the violent means through which that rule is secured. Concerning the play Jean E. Howard remarks that “Macbeth produces a singular sense that the center will not hold, that the mystifications by which a ruling order hid from itself the knowledge of its founding contradictions have come undone, have been exposed to the light” (322). One of the ways that Kurzel’s film demystifies power is by showing the cost of war, primarily through the degeneration of Macbeth from ideal soldier to “broken warrior general” (Macbeth: Production, 15).10 Writing on the fault lines between ideological and military power in the play, Alan Sinfield argues that “Duncan cannot but delegate power to subordinates, who may turn it back upon him” and such rebellion is not just personal, an idea that occurs to one individual, but is “a structural flaw” in the state, a flaw that absolutist ideology endeavours to deny exists (40). Sinfield proposes that “Macbeth’s mistake, arguably, is that he falls for Duncan’s ideology and loses his nerve” (40). In Kurzel’s film, the state is clearly dependent on military might but in making, deploying, and relying so heavily on its soldiers it physically and psychologically weakens them and consequently renders itself vulnerable. More soldiers, fresh bodies and true believers like Macduff are needed to shore up the teetering state when, in a figure like Macbeth, it turns on itself.
The underlying tensions and contrasts between Duncan and Macbeth are evident in their first meeting. Following the Battle of Ellon, the begrimed, battle-weary soldiers make their way home and Macbeth breaks off to meet the King and his retinue on a hillside, bringing the traitor Macdonwald’s head as evidence of his martial success. The audience, and the two onscreen groups, are invited to compare and contrast the men: “the dirty, injured soldier and the wellslept King in fresh clothes” (Louiso et al., 17). When Duncan takes Macbeth’s face with his hand, his action is one of paternal concern and gratitude for loyal service, but so too is it “proprietorial” (Louiso et al, 17). Macbeth’s status as the King’s subject is marked by his standing lower down the gradient than Duncan and is emphasised through high-angled head-and-shoulders shots. At Duncan’s gentle touch, Macbeth lowers his eyes, cowed and uneasy; the father of the nation momentarily infantilises his great general who he proprietorially calls “My worthy Cawdor” (see Figure 2). Macbeth is surprised and discomfited when Duncan announces a planned visit to Macbeth’s castle in Inverness. His hasty exit is not due to a desire to share the good news with his wife or even to plot regicide; instead, he flees the benevolence and the civic duty that Duncan represents.
Although welcomed by his wife, Macbeth appears as an interloper in his community. Normal civic society is now as alien to him as he is to it. Transformed by war, Macbeth gradually turns on his king, fellow soldiers, and family – the very things that he had fought for and vowed to protect. A key sign that Macbeth is now a “victim soldier” (Hammond 10) is that he uses violence inappropriately; his aggression is unsanctioned and goes against the soldier’s heroic code. That is, Macbeth kills his leader for his own private desires, in a cowardly manner in a non-combat setting (the King’s tent in Macbeth’s village). This is a moral, legal, and personal betrayal, but it also sees Macbeth act violently, usurping a privilege reserved for the crown (Feather and Thomas 7). However, like Coriolanus, he seems to have been driven to this point. As Boika Sokolova observes, “Macbeth is a play which film has often approached at particular dramatic moments of history, connected with war and violence” (149).11 This certainly appears to be the case for Kurzel’s film. Fassbender has noted that the director offered a particularly modern reading of Macbeth that became influential in his understanding of his character’s root problem:
Never did it occur to me before this that this character was suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder…] You have a soldier who’s engaged in battle month-after-month, day-after-day. Killing with his hands. Pushing a sword through muscle and bone. And if that doesn’t work picking up a rock and using that […] We know from soldiers today coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan that they have these hallucinations […] You could be walking down the Croisette here [in Cannes] and then it’s Basra. All of a sudden it’s Basra. (Qtd. in Barnes, Guardian.)
As films like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper show, the soldier’s reward for loyal service is that he gets to leave the war, but the war often follows the soldier home. In countless films soldiers, like The Hurt Locker’s Sgt. William James, cannot acclimatise to life off the battlefield, while other soldiers, like Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, return home with permanent physical injuries as well as psychological wounds in the form of PTSD.12 In Macbeth, the trauma of war is embodied in Macbeth’s repeated hallucination of the Boy Soldier (Scot Greenan).
