display | more...

(Warning: contains plot spoilers, if you actually want to see the film and enjoy it don't read this until you have done so.)

Recently, Simon Pegg starred in a film adaptation of the story of Burke and Hare (a true story). Whilst the story is inherently macabre and scary, their are certain aspects of it that make it suitable for a black farce. In a similar way, the story, as told in this film, has some very important messages about economics and society, whether I'm reading to much into it or not is a matter of opinion.

Before we begin, lets just go over the basic plot of the story. Once upon a time in old Edinburgh town, there were two Irish men called Burke and Hare who were landlords in Leith. One day, one of their lodgers died and he hadn't paid the rent. Desperate to get their rent, they dug up his dead body and sold it to Dr Knox, the finest surgeon in Edinburgh, and got way more money than they would have expected. Deciding this was the way forward, they decided to sell him more bodies, not by digging them up, but by murdering random individuals they came across. Soon they began to make lots of money, but eventually it became obvious what they were doing, and they got arrested. In prison, Hare testified against Burke and was given freedom. Burke got hanged to death and was himself dissected (you can still see his skeleton to this day), Hare managed to return to Ireland and was never heard of again, and Hares wife (who was also involved) and Dr Knox get off without any charge whatsoever.

As the producers point out at the beginning of the film, 'this is a true story, except for the parts that aren't'. The parts of the film that aren't true are in my view as important as the parts that are, since they help emphasise the points of the story. These include.....

When markets are free, horrible things will happen, Burke and Hare and Hares wife are the archetypal tin pot entrepreneurs trying to make it big time. Burke and Hare (possibly Hares wife) come to Great Britain from Ireland in search of wealth. First they dig canals, when that stops they rent out rooms and engage in often silly little schemes such as selling moldy cheese as blood moss. Then almost by accident, after trying to dispose of a dead lodger and talking to a seedy man in the pub, they come across the idea of selling dead bodies to Dr Knox. Soon they start innovating, firstly by performing "euthanasia" on one of their dying lodgers, then progressing to out and out murder. Soon they begin living the high life, fine clothes, the best inns in Edinburgh and even becoming patrons to the arts. However there are costs to pay, Hares wife catches on and asks for some money as part of their marital vows (she even helps them commit some of the murders). On top of this, Burke and Hare get involved in a notorious crime syndicate and are made to pay protection money. This, along with Dr Knox's demands force them to kill more and more people (16 in the film, some say more died but were never identified). Hare does try to get them out of this by suggesting setting up a Funeral Parlour, meaning people could legally give them dead bodies. However, the leader of the crime syndicate wants them to become full members and continue their "business". Burke and Hare decide to kill the syndicate leader and sell his body to Dr Knox, however this is what alerts the militia (the only really law enforcements) and brings about their downfall.

If at some point their was a bit of economic restraint, such as suppliers of dead bodies having to sign a contract or greater police involvement to control crime syndicates, which in the film behave a lot like predatory multi-nationals, the plot might not have unfolded. However....

When people distort the natural shape of the market to suit their own needs, horrible things will happen, this in many ways being more important than the previous one. At the beginning of the film, Dr Monroe, the most respected surgeon in Edinburgh, uses his position to pass a by-law which means that all dead bodies from executions go straight to him, leaving smaller surgeons out of supply. Dr Knox then decides to go illegal and get dead bodies from grave robbers, but they are usually decayed and worm infested. Then comes along fresh bodies from Burke and Hare, and the opportunity to get his own supply appeals a lot to Dr Knox, who then employs them as his suppliers.

Out of all the characters in the story, the person who comes across as being the most evil is the leader of the crime syndicate. Burke and Hare, being the protagonists, are portrayed as such, and their actions, whilst at times very macabre, come across as being amoral rather than immoral, if you understand. The syndicate leader, as well as having the stereotypical characteristics of a villain, forces people who for whatever reason have chosen crime as a living, to pay him money on pain of death. In return, he claims that he will stop them from getting arrested, whether he actually does anything is questionable. But his actions in trying to control the crime market ultimately lead to more innocent people dying via Burke and Hare, who ultimately become to powerful for him to control and kill him as well.

