by Owen Dudley Edwards

Burking The Truth

November 11, 2010 | by Owen Dudley Edwards

The Burke and Hare story has been resurrected once more by Hollywood’s grave-diggers. Better to let it rest in peace.

Pegg and Serkis as Burke and Hare

Seldom if ever have I enjoyed as bad a film as much as John Landis’ Burke And Hare. Not all of the enjoyment came from its badness. Tom Wilkinson, as ever, vastly improves the quality of any task he undertakes, even with a script as banal as this. Viewers of the film should enshrine his Dr Knox in their screen rogues gallery on, much as Tom Fleming’s Knox towered above James Bridie’s play The Anatomist, a better work than this but almost as dishonest and for worse reasons. Bridie’s play valorized medical amorality, and deliberately inflamed anti-Catholicism; Landis’s film’s anti-Catholic moments do but jest, or try to, in an orgy of music-hall buffoonery, and the movie makes Knox incriminate himself by commissioning Burke and Hare to murder to provide him with corpses for educational dissection whereas the real Knox paid for bodies and knew he must never permit himself even to suspect they had been killed.

David Hayman plays an exquisite if entirely mythical body-snatcher boss, one of the fleeting clues that intelligent life existed somewhere in the making of this dunciad.

Hayman threatens Burke and Hare which they answer by making him an anatomical subject, a method of dealing with blackmailers previously used by Robert Louis Stevenson in his short story ‘The Body-Snatcher’. But it is hardly wise to prompt that association of ideas. John Lan-dis can claim that his is but one more in the long chain of bad plays and films featuring Burke and Hare. The Body Snatcher (1945) made perhaps the best movie from a Steven-son story, with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and an Edinburgh far more convincing in its menacing black-and-white than Landis’s Technicolor tourist-trap. There are other screen versions – notably The Flesh And The Fiends (1960), which starred Peter Cushing as Knox, and The Doctor And The Devils (1985), whose screenplay was written by Dylan Thomas in 1953 – but they are no more worth watching than Landis’ version.

That John Landis is a highly intelligent and captivating man with a fine reputation in film-making makes it worse. I ran into Landis when he was visiting Edinburgh researching the subject. His scholarly discourse is a cross between a high-powered vacuum-cleaner and a USAF bomber in a World War II movie, but he was passionately, even ferociously interested in what he was filming. We had a glorious argument in which he insisted on an artist’s right to fictionalise the story a little and I insisted Burke and Hare had been fictionalised endlessly whereas a film about them that hold the truth would have all the charm of novelty. But while he showed not the slightest sign of being in the least dented by my pious historicism, I was left in no doubt about his seriousness of purpose. Also, I liked him. Granted, he is a bully, but he is no coward, and I enjoy exchanging ruderies with persons only known to me through common scholarly interests. And we agreed about current American politics, being fervent Obama people, had common histories of support for racial integration in bad times, and swapped yarns about books (he later sent me a couple hitherto unknown to me).

He talked about scriptwriters, and predictably it wasn’t quite clear whether he saw himself as a Frankenstein making his horror with minor lab assistance or as an inspirational Diaghilev summoning up Stravinskys. What inclined me towards the latter – and therefore left me surprised by the weaknesses of his film – was that he was very proud of the scriptwriters whom he had commissioned, especially George Macdonald Fraser, the late author of the Flashman series. This proved a good battleground for him to wave his artistic license over his head since we agreed that the Flashman novels are splendid historical fiction. But they’re also so well researched that I had been very ready to get as many students in American History as I could to read Flash For Freedom on the slave trade, Flashman And The Redskins, which ends with Custer’s last stand, and Flash-man And The Angel Of The Lord, the best portrait I know of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. No doubt straight historical accounts tell Brown’s story more accurately but none approach Fraser’s insights on that weird mixture of fraud, fanaticism and foolishness. If Fraser was Landis’s scriptwriter, like the Queen of Sheba I would have had no more spirit in me. But Fraser died and even Lan-dis can’t conscript the dead, whatever else he might do to them. Still, it said something about his standards, if not of fact, at least of fictionalisation, so I was fairly confident we wouldn’t see Burke and Hare fighting the US Marines in the last sequences. Now, in retrospect, I wonder why the Marines were left out: certainly the story in the movie as released should be told to them.

The facts in the case of Burke and Hare are there for scribe to copy from scribe down the centuries, and anyone who has helped establish them will only regret that the Landis film makes so little use of them. “The events in this film are true,” announces the film at its start, “except the bits that are not”; it concludes with cod-endings for each character (apart from the well-hanged Burke).

