Did you watch a film for Halloween? From The Addams Family to Coraline and Scream to The Exorcist (for the hardier souls), the options are endless for 31 October movie nights. Indeed, a trip to the cinema last week alone offered a plethora of horrors, in the shapes of Happy Death Day, Jigsaw, and The Ritual.
As ever, there’s no time to recover from Halloween parties because Guy Fawkes Day is soon after – that enduringly popular celebration of toffee apples, fireworks, bonfires, and burning effigies of 17th-century terrorists.
For those international students who are not in the know: each year, on the fifth night of November, people across the UK commemorate the failure of a band of Catholic rebels to murder King James VI and I in 1605, by destroying the Houses of Parliament. Though the plot was conceived and led by one Robert Catesby, the man best known for the failure is Guy Fawkes, who was caught ready to light the gunpowder in an underground tunnel. As with so many long running traditions, the original impetus for the celebration matters less now than the simple love of a good party; in this case, one with a great big bonfire.
But what films should you watch as the embers settle at the end of the night? Is there such a thing as a Guy Fawkes Day film?
There being little precedent for cinematic dramatisations of the Gunpowder Plot, only one obvious example comes to mind; that being James McTeigue’s 2005 dystopian thriller V for Vendetta. The film stars Natalie Portman – with one seriously dodgy British accent – as Evey Hammond, a TV network employee who finds herself rescued by a masked vigilante known as V, before watching him blow up London’s Old Bailey courthouse. A tale of political revolution against state dictatorship, the film takes place around the bonfire nights of 2027 and 2028, with V plotting to succeed where Guy Fawkes failed in blowing up the Houses of Parliament. Connections to the 1605 plot go further still in V’s costume, which is topped off by a Guy Fawkes mask, of the sort that were popular in the early 20th century.
Anarchic and fun, V for Vendetta retains an enduring appeal in a troubled world. Indeed, such is the film’s popularity that Guy Fawkes masks have been commonly adopted by numerous protesters in the twelve years since its release. Perhaps revolutions in dystopia won’t work with everyone’s idea of a party feature, but it does climax with a rather tremendous fireworks display.
Whilst they’re not common, it is not the case that no filmed versions of the Gunpowder Plot actually exist. Besides the BBC’s brand new miniseries Gunpowder (available right now on the BBC iPlayer), the sole theatrical iteration was produced by Maurice Elvey way back in 1923. Black and white, and silent, the film took its title from Guy Fawkes’ name, with Canadian actor Matheson Lang playing the man himself. It is worth noting that Elvey’s film is based on the version of the events recounted in William Ainsworth’s three-part penny dreadful novel, so comes with a pinch of salt, and also that tracking down a copy of the film today is no mean feat.
More readily available, although, like V for Vendetta, not a direct biopic, Wonderland is another film which sets itself around a fifth of November weekend. Directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Shirley Henderson, Molly Parker and Gina McKee, Wonderland is the story of three sisters in London told across five days, either side of Guy Fawkes Day. Shot in a documentary fashion, a watching of the film makes for a deeply moving experience. It’s about loneliness in London, about relationships, and about real people. One of the primary selling points of the film is indeed the involvement of unsuspecting members of the public, whose reactions can be seen shot throughout in scenes such as those of the Bonfire Night fireworks. Touching, if not quite party material.
Fireworks do, of course, feature in many a movie. There’s one tremendously uplifting sequence in Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, and a thrilling display of rebellion by the Weasley twins in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix too. To call these Bonfire Night specialities, on the other hand, might be a little too tenuous for uptake.
Fundamentally, the 1605 Gunpowder Plot involved no bonfires, fireworks or explosions of any variety. It was a moment of rebellion against persecution, albeit one in which the persecuted would have been entirely prepared to persecute their enemies were the tables flipped. Perhaps a Bonfire Night film ought instead, then, to capture the spirit of the epoch rather than imitate the celebrations that commemorate it. Plenty of great examples could fill such boots – Order of the Phoenix would now be a very good call – but lest we forget that this is Scotland and whilst they may take our lives, they will never take our film nights. Remember, remember, watch Braveheart on the fifth of November.