Film History Essentials: The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

What it’s about:

Mary approaches the block and kneels down as the guards, executioner, and others look on. She places her head on the block as the executioner raises the ax. He then brings it down, severing her head. It rolls on the ground, and the executioner retrieves it and holds it aloft.

Why it’s essential:

After Dickson left the company in April, Edison appointed Alfred Clark to replace him in film production. Though Clark only remained for a year before going on to pursue his real interest (recorded sound), during that short time he experimented with films that marked a radical departure from what Dickson had produced. As far as we know, only one of these films has survived: The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, filmed in late August of 1895.

This was one of several historical tableau films, most of which appear to have focused on some particularly violent or gruesome event. Other examples included such titles as Indian Scalping Scene and Rescue of Capt. John Smith by Pocahontas. As the lone remaining example of these films, that makes this perhaps the oldest surviving historical dramatization, and also among the earliest films to feature professional actors. The title role is played by Robert Thomae, a male actor playing the female lead, in the common theatrical tradition of the period they’re depicting.

Perhaps more controversially, many have claimed that this is the first horror film. That classification seems at least slightly dubious at first glance. An on-screen beheading alone would not generally be enough to qualify a film as horror. However, it does seem likely that the goal was specifically to shock the audience, and likely many viewers were horrified by the realism of the scene. Although this predates Paris’s famous horror shows staged at the Grand Guignol Theatre, Charles Musser suggests a connection with the displays visitors might see at the Eden Musée’s waxwork Chamber of Horrors, which had opened in 1884. This could probably reasonably be categorized as proto-horror.

Of far greater significance is the filming of the beheading. It isn’t difficult for modern audiences to spot the edit that happens at 0:06, where the actor is replaced by a dummy which is then beheaded. For contemporary audiences, it would have been a different story, simply because nothing like that shot had ever been done before. This is the oldest surviving film with “special effects,” and also the oldest film to use a camera edit. For viewers at the time, the effect must have been incredibly startling.

Why you should see it:

In addition to the innovative use of camera techniques, there is a level of visual sophistication to this scene that is a step above what Dickson had been doing previously. The costumes seem to show a surprising level of attention to detail, but notice also the way the scene is arranged. There is a blank background set up at the very back, as was typical of most films to this point, but it seems to be much further back from the camera than usual. The guards in particular give the scene a sense of increased depth, due to the way they are arranged in rows behind the main action. Notice the way they all take a step forward, craning their necks to see, at the moment of the beheading.

To me, unless you specifically watch for it, the edit is clean enough that it doesn’t draw undue attention to itself. A lot of that depends on precisely what part of the screen you happen to be looking at when it happens, and the dummy definitely sags a bit obviously in some of the wrong places. Still, if you watch the executioner, the slight jump just looks like one of many common jitters that happen onscreen for various reasons in a very old film. The overall effect of the scene works surprisingly well, and points ahead to more exciting developments to come.

~ by Jared on February 16, 2023.

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