In the film’s opening scenes, Macbeth takes care of the Boy Soldier, paternally preparing him for combat, picking him up when he falls mid-fight, and then reverently interring the youth’s corpse after the battle. While hosting Duncan, Macbeth sees the dead Boy before him, offering the hilt of a dagger. When Macbeth moves to take the weapon, the boy withdraws, and Macbeth follows him outside into the night and finally to the King’s tent. During the murder of Duncan, Macbeth is eerily calm, his mechanical movements show that forcing a weapon “through muscle and bone” is a habitual action, killing is routine. Having been “engaged in battle month-after-month, day-after-day,” Macbeth perhaps imagines himself back at the Battle of Ellon, where he must kill or be killed. In Kurzel’s film then, neither personal flaws (ambition), the influence of others (his wife), or the manipulations of supernatural powers (the witches) are responsible for Macbeth’s offences. Rather, Macbeth is literally led to commit regicide by his experience of war. As a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, he is haunted by the losses he has suffered (survivor’s guilt?) and is compelled to enact bloody deeds against any perceived threat. The case for Macbeth’s diminished responsibility is strengthened, strangely, by his personal execution of Macduff’s family. In the play, unnamed murderers kill Lady Macduff and her son in their home at Macbeth’s command (4.2). The film stretches this event into two scenes, both set outdoors, and takes lines from different scenes and other characters to emphasise Macbeth’s deepening psychosis.13 In the first scene, the camera tracks the pursuit and capture of Lady Macduff (Elizabeth Debicki) and her three young children in a dense wood. The camera then cuts to a grief-stricken Lady Macbeth on the beach at Inverness. Macbeth approaches from off-screen raving and wielding a blazing torch, and we see Lady Macduff and her children tied to three stakes mounted high on a dune. Recalling the image of Christ and the thieves at Golgotha, Lady Macduff and her children are framed as Christian martyrs, with Lady Macbeth beneath them, kneeling and weeping, as a Marian figure. But if this is a Christian sacrifice, then Macbeth, for all his kingly garb, is once more presented as a soldier. Macbeth may hold the torch, but like the centurions that crucified Christ (John 19:16-35), he is not in full control of himself, and so he goes through the motions uncomprehending and ignorant of the true cause of his actions. He is a tragic figure, forgivable (to the audience at least) because he knows not what he does (Luke 23:34). While adding more blood directly to Macbeth’s hands, the scene also enables Lady Macduff to confront her murderer first-hand (she defiantly speaks of his betrayal and calls him a “tyrant”) and displays the growing distance between Macbeth and his wife.
Although Macbeth comes home from the war, he never really leaves the battlefield. For Macbeth, like the heroes of The Hurt Locker and American Sniper, ‘soldier’ is a fixed and all-consuming identity that isolates and distinguishes him from others. Even when engaged in social activity in the heart of community, he is traumatized by his violent past. At his coronation, for instance, Macbeth experiences flashbacks to Duncan’s murder, and when he alone can see Banquo’s ghost at the feast, we, having been primed by the Young Boy Soldier’s appearance, read this as the effects of trauma. Tellingly, Banquo’s ghost is not terrifyingly gory or monstrous, as it is in, for example, the adaptations by Polanski (1971) and Goold (2010). Polanski’s film graphically displays Banquo’s cut throat and “gory locks” as he is seated at the feast and he menacingly pursues and towers over Macbeth at the close of their encounter. In Goold’s film, Banquo’s ghost also stands out as he strides along the banquet table, lit by an eerie blue light, and his face and tuxedo shirt are drenched in blood. Kurzel presents Banquo’s ghost as near indistinguishable from the men around him. Although his face is begrimed, he stands with the other soldiers and is dressed like them in his warrior’s clothes; indeed, we might mistake him as being alive had we not witnessed his murder. When Banquo’s ghost appears a second time, he again stands shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers. Whereas Macbeth once stood among and led these men, his crimes have isolated him, and his hallucinations and position as king further render him exterior to the fraternity that he once held dear. In his staging of this scene, Kurzel draws on the conventions of contemporary war films to make a point on masculine military values. As Kord and Krimmer observe, “unlike the typical action-adventure thriller, war films do not celebrate the male body. Instead of highlighting physical feats, they praise traditional manly virtues, such as courage, a sense of civic responsibility, and loyalty” (155). In his soldier’s garb, among his brothers in arms, and staring accusingly at his killer, Banquo’s ghost reminds us that Macbeth cannot integrate into civilized society not only because he murders innocents, but because he fails to embody essential masculine virtues. By killing Duncan while he sleeps, by having Banquo slaughtered in an unfair fight, and by personally murdering Macduff’s defenceless family, Macbeth shows cowardice and reneges on his civic duties, but, worst of all, he sunders the bonds of brotherhood forged on the battlefield. Macbeth has abandoned his men and his military code of honor; the imperative of ‘leave no man behind’ is clearly meaningless to him.14 Examining recent war films such as Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, Kord and Krimmer remark that these films “are comfortable with patriarchal authority [… and] foster an ethos of cooperation, celebrate bonds between men, and emphasize community and nation” (156). In Macbeth, these are ideals that hover in the film’s background and throw into stark contrast Macbeth’s decline and failures. Over the course of the film, his identity as a soldier fragments. By the time he hallucinates Banquo’s ghost, he has no moral compass or allegiances, his motivations are entirely selfish, and the drive to violence is all that remains.
