Daily Archives: June 16, 2021

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

*. If you ever start to wonder at our fascination with movie violence, and the success of torture porn or the longevity of the Saw franchise, it’s worth remembering that it has been always thus. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, which became infamous for its recreations of naturalistic horror, got its start in 1897. Which was only a couple of years after this movie came out.
*. We can take things even further back. Mary Queen of Scots was executed in 1587, and while it wasn’t a great public event, many executions of the time were, with heads later stuck on pikes in prominent places for everyone to gawk at. We might also mention the popularity of bear baiting and witch burnings in Shakespeare’s day, and Shakespeare’s own presentation of decapitations and dismemberments. Titus Andronicus had been written around the same time Mary lost her noggin, and it had a woman being raped and then having her tongue cut out and hands cut off, which later forces her to carry her father’s hand in her mouth to get if off the stage as he has to carry both her brothers’ heads. We had nothing on the Elizabethans when it came to gore.
*. When it comes to movie gore though, this early effort by the Edison Company (or Laboratory) has a special place in history. Only some 18 seconds long, it features the first known use of special effects on film, specifically the “stop trick” whereby an actor is removed from the scene at one point and replaced by a mannequin, whose head is then struck off by the executioner’s axe. Mary, by the way, is played by a male actor, Robert Thomae, giving the proceedings an even more Shakespearean flavour.
*. It’s quite an effective moment, though the cut is pretty easy to see even given the poor state of the film, and the executioner hits poor Mary more in the shoulder or upper back than her neck. Historically it took a few whacks to actually get Mary’s head off, as the real executioner wasn’t any better at his job. Apparently some people in the audience in 1895 thought they might be watching a kind of snuff film, and one can sympathize given that they also thought that oncoming trains might run them over.
*. So gore and violence are nothing new. In fact, when Mary would be sent to the block in later films — Mary of Scotland (1936), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), Mary Queen of Scots (2018) — we would be spared the worst of it. We certainly weren’t going to get Mary’s head held up for the crowd (a display that took a grotesque twist in reality when her wig pulled off and left her bald head to bounce off the platform, while a pet dog came bursting out of her dress).
*. In addition to having the first, or at least one of the first, special effects scenes, The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots has also been described as the first hit movie (it was too early to call it a blockbuster), the first film to feature actors playing characters, and the first historical film. In 1895 it’s fair to say there were a lot of firsts being recorded. But our love of blood wasn’t anything new.