*. 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.
*. Filters. Somewhere, now lost in the mists of time, there was a real King John. Then there was the mythical King John, a cultural construction (we typically think of him today as “bad King John”). Then there’s the historical King John, or more accurately the King John of the historians. Then Shakespeare’s King John, which may have been largely derived from an earlier play by someone else.
*. Shakespeare’s King John isn’t a historical figure or even the King John of myth. We don’t see him, for example, signing Magna Carta (indeed it isn’t even mentioned in the play), or losing all of his continental properties to the King of France. All in all, he’s an odd duck, and a bit of a marginal figure in his own drama, taking a back seat to figures like the pathetic Arthur and Arthur’s raging mother Constance.
*. Then there’s this film, or what’s left of this film. Time and the frailty of celluloid have proven to be another filter. This King John is a fragment, running only a little over a minute. It’s one of four short films, each of which was a heavily edited scene from the play. They were meant to be shown together but this is the only one that survives.
*. It depicts a passage from Act 5 Scene 7, which is the last scene in the play. In it we get King John dying after having been poisoned, dying on his throne.
*. It’s not even a terribly representative fragment, as the character with the largest speaking part in the play (Philip Faulconbridge, or the Bastard) isn’t here. Actually, he only appears in the last of the four films. Nothing of the play’s major theme, which has to do with the legitimacy of power, is touched on. And finally the biggest filter is the fact that it’s a silent so we don’t actually hear any of the lines. We are left to imagine John saying things like “There is so hot a summer in my bosom that all my bowels crumble up to dust!”
*. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame today is that it is the earliest surviving film based on a play by Shakespeare. It also captures a wonderful bit of stage business by the famous Shakespearean actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree who plays King John (and who was, for all you trivia fans, the father of Carol and grandfather of Oliver Reed).
*. By “business” I mean something extra to the plain text that an actor or director adds to a performance and that goes on to become a kind of trademark or part of their repertoire. Here we have Tree expiring in a wonderful manner, rolling his eyes and spreading his legs at what seem to be painful if not impossible angles. The evolution of different methods and styles of acting is another filter, and by the end of his career Tree was apparently seen as a bit of an old-fashioned ham for overselling moments like these. Still, I find it enjoyable. He might have made a great silent film star.
*. It’s interesting to see what changes and what stays the same, what is lost and what remains, when it comes to cultural artefacts. I don’t think there’s anything of interest here aside from Tree’s writhing in place. That’s enough, however, to make me wish we had more. The business might have seemed out of fashion at the time, but these things have a way of being rediscovered as the wheel turns.
*. It’s startling to note — at least I find it startling — that this is not a historical docudrama (films that went by the genre label actualitiés reconstituées). In 1899 the Dreyfus Affair was very much a still ongoing political scandal in France, and indeed at the time this film (or series of films) was made Dreyfus’s second court martial had yet to conclude. It’s really a dramatic newsreel of current events.
*. This is significant because much of what we see would be impossible to understand without some knowledge of the events being illustrated. For a modern audience this is even more the case. In the first episode, for example, it helps to know that Dreyfus is being offered a pistol so that he can honourably shoot himself, and that he rejects this. In Henry’s suicide scene we aren’t told what he’s writing, which was a note that included a confession. The reason Dreyfus is being shackled to his bed is because his jailors were afraid an attempt was going to be made to rescue him. Knowing this background helps.
*. As a sign of the temper of the times the film was banned in France, making it one of the first films (if not the first) to suffer political censorship. But if you look at it objectively, what was found offensive? We know that Méliès was a Dreyfusard, but how much of this could you tell just from watching these brief clips, which are presented without any editorializing aside from the labeling of the title cards?
*. That Henry killed himself in prison was accepted as a fact even by the anti-Dreyfusards, who made him out to be a martyr. Nobody denies an assassin tried to kill Dreyfus’s lawyer Labori (here played by Méliès himself). Dreyfus is presented sympathetically in the prison scene where he is shackled in leg irons to his bed and in the passage where he is reunited with his wife, but there is nothing said about his actual guilt or innocence.
*. Zola’s famous broadside J’accuse had been far more polemical, and this before much of the political (if not public) tide had turned for Dreyfus. Zola wrote, for example, before Henry’s forgeries had been established.
*. All of which is to say that though this is a timely movie about the Dreyfus affair, made by a Dreyfusard, it does not clearly take sides. It is not propaganda. That it was seen as propaganda, and treated as such by the authorities it made nervous, says something about their sensitivities to the power of the new medium.
*. It’s a serial, originally consisting of eleven single-shot scenes, each around a minute in length. Two of the scenes (2 and 11) are thought to exist in French archives but haven’t surfaced. The episodes were sold and often shown separately, but were sometimes presented together on the same program. This is simply a function of the limitations film had at the time, and I think it should be considered a single work.
*. Some attempt at historical accuracy has been made. I was particularly struck by how closely the palisade on Devil’s Island resembled photographs of the real location. Though Dreyfus’s hut looks a bit roomier, and cleaner, than it really was.
*. Of course when we think of Méliès today we think mainly of his special-effects fantasies like A Trip to the Moon. These movies used trickery and elaborate set dressing to conceal his very limited development of film’s potential (no editing, no camera movement). I find it interesting that in a film this early, however, Méliès was experimenting a bit, trying to expand on what he could do. Two shots try to work outside the frame, literally. In the Labori sequence we see Labori and his two friends appear out of the foreground, walking away from us. And in the riot episode the brawling journalists are chased toward the camera by the police (who are only revealed as the cause of the stampede when the room clears). For 1899 this was pretty progressive filmmaking. But ultimately it was a direction Méliès didn’t want to go in, opting for ever more elaborate, static, theatrical effects.
