Friday, March 05, 2010

Ghastly executions and cheering crowds

But not in movies. For some reason, with the occasional exception of Westerns, Hollywood likes to portray the crowds attending grisly public executions as being horrified by what they’re watching and filled with sympathy for the prisoner.

I’m pretty sure I remember the protracted, gruesome execution of William Wallace being depicted that way in the terrible Mel Gibson movie (or is that redundant?) Braveheart. I’m quite sure I remember the execution of Guy Fawkes being depicted that way in the movie V for Vendetta.

I suspect that in reality, in both cases the crowd was cheering on the executioners. After all, the crowd knew what to expect in such executions, and if they found the drawn-out torture and death of a prisoner so repulsive, they probably wouldn’t have attended. It’s my understanding that public executions in England, and probably elsewhere, were considered wonderful spectacles, and people went there to be entertained by the awful suffering and exposed viscera of the condemned.

Moreover, Wallace was not a hero to the English. In their eyes, he was “an outlaw, a murderer, the perpetrator of atrocities and a traitor” – an accurate view, given his violent, destructive raids into (civilian!) England. Nor was Fawkes a champion of liberty and opponent of royal tyranny as implied by that entertaining but fundamentally silly movie. Had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded, many innocent people would have died along with the targeted ruling class, and the country would have been plunged into chaos. That chaos, the plotters hoped, would have been followed by the institution of a Catholic monarchy that would have been far more repressive than the rule of James I. So the crowd was probably very happy to see Fawkes being slowly dispatched.

In fact, I suspect that there were many older people in the crowd who were disgusted. I can imagine one of them saying, “These executioners, they’re going to make that fellow die too quickly. He’s not going to suffer anywhere near enough. Why, when I was a lad, torturers and executioners really knew their business. They could draw it out for days, I’m telling you. Ah, well, what can you expect? These are evil and declining days, and the country’s going to the dogs. Dogs! Did I ever tell you about the time I saw a man torn apart by a pack of hungry dogs? That was back in the good old days.”

8 comments:

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Your last graph is brilliant.

David said...

Thanks. The "good old days" nonsense has always bothered me. It annoyed me when I was a kid hearing it from grownups, and it really grates on me now that I'm an old guy hearing it from other old people.

TGirsch said...

I have a close friend of mine who's an African-American. He grew up under segregation in South Carolina. To this day, he'll still occasionally have a coworker look back nostalgically on the 1950's and ask him, "Wouldn't you love to go back to those times?"

His standard response: "F--k no!" And, as if an afterthought, they'll usually respond, "Well, besides that part."

David said...

Gadzooks. Hit them with a clue stick.

I'm white, and I don't want to go back to the 1950s.

Anonymous said...

Right on, David. I have read a couple of histories of torture, and you are quite right: prolonged executions following grotesque torture, often lasting for days, were indeed considered great public fun in bygone days. As far as that goes, I'm sure there are many people alive today who would pay good money to watch people being put to death, either in the U.S. or elsewhere, if such events were filmed and/or had public viewing stands.

Lahdeedah said...

This love of morbidity, suffering and torture of others is also why shows like '1000 Ways to Die' and the you tube clips of horrificly painful accidents are so popular!

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