Combining this information with the one above us, the picture begins to say that a system in which security and common decency are more important than profit and innovation would prevent horrible things like this from happening, something many people, including those who made the film, would abhor for its socialist connotations. Also....

The system (including free market capitalism) doesn't encourage moral, responsible behaviour, at nearly every stage in the "business" development, Burke challenges Hare over the morality of whats going on. Every Time he does so, Hare manages to come up with an increasingly cunning and often slimy excuse for what they are doing, and Burke goes along with it. Hares wife encourages her husband, saying that this idea is his best idea ever. Dr Knox, who being the best surgeon in Edinburgh, knows that they are killing the bodies, encourages them by saying that their "contributions" will save thousands, if not millions of lives. Then of course the crime syndicate leader says if they don't pay him he'll kill them.

When they are finally captured and being interrogated, the Captain of the Militia wishes to interrogate them thoroughly to find out exactly what happened. However, the Solicitor General wants a quick result to please the lynch mob, and offers him the position of Colonel if he gets a quick result, to which the Captain of the Militia accepts.

The Captain of the Militia offers Burke and Hare an ultimatum, one of them admits that they did it, and the others go free, or none of them admit it, and they all get hanged. Burke, in order to save the life of his friend Hare and that of his lover, an actress who he sponsored, admits. He then gets hanged whilst people cheer, Hare and his wife (the ones who were the most enthusiastic about the "business") get away and set up the Funeral Parlour, the rest of the people involved who weren't already dead don't even go to prison.

As you can see, the one individual who tries to do the right thing is pressured into doing the wrong thing and eventually gets cut out of the gene pool. Also...

The controllers of the system are economical with their own orientation when it suits them, Dr Knox says to his students that studying the human body is looking into the mind of God, and that medicine is a holy occupation. Considering this, he treats the dead bodies needed for his presentations and research as though they were any old piece of meat, emphasised by the fact that he is supplied by murderers, hardly like a divine relic. Likewise, he says that he is working for progress, and yet the actions of Burke and Hare differ little from head hunting.

A more subtle observation can be seen if you consider the context. This is set during the Scottish enlightenment, and the Enlightenment was to an extent inspired by Adam Smith, who was a keen supporter of free market economics. Dr Monroe would probably claim to be an admirer of Smithite economics, and yet he gets the government to alter the free market so he can get his dead bodies.

Dr Knox has a very clear idea of what he would do with his bodies. He meets the man who invented photography, and using a prototype camera, take photographs of the bodies he's dissected. He would then form a portfolio of different body parts, making a perfect map of the human body, something that wouldn't be fully accomplished until Dr Grey came along much later. This would be incredibly useful in surgery, however the Militia discover his photos and that becomes the main evidence against Burke and Hare. Around the time that they were being interrogated, the Solicitor General on advice of Dr Monroe burns the photographs. Why, because if the public knew that the medical community had not only fraternized with murderers, but used their help to create something that is as macabre as it is practical (even Hare becomes unstable when he sees the photographs) no one would visit a doctors again. So, they get in the way of the medical progress that they claim to support to preserve their image. As a final dual point.

The horrors the system creates will eventually destroy it and the system survives by pinning the blame on unpopular individuals , when the public of Edinburgh are told about the crimes of Burke and Hare, they form a lynch mob outside the prison gates, and even the highly disciplined Militia men run away at the sight of them.

Not only could this be seen as a lynch mob against unpopular, macabre individuals, but also as a revolt against a system that allows one human being to exploit another human being in such an extreme way. In other words, this lynch mob almost resembles an Anti-Capitalist revolution in the making, that could lead to something resembling Feudalism or Communism or even Anarchy if you wish. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, this isn't what happens in the story.

Instead, Burke gets made into a virtual super villain, epitomising all that is depraved about humanity, and who will go to hell with the help of a noose. The fact that nearly everything that he did could have been prevented by very simple cultural and economic changes is ignored. The plan works, the crowd cheers when he dies, and eventually carry on as normal. This film is possibly the first time Burke is portrayed in something akin to a positive light for 190 years.

So, this is my interpretation of the film, it might be completely wrong, it may be Simon Pegg and his producers and directors would hate it if I suggested these things. I don't entirely agree with the message I think its giving, its just something I've noticed.