Like Macbeth, Coriolanus is clearly an expert warrior. In Corioles, we see his expertise in hand-to-hand combat and his knowledge of weapons. His resilience is proven in the battle for the city, his determination in his long march to Aufidius’ camp, and his ability to command in his dealings with Roman and Volscian soldiers (many of the latter become clones of their hero, imitating his shaven head.)15 However, as each of the Roman public events shows, Coriolanus lacks the crucial skills necessary for survival in the modern political sphere. War has taught him confrontation, not negotiation, and that deeds not words are valued. Unable and unwilling to learn and adapt to his new circumstances, Coriolanus remains a soldier, fails to secure the consulship, and is duly banished.16 Fassbender’s Macbeth also suffers because he cannot adapt to his life post-war and, with each act of violence, his identity as a soldier becomes more entrenched. Having slaughtered the King, Macbeth informs his wife that “I have done the deed,” and he looks to her for approval. However, seeing that he has brought the daggers used to kill Duncan with him, Lady Macbeth only reproaches him for his beginner’s mistake. Macbeth’s retaining the daggers appears to be an unconscious action, a combat reflex and further sign of his PTSD, but Lady Macbeth’s criticism draws our attention to the fact that her husband has failed to grasp their situation. Macbeth is not on a chaotic battlefield; he has committed regicide to gain the throne, and a soldier’s expertise in killing is not enough to guarantee the venture’s success. Like Coriolanus, Macbeth fails to adapt and win the approval or trust of civilized society. His wife is disappointed by or opposed to his actions; Banquo and Macduff reject his rule (along with his wife, the latter conspicuously walks out of the banquet), and as the tyrant king falls into madness, the film represents his distance from his subjects by depicting them as hooded, faceless figures, daubs of blackness on the seashore or in the cathedral.
In Fiennes’ and Kurzel’s films, the deaths of the eponymous soldiers are presented not as a common hazard of their profession, or even as a warning of ‘live by the sword, die by the sword,’ but as the price of their failure to embody the versatile, flexible masculinity that society demands. Coriolanus’ single effort to play the diplomat is too little, too late, and his brokering of the Roman-Volscian peace deal has fatal consequences. Kneeling and weeping at his mother’s feet, Coriolanus is unmanned in front of his allies, and, when he returns to the Volscian hinterland, he is punished for it. Flanked by his men, Aufidius skillfully gains the upper hand by provoking Coriolanus – who has learned nothing from his dealings with the Plebeians – with taunts of “traitor” and “boy” and, when his men are ready, he sets them upon the incensed Roman. As the wounded Coriolanus stumbles, dazed from the loss of blood, Aufidius delivers the killing blow and cradles the dying man, easing him to the ground. Critics have variously read this embrace as “almost fatherly on Aufidius’ part, rather than that of a lover” (Jackson 99) and as homoerotic (Friedman 98; Garrison 434). In his Director’s Commentary, Fiennes suggests that this was “the embrace of two heroes,” and compared it to “when hunters in old, ancient tribes respect the animal they’ve killed.” However, any sense of honor among enemies, of intimacy and brotherhood forged through the shared experience of war, or of military formality, is deflated as the last shot of the film shows Coriolanus’ body unceremoniously dumped into the back of a pickup truck, “[l]ike a sack of potatoes” (Logan, 107). In particular, the possibility of sentimentality or wistfulness for the fallen warrior is prevented when the corpse makes a decisively meaty ‘thunk’ as it hits the load-bed (see Figure 3). As Ormsby remarks, here Fiennes “rejects any elegiac tone” and indeed “[everything] that Coriolanus embodies – the reactionary hysteria, the hypermasculine militarism – is finally rejected” (241). As the screen fades to black, our last sight of Coriolanus is of blood-soaked, ragged fatigues, lifeless eyes, and a gaping facial wound. He remains a soldier to the end.