*. What is this? Well, it goes by many different names (since, obviously, it was never “released” into distribution it was never given a proper title), and exists in three different forms (shot at different times, they are usually designated “one horse,” “two horses,” and “no horse”).
*. It has long been awarded the distinction of being the first movie ever made, though here a lot depends on your definition of a movie.
*. The fact that it exists in three only slightly different forms shot at three different times gives you some idea of how pedestrian (literally) a subject it was. Every day leaving the factory at Lyons was much like any other. So why make a film of it?
*. In part because they could. When you first buy a camera you want to take a picture of everything (or at least you did, before cameras in phones made picture-taking universally available). Similarly, when you first get a motion picture camera you want to make a movie of everything. This film was shot on the Lumières’ Cinematograph (they hadn’t invented it, but owned the patent), a machine which was both camera and projector. Setting one up outside the factory must have seemed as good an idea as any. At least there was lots of movement to capture.
*. But it’s a subject that remained of interest, at least to early filmmakers. Maybe because it was just an experience that urban dwellers everywhere (the chief audience for early movies) were familiar with. One thinks of the crowd disembarking from the ferry in Manhatta, those uniform phalanxes in Metropolis, or the workers entering the factory at the beginning of Chaplin’s Modern Times.
*. Those other examples I mentioned, however, are of people on their way to work. Here it’s quittin’ time. In another couple of decades these people will be heading out to see a movie later.
*. The real star of the show isn’t a worker but the enormous dog that’s running around outside (in all three versions) when the people come out. Presumably it’s been waiting for someone in particular. But what breed of dog is it? I originally thought some kind of mastiff, but the long legs and tail make me think it’s a Great Dane. The head seems a bit off though.
*. There’s a second dog that appears in two of the versions that’s a bit smaller. Still a large dog though.
*. Of course there’s no editing or camera movement yet, but it is a dynamic location. The action is nicely framed, with the gates themselves almost being like curtains drawn aside to open a real-life proscenium arch. Motion is kept in balance by the flow of people splitting roughly equally to the left and right. These may seem simple matters of composition, and they are, but they’re also essential to give the film a sense of rhythm.
*. The dogs stick out all the more from what is a mostly anonymous crowd. There are few individuals distinguished by their movements, clothing, or behaviour. No one seems to be playing for the camera. That would come later, when the camera’s eye entered our consciousness and changed the way we saw ourselves, turning everything in our lives into a kind of performance.
*. That’s Mephistopheles, or the Devil, as the Master of the castle. The original French title was Le Manoir du diable, which made things a bit clearer, as it’s really hard to see his horns on the surviving print. He is not Dracula, though you can be forgiven for thinking so what with his transformation from an oversized, floppy bat, his cape, what appear to be his brides, and his fear of the cross.
*. Why would the Devil have a cross in his castle anyway?
*. What he really is, however, is a proxy for Georges Méliès, the magician-turned-filmmaker. For Méliès the point of film was to do things that you couldn’t do on a stage, a different set of magic tricks.
*. Chief among these was a simple edit known as the “stop trick”: stopping the film and then changing what is being shot before starting it up again, making it seem as though objects are disappearing, or reappearing in different places. The story (perhaps apocryphal) has it that Méliès discovered the effect by accident when his camera jammed and then started again while filming a street scene, turning an omnibus into a hearse. It was, however, apparently first used in an Edison short a year earlier, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), substituting the actress playing Mary with a mannequin so we can see her head being chopped off. That’s still a shocking bit of film 120 years later.
*. The technique was new, and is crudely employed here. In particular the timing is off on the business of the imp poking the cavaliers from behind. By the time of A Trip to the Moon (1902) it would be better handled, resulting in a far more fluid effect.
*. What is it the Devil wants? To scare the cavaliers away? No! He wants to put on a show!
*. This is what magicians do. Obviously the trick is the most important part, but it is concealed behind a web of distractions made up of the usual glimmer and tinsel: the pretty girls and smoke bombs, the props and costumes. For Méliès, such distraction and showmanship would take two main forms: frantic movement and visual clutter. The latter would have to wait but the former is on full display here.
*. The other part of the magic show, which is less enjoyable, at least to me, consists of all the practical jokes. We may think of the spirit of the imp taking over from the magician here. The chair trick is a favourite one (man goes to sit down on a chair and it then disappears, so he falls on his ass). This is a prank as old as Puck. I doubt it was very funny then.
*. The survival of this film is an interesting story in itself. It was thought lost until it was disccovered in the New Zealand Film Archives in 1988. Why New Zealand? Because back in the day — and here I mean way back in the day — films were shipped around the world according to a “distribution line.” New Zealand was, quite often, the end of the line. But because it cost a lot to ship film and the film stock was highly flammable, most of these early films were never sent back to the U.S. on the final leg of their journey and were instead either destroyed or stored in government archives. In the early twenty-first century a trove of early silent films were discovered in these vaults.
*. This is sometimes said to be the first horror movie. It’s obviously too short to build much in the way of suspense, or for that matter even tell a story. It also seems as though the effects are meant to startle more than frighten. Nevertheless, the transformations of the young lady into a crone and the brides into a gang of ghosts make for creepy viewing. The haunted castle of horror has many mansions and this is one.