Needless to say the actual murders committed by Burke and Hare are lost sight of, with stray allusions to specific deaths surfacing with no background of explanation. The zeal of the scriptwriters to invent easily robs them of any powers of retention of names and fates of real people, for whose existence their contempt is boundless. The film actually shows Burke and Hare murdering their first victim (by sitting on him, Pogema-Hone style, as the Gaelic of the original Burke and Hare would have it), and later has Burke protesting with horror at Hare’s suggestion that they murder. Continuity was not just out to lunch: it was on leave.

Predecessors need not reproach themselves for such disasters in this production. But there are signs of its origins in earlier studies. Ours is not the paternity of this monster, but ancestral identifications here and there lift up their ugly heads. For instance, my own Burke And Hare (a history) and later Hare And Burke (a play) followed the evidence of Henry Cockburn, the defence counsel, that Burke did everything he could to secure the acquittal or (what he got) a not-proven verdict for his common-law wife Helen MacDougal, and did so regardless of its likelihood of sealing his own fate. The movie indeed joins me as perhaps the only ones since Burke’s own time to assert his guilt but proclaim his genuine and redemptive love.

I also fleetingly compared Burke to Shakespeare’s Macbeth facing his doom. Perhaps this inspired the notion of Burke taking up murder to finance an all-female production of Macbeth at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre (founded sixty years after his death).

Burke’s actual confessions after his trial and sentence are rightly seen as something his sense of guilt wanted him to make, but in the film he insists that rather than confess to one of his own Catholic priests, he has to confess to the authorities (here confused with the militia he actually joined in Ireland). Seldom has the State been so religiously reverenced above Church. The state rewards him for this by hanging him without trial, making lynch law Scots Law.

I suppose I can follow Burke in confession by admitting the use of a dictionary definition of ‘burking’ as an epigraph for my final chapter, which may indeed have inspired a movie moment where Hare describes their murder-method as burking. They had invented an apparently undetectable form of murder, by smothering or stifling (the Oxford dictionary included strangulation, but that is usually easy to diagnose). The movie, however, has them trying any forms of murder likely to prove filmworthy, many being homicides whose violence would be all too obvious, and could never have been accepted by a doctor, even one as zealous as Knox for corpses, here explained by his anxiety to win a competition held by George IV, a thesis idiotic enough to have been scripted by Burke’s and Hare’s victim Daft Jamie.

What does it matter, since it is, after all, intended for comedy, the best laughs perhaps being unintended? The film’s poorness has burked the issue of truth and made criticism almost beside the point. How is anyone to assail as untrue a film which has Greyfriars Bobby disturbing Burke and Hare while robbing a grave? Greyfriars Bobby was a half-century later, and Burke and Hare never robbed graves anyway. Those two facts are readily accessible, and the scene is intended as a joke anyway (however inferior to the witticisms of Daft Jamie) so why get annoyed by it? Besides the ludicrous pantomimic mood of the film asserts its own origins in Irish-American music-hall, slightly improved by the laxness of modern manners. Thus the Irish-American comic strip Bringing Up Father has its hero Jiggs perpetually wearing a top hat; Hare wears a battered top hat while fornicating with his wife. Burke and Hare themselves call each other “Mr Burke” and “Mr Hare” as in the music-hall number ‘Positively, Mr Sheen, Absolutely, Mr Gallagher’.

The tragedy is that a great deal of money and talent have been wasted. And the past deserves respect. Certainly it can be comic, and even the most tragic lives in the poorest of lifestyles were lived with amazing humour and laughter as well as suffering and starvation. Burke, Hare and countless others like them built up North Atlantic industrial strength while brutalised as navvies. Apart from his indifference to murder for his profit, Knox was an odious racist but he and his colleagues transformed modern medicine. We impoverish ourselves if we run away from the truth and spin a mythical past to avoid knowing where we have come from, and hence what we are. The interest in Burke and Hare hardly derives from a public wanting to wallow in murders: Mr Rupert Murdoch gives the world a surfeit of that. But it does derive from wanting to look at ourselves through our pasts, and facing where we might have gone. This film’s answer is to turn working-class tragedy into middle-class farce.

Burke And Hare is on general release now.

From this Issue

Diary

by Kapka Kassabova

A Capital Fellow

by Michael Fry

Reading Jail

by Martin Belk

Burking The Truth

by Owen Dudley Edwards

Blog / Discussion

Rusticated… (II)

by Brian Morton
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