Unlike Fiennes’ Coriolanus, the death of Fassbender’s Macbeth is a pitiable affair. The film is bookended by battles and, whereas the hero was on the ascendant at Ellon, when the sparks of Birnam wood come to Dunsinane, Macbeth cuts down only a handful soldiers before he and Macduff engage in duel single combat. Obscured in the red smoke, both men take injuries, but Macbeth’s spirit is broken at Macduff’s announcement that he is “not of woman born.” Although the despotic king has the upper hand – Macbeth straddles Macduff, his sword pointed at his neck – he is “[b]roken by [Macduff’s] news. [Macbeth] sinks back on his haunches, completely drained” before proclaiming “I’ll not fight with thee” (Louiso et al., 83). Exhausted, sleep-deprived, and tearful, Macbeth embraces death and the fall of Macduff’s sword is a mercy. Through cowardice, Macbeth abandons the last of his soldierly duties. As Jeanine Basinger observes, “[t]he combat film is about death and destruction, and about how we have to fight to avoid it” (19). Macbeth gives up the fight and so must forfeit his life. To underscore the significance of Macbeth’s last betrayal of the soldier’s code, one by one his men turn their backs on him and return to the castle.
The demise of Macbeth is not a cause for celebration, as it clearly is in Polanski’s film. Kurzel’s film encourages us not to exult at the end of a murderous tyrant, but to pity the fate of a sick man whose only peace lies in death. Notably, in contrast to the play, and Polanski and Goold’s films, Kurzel’s Macbeth gains a measure of dignity in death as he is not beheaded. Although wounded, he remains whole, and his corpse falls into an upright kneeling position, his head bowed. In death, he is framed as a warrior that is eternally ready to stand and serve.17 As Malcolm and his nobles sit high on their horses, seemingly indifferent to the slaughter of their enemy, we are reminded that Macbeth is a victim of the state (see Figure 4). Malcolm’s soldiers file past the kneeling corpse with barely a glance. There is, it seems, little new here, Macbeth is just one more sacrifice, neither the first nor last martyr for the nation. Indeed, the film’s final moments set up the expectation that violence and unrest will continue in Scotland. For all their moral differences, Macduff and Macbeth appear remarkably similar: both are “warriors ruined by fate” (Louiso et al, 83) and their service to the state, and Macduff replaces Macbeth at the (new) king’s side. Moreover, as the boy Fleance emerges from the smoke to pick up Macbeth’s sword, Malcolm hurtles out of the cathedral to pursue the boy who will be the progenitor of kings.
As I have argued throughout this essay, neither Coriolanus nor Macbeth gives its audience the ideal protagonist, the hero who is all things to all people. Coriolanus’ and Macbeth’s lives are successes only in their limited roles – as soldiers – and they die as failures with their deaths are presented as having little value to, or impact on, their societies. Moreover, they are scapegoats and power remains in the hands of those more successful at masculinity. As Jeff Hearn argues: “Men remain the specialists in violence, armed conflict and killing, whether by organized militaries, terrorism or indeed domestic violence. […] In war and through militarism individual men, like women and children, may suffer, even be killed, but men’s collective structural power may be undiminished, even reinforced” (37). Ultimately, while Coriolanus and Macbeth’s deaths conclude their stories, Fiennes’ and Kurzel’s films refuse to offer clear-cut answers to the questions they raise and their final scenes deny any sense of closure. Masculinity remains in crisis, conflicted, and the ideal male is an absent presence that haunts the soldiers even in death.
