Man is a morbid and macabre creature. An awareness of our own mortality has quite naturally developed into a fear of, and a fascination with, death and the final resting of our remains. Thus, it is of little surprise that the work of the body snatcher or resurrectionist, as those in the profession prefer to be known, evokes a disgusted intrigue but an intrigue nonetheless. Body snatching for medical purposes holds a special interest due to the ethical uncertainty inherent in unsavoury acts committed for lofty goals. When medicine was still a fledgling science, there was a high demand for cadavers for study and training purposes but very little legal supply. Doctors and scientists turned to body snatchers as a means of advancing their science. Although the history of body snatching is not restricted to any one country, literature and film have often focused on the United Kingdom of the early 19th century. The tale of William Burke and William Hare may be the most notorious, and thus most oft adapted, because it exposes how moral ambiguity can easily result in a descent into depravity and reprehensible behaviour. Burke and Hare went above and beyond in their duties as ‘resurrection men’ while working on behalf of Dr. Robert Knox in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1828. The Flesh and The Fiends (1960) is a fictionalized, but faithful, depiction of how the lives of the three men became intertwined.
Peter Cushing receives top billing for his portrayal of anatomist, Dr. Robert Knox and is in typical fine form. For the role, Cushing wears a prosthetic drooping left eyelid, emulating the real-life disfigurement of Dr. Knox due to a case of smallpox as an infant. It can also be seen as a metaphor for how Knox turns a blind eye to the criminal acts occurring around him. Knox is not the villain of the piece, but neither is he depicted as an innocent. Instead, Cushing and the writers strive to make Knox a multi-layered character. When we first meet Dr. Knox, he is speaking to his class of, mostly, graduating young doctors. “Miracles are an apology for ignorance and a retreat for fools.” This and later remarks by Knox, in stark contrast to Cushing’s own personality and beliefs, paint him as a cold, clinical, and anti-religious person with a strong conviction in his own superiority. Dr. Knox does not suffer fools but there are indications that the aloofness is, at least in part, an act. When medical student, Chris Jackson (John Cairney) is disappointed not to have graduated with the class, Knox bluntly tells the man he must learn to curb his emotions. He then offers Jackson a job as an assistant to help offset the cost of his education. When Jackson, intimidated but grateful, takes his leave, Knox allows himself an understanding smile. Hints of humanity beneath the arrogance are necessary to allow the audience to relate to Dr. Knox despite his choice not to ask questions regarding the activities of Burke and Hare.
Looking the other way is necessary for Knox to receive the cadavers needed by his academy. Not because of the disturbing of graves. Dr. Knox is at peace with that, stating, “I neither condone nor condemn. I accept.” To Knox, and indeed to the medical field in general, body snatching has become a necessary evil. No, what Dr. Knox is conveniently ignoring is that Burke and Hare may not be committing something as innocent and mundane as body snatching. The first cadaver Burke and Hare bring to Dr. Knox is acquired in almost the accepted manner. The man has died of natural causes in the lodging house owned by Burke. If the men fail to wait until he is buried before absconding with the body, they are merely avoiding the messy work of digging him back up and ensuring the freshness of the acquired specimen. However, the success of that first transaction leads Burke and Hare to realize that the need to wait for death is a major impediment to their business model and they can speed things along in that regard.
