Welles' Mercury Theater's first theatrical success had been the "Voodoo Version" of "Macbeth" staged in Harlem in 1936. This was an all-black production set in Haiti. Despite numerous positive reviews, Percy Hammond, of the Herald Tribune, gave the production a weak review. Welles encouraged the drummers in the production to chant spells against Hammond who got sick and died in less than 48 hours.
Although the film was a critical and commercial disaster in both the USA and England, it was a huge success in many non-English speaking countries, especially France, where critics could not understand how the American and British press failed to appreciate the highly stylized and surrealistic approach Orson Welles took to the play. Today it is very highly regarded in English-speaking countries.
Orson Welles assigned some of the lines spoken by characters in the play to different characters in the film. He invented the character "A Holy Father" for the film to emphasize what he believed was the struggle between religion and witchcraft in the play, and many of Ross' lines in the play are spoken by the Holy Father. The very minor character of the Old Man was omitted from the film, and his lines were also given to the Holy Father. Welles also gave Lady Macduff an extra speech which William Shakespeare had assigned to another character.
Laurence Olivier wanted to follow up Henry V (1944) with a film version of "Macbeth", but decided against it because Orson Welles' version would reach theaters first. Olivier opted to make his film of Hamlet (1948) instead, which went on to win him Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor.
Orson Welles had planned to take his company and put on the play at the Utah Centennial Festival in Salt Lake city. With costumes and props at his disposal, Welles rehearsed his company and shot this film in 21 days.