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.

34 thoughts on “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

  1. fragglerocking

    They should have had a little person inside the mannequin body with a squuezy thing full of fake blood topump out of the neck.That would have added a je ne sais quoi to the proceedings I think.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      A prequel.
      Are you OK? I was thinking of putting a trigger warning on the link to that video. I mean, that’s your monarch. Do you think 1895 was too soon?

      Reply
      1. Alex Good Post author

        Steel yourself. I don’t want to see some reaction video of you posted on the Internet breaking into tears and crying “Oh, my queen, my queen . . .”

      1. Alex Good Post author

        I don’t like the way the CGI smooths things out in the director’s cut. The original has more of a raw feel to it that fits the subject matter.

      2. tensecondsfromnow

        The double disc edition has a 4K restoration that really pops, the skin tones are really rich. But I heard studio interference has really taken its toll on this film, it feels written by committee.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        Real problems with having a male actor playing Mary also. I guess they could have treated it as ironic, given that this was how things were done back in Shakespeare’s day, but here it feels like appropriation of gender. And where is Mary’s agency? She’s too much the victim.

      4. tensecondsfromnow

        We shouldn’t give in to social pressure to ‘label’ Mary as one gender of another, so the dual sex casting works fine for me. But what lets the film down is the lack of Black and Latino representation, which is often a problem in cinema of this era.

      5. Alex Good Post author

        They sort of got that with the high-school gang in the sequel Hello Mary Tudor: Chopping Mall 2. The robots were a nice touch.

      6. tensecondsfromnow

        I felt that the Android revolt really took me out of it. They should have split the film into two, and kept the quest for the infinity goblet for the prequel, There’s Something About Mary…

      7. Alex Good Post author

        Was that a prequel, or did they just use the time-reversal machine? I can’t remember when that got introduced into the Tudor Cinematic Universe.

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