Burke and Hare are portrayed by George Rose and Donald Pleasence, respectively. Both do a commendable job with the characters, instilling them with all the unpleasantness to be found in human nature while at the same time making them their own comic relief. Hare is the more interesting of the two if only because he takes on a leadership role in the partnership. Pleasence’s Hare is, in many ways, a looking-glass image of Dr. Knox. Both men suffer from superiority complexes but, while Knox comes by his honestly, William Hare is like a little boy playing at dress-up. He walks amongst the poor populace with his thumbs in his waistcoat as if he is lord of all he sees. It is Hare that comes up with the schemes but, somehow, he manages to avoid all the heavy lifting and most of the dirty work while ensuring the payment goes directly into his hand. He speaks for Burke even to Burke’s own wife, telling her once to “do as your man here says” despite Burke not saying a word. Once the duo begins to make some money from their ventures, Hare will supplement his wardrobe one piece at a time. When the bottom finally falls out, Hare will be carrying a cane and wearing a new waistcoat, hat, and gloves. Meanwhile, Burke has been wearing the same outfit throughout and bemoans that fact in the end. Most telling of all, Hare has an affectation that mimics Dr. Knox. Hare carries a soiled handkerchief with him and is always touching it to his nose. This is very similar to what Dr. Knox does while he is accepting a cadaver, presumably to fend off the smell of the cadaver or possibly of those that are delivering it.
Dr. Knox and William Hare are not the only characters to cast reflections on each other. Chris, the struggling medical student, finds himself in a complicated relationship with prostitute Mary Patterson (Billie Whitelaw), who he meets in a seedy bar while paying a pair of body snatchers their fee. Around the same time, Chris’ superior and Dr. Knox’s contemporary, Dr. Geoffrey Mitchell (Dermot Walsh) begins a relationship with Knox’s niece, Martha Knox (June Laverick). The superficial similarities and deep-seated differences are driven home when the two couples meet while out for riverside strolls. Chris is awkward and embarrassed by the brash and mildly bawdy Mary. Dr. Mitchell is collected and cultured enough to politely ignore Mary’s outburst. In contrast to Mary, Martha, having just returned from a finishing school for ladies, is pretty and mannered and has almost no personality whatsoever. These differences echo the societal division of Edinburgh at the time. The ‘New Town’ section of Edinburgh is home to the medical school and the upper crust of society while the ‘Old Town’ is packed with bars, brothels, boarding houses, and the poor. While Martha and Dr. Mitchell may consider themselves personally affected by Burke and Hare’s activities, they are largely spectators in the story and protected by their positions in society. On the other hand, despite his best attempts, Chris never manages to truly fit in with the other doctors and he and Mary will bear the full impact of Burke and Hare’s crimes.
It is the social and economic disparity within the city that ultimately drives the story to its inevitable conclusion. Despite their shared complicity and some of the similarities in their personalities, Dr. Knox and William Hare meet very different fates. The film attempts to justify Knox’s fortune by showing him having an epiphany and gaining humility. But it all rings a little false, likely because even the filmmakers recognize that what saves Knox from sharing Hare’s fate is not a newfound appreciation for all human life but position and power. New Town and Old Town are governed by different sets of laws. Old Town may allow goings-on that New Town would never tolerate but it is Old Town where punishment will be dealt out.
The real-life happenings depicted in The Flesh and the Fiends directly contributed to two changes to society. First, a new word was added to the English lexicon. The act of suffocating someone by holding a hand over their mouth and nose became known as ‘to burke’ or ‘burking’ and the term eventually came to mean any act of quiet suppression. Secondly, to prevent the recurrence of these events, the United Kingdom’s Anatomy Act was passed in 1832 allowing doctors, anatomy teachers, and medical students to legally dissect donated bodies. It was recognized that doctors like Knox had good intentions and were attempting to improve their craft for the betterment of all mankind. Restricting the accepted use of cadavers had forced them to trust in men like Burke and Hare. How can you rely on the morals of men that you depend on to be immoral?
The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) Directed by John Gilling; Written by Leon Griffiths & John Gilling; Based on a story by John Gilling; Starring Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, George Rose, Billie Whitelaw, John Cairney, Dermot Walsh, June Laverick & Melvyn Hayes; Available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.
This is my contribution to The Devilishly Delightful Donald Pleasence Blogathon. In between grave robberies, the other resurrectionist on this site has also contributed an article for the blogathon here. Click on the image below for many more Donald Pleasence themed reviews. Our thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeegieMidget Reviews for allowing us to dig up a couple less familiar Donald Pleasence performances.