Sometimes, television and movies depict historical events with surprising accuracy. Other times, they temper historical truth for the audience, or just get things completely wrong. Biopics can make a monster look great or a hero appear to be the devil, and muddied facts, like those in Braveheart, complicate historical legacies.
Television and movie executions on the small or big screen are some of the biggest offenders when it comes to historical inaccuracies. The worst movie execution scenes hide details, misrepresenting what really happened and playing down severity and gore. Execution scenes in movies and on television usually tend to leave out all the gory and oftentimes disgusting details.
The execution of Wallace presented in Braveheart showed very little of the actual brutality and pain that took place. After Wallace was captured in 1305, he underwent the traditional punishment for a traitor - drawing and quartering - as well as those for robbery, sacrilege, and homicide.
He was first stripped naked and dragged through the streets of London by a horse for about six miles. Along the way, people threw trash, sticks, and even poop at him. He was then hanged, but not to death - they wanted to keep him alive long enough to cut off his penis and burn it in front of him. His executioner then cut open his abdomen and let the entrails fall out. They to were set on fire. Finally, Wallace's heart was cut out of his body, after which he was decapitated. Wallace's body was quartered with limbs distributed throughout the kingdom. His head was put on a pike on London Bridge.
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A revolutionary film for its time, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, is only 18 seconds long. The use of a dummy - and the swap mid-scene to that dummy from a human actress - is the first in cinematic history. It captures some of the grandeur of the event but none of the gore.
Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded in 1587 for treason by the order of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Her execution was emotional all the way around, with the crowd looking on, and the executioner actually asking for her forgiveness before hacking off her head. She was stripped of her robes and heavy adornments and knelt down while praying. It took the executioner two blows to remove her head, "she making very small noise or none at all, and not stirring any part of her from the place where she lay: and so the executioner cut off her head, saving one little gristle, which being cut asunder, he lift up her head to the view of all the assembly." When he lifted her head, her wig came off, revealing her gray hair.
The most heart-breaking part of the story, however, was her dog. He had hidden in her dress and, "would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and lay between her head and her shoulders, which being imbrued with her blood was carried away and washed, as all things else were that had any blood was either burned or washed clean."
In 1540, former chief minister to Henry VIII was executed for treason, heresy, and corruption. He was denied a trial and faced a beheading, which is shown as a public execution in The Tudors. Other accounts indicate Cromwell was killed in private, but either way, it seems to have been a botched execution. Edward Hall wrote about Cromwell's death, indicating that his beheading was carried out "by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office." In other words, the executioner may have been drunk and probably took more than one swing to get the job done. The Tudors shows several swings but none of the goriness they imply.
Many myths exists as to what happened next. Some people believe Cromwell's head was boiled and then put on a pike, or that his body was drawn and quartered after his execution.
When Boleyn is beheaded in The Other Boleyn Girl, there's very little detail about her death shown. The movie shows Boleyn walking to the scaffold and kneeling before her executioner. She was beheaded by a French sword, but, in contrast to the film, addressed the crowd and remained stoic to the end. The details of her speech vary but, by all accounts, she refused to admit guilt to the adultery and treason charges against her.
As she met her end, she prayed until the executioner cut off her head, which fell onto the straw in front her her body. Her head was covered with a white cloth but her body remained on the scaffold for hours until burial arrangements were finalized.
Mass Executions In 'Apocalypto'
The movie Apocalypto portrays warriors and sacrifices within the Mesoamerican Mayan civilization, some of which is accurate, but the mass executions are a stretch. There's no historical evidence to support the idea that the Maya sacrificed hundreds of people at a time, as indicated by the mass grave in Apocalypto. The Maya offered blood to the gods, yes, but it didn't always involve death and, when it did, the body wouldn't have been discarded so carelessly. The bones of the sacrificed were the possessions of the sacrificer in what was a very personal act.
'The Crucible' And Death By Stone-Crushing
Death by crushing, also know as peine forte et dure or "strong and hard punishment," was used on Giles Corey in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. In the 1996 movie of the same name, Corey is pressed but the whole experience is severely undersold. Crushing involved days of suffering and, according to sources, Corey underwent two or three days of torture before dying. Death was eventually caused by suffocation from the amount of weight on the chest.