1 I follow Baker’s delineation of military masculinities as “the values, behaviors and embodied practices that armed forces promote as ideally masculine” (430). As the editors of A Companion to the War Film note, the scholarly discourse on the war film is immense (2). See Cunningham and Nelson and Eberwein (2009) for an overview of a few of the seminal works and key critical questions in this field.
2 Like Salazar in the Iraq War film Redacted, Macbeth is “impelled into a site of victimhood courtesy of his PTSD” (Straw, 3). Ormsby quotes an essay on action heroes by Martin Fradley to argue that Coriolanus can be read as “[…] a stand-in for ‘white masculinity as the ‘victim’ of progressive social change’” (226).
3 In his seminal essay on masculinity on screen, Neale contends that “[m]asculinity, as an ideal, at least, is implicitly known” and thus while “women are investigated, [as objects, as problematic sources of anxiety,] men are tested” (19).
4 In his recent Arden edition of Coriolanus, Peter Holland notes that Fiennes’ film “is being sold as a war film” (134).
5 The threat of violence is implied here, but it is later actualized as we watch, with the Roman council of war, a recording of Aufidius coolly shooting a Roman POW in the head.
6 This line is one of the play’s cruxes. Some editors have assigned the line to the soldiers, but it is ascribed to Coriolanus in the First Folio and it follows the scene direction: “They all shout and wave their swords, take him up in their Armes, and cast up their Caps.” In Fiennes’ film, Coriolanus is the only one to display any enthusiasm or desire to engage in combat.
7 See Friedman and Garrison for a discussion of the homoerotic overtones of Coriolanus and Aufidius’ fight. Baker offers a perceptive analysis of the significance of the setting of this scene (433-434).
8 Significantly, the only citizen that Coriolanus does connect with is the ‘War Vet’ in the marketplace; the code of brothers-in-arms remains strong as only this man is promised a privileged sight of the hero’s scars.
9 In showcasing this imperative, Coriolanus would seem to accord with contemporary military thinking, that as Kord and Krimmer put it, “soldiers who were trained to win battles are now called upon to win the population” (137). See Kord and Krimmer for a recent discussion of the prominence of self-made heroes in contemporary film. See Paster for an analysis of how Rome struggles to incorporate its best product – the unique heroic individual.
10 The opportunity to explore Macbeth as a soldier drew Kurzel to the project. He remarks, “how Macbeth responds to war, or is a product of it, and how that plays into his ambitions to become king – I found all of that really interesting in terms of a character replacing a kind of trauma, or a grief, with a kind of kinship” (Macbeth: Production, 8-9).
11 Similarly, Coriolanus has often been performed on stage during times of political upheaval. While Fiennes’ Coriolanus is the first major film of the play, its immediate relevance to recent wars drew the director and many of the cast to the project (Coriolanus: Production, 13).
12 With approximately 20-35% of soldiers returning from combat in the Middle East displaying symptoms of PTSD, Donald and MacDonald note that the psychology of soldiers as portrayed in war films is an important issue for scholarly analyses of this genre (vi). See Martin Barker’s chapter in Hammond for a discussion of the depiction of PTSD in recent Iraq war films.
13 Specifically, Macbeth speaks his lines from 5.3.1-8, then he speaks Malcolm’s line at 4.3.137 to Lady Macbeth, and finally Lady Macduff shouts defiantly Malcolm’s criticism of Macbeth from 4.3.12.
14 I am thinking here of Jeffords’ study of the Vietnam War where she notes it is typical to “[associate] the loss of the war with the government and the honor of the war with the soldier” (5). In addition, analysing Black Hawk Down, Kord and Krimmer observe that although the American government fails to support its soldiers, the film shows that the “soldiers in the field never abandon one of their own” (144).
15 Hatchuel and Vienne-Guerrin argue that by the film’s close, Coriolanus “has become a Volscian” (647).
16 See Ormsby for a discussion of how Coriolanus attempts to build a kind of male utopia in Antium.
17 Macbeth’s final pose is echoed in the 2013 film Lone Survivor, when the soldier Mike Murphy makes a heroic sacrifice and dies on a rocky outcrop in Afghanistan.
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