This British film recreates a true story (commonly known as the West Port murders) about two infamous Irish body-snatchers in early nineteenth century Edinburgh, a city which at the time was home to what was probably the most highly respected medical school in the U.K.. During this period the supply of corpses for anatomical teaching or research was limited by law to those of executed criminals, and this led to a great shortage. Unofficially the teachers of anatomy were recognised as prepared to buy additional bodies - no questions asked; and this led to a developing practice of criminally snatching bodies from new graves in cemeteries. In response some Edinburgh cemeteries, particularly St. Cuthbert's, constructed high walls with watchtowers and railings which can still be seen today.
In 1827 Hare ran a disreputable boarding house in which Burke was one of the residents. When another resident died a normal internment was arranged, but instead Burke joined Hare in replacing the corpse with a sackful of bark that was solemnly buried, and later selling the corpse to the highly respected surgeon Dr Knox. Realizing this could provide an ongoing income it is commonly believed that they subsequently took up dissension from graves, although Burke always denied this, and I believe it has never been proved. What is known is that when another resident in the boarding house was expected to die imminently, they decided to sell the body instead of burying it. Then as the death took longer than expected B & H decided to speed up the process by suffocating the victim so that the body was not marked by violence. From this point on the sky became the limit and everyone who stayed in the boarding house began to be looked upon as a potential source of wealth. Once easily identified local characters began to disappear the end was near; Burke and Hare were arrested, Hare was offered an amnesty in return for providing evidence against Burke and the latter was executed. An almost immediate consequence of these crimes was the regulation of the supply of cadavers to medical schools which commenced with the passing of the U.K. Anatomy Act in 1832.
The film tells this story, and recreates the atmosphere of old Edinburgh with reasonable accuracy. Even today Old Edinburgh has many narrow alleys and tall stone buildings with small barred windows which can be quite eerie when it is cold and foggy, so it still provides plenty of atmosphere for filming this type of story. Probably unfortunately, the film makers decided to couple the macabre story above with an attempt to provide something of a social documentary of life in early nineteenth century Scotland, and this was not received well by most of the critics who felt these two very different themes did not meld well. The situation was made worse a year later when Derren Nesbitt, the actor who played the part of Burke, was convicted on a charge of assaulting his wife. I missed the film when it was first released but found it was being revived in a local cinema when I visited Edinburgh many years later, and took the opportunity to see it then. Perhaps the facts that I was working in a medical school, and was watching this film in the place where the grim events portrayed had actually taken place, numbed my critical faculties; but I remember being totally engrossed by the film at the time. More recently I have been trying to purchase a home video copy and view it again, but it has not been released as a DVD and is now hard to find. Surprisingly I have never seen it presented on TV. I have rated it at 8 stars, this is not based on detailed recollections of the acting or dialogue, but reflects my fascination with the great sense of the period that I experienced from it at the time I saw it. Be warned that many critics would probably regard this as a totally unjustified rating The story of Burke and Hare is a natural one for presentation on film and I am surprised that this 1972 film has not yet been re-made. (A modern day version, based on a script by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh and tentatively titled The Meat Trade is to be filmed in Edinburgh this year. In this bodies are used to provide organs for transplant not cadavers for the medical school - such a fictitious work is unlikely to appeal greatly to me.) An earlier film of the original historic story was made in 1948, but at this time the British film censors set very high standards for films regarded as documentary and, although the film was based on the actual story, they would not allow the title Burke and Hare to be used. Instead it was released as The Greed of William Hart. Ironically, this earlier version has been released as a DVD which is still listed.