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As some fireworks and bonfire celebrations are cancelled due to social distancing rules slogging on, what better reason to snuggle up inside and stick on the most iconic film there is about Guy Fawkes this fifth of November?
V for Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue, was not only a hit when it came out in 2005, but many of its messages ring just as true 16 years on.
The political action movie may be set in a dystopian and futuristic setting, while also drawing inspiration from a historical figure, but the film offers an important critique of modern society.
Examining the true story of Guy Fawkes and the legacy he has left behind, the film uses the – often misguidedly-recognised – celebration of the English conspirator to study the present state of commemoration.
Whether it be through statues, tales or events such as Bonfire Night, the film – as well as raising questions about how to gain true freedom – questions why we choose to remember some events, and some people, the way we do. It also raises the question as to whether we actually know why we are even commemorating them.
Art, music, television, film, statues and celebratory days can all be used as forms of commemoration by society to bring the masses together in honour of historical moments or voices.
V for Vendetta does not exactly commemorate Fawkes, but interrogates him – it questions his voice, his intentions and why society continues to annually attribute a day to him.
Creating film and television around a revolutionary voice gives it even more of an afterlife, due to the widespread audience such media has the capability of reaching.
However, while V for Vendetta initially seems to echo and positively commemorate Fawkes, focusing its storyline on a man who idolises him so much that he completes the failed Gunpowder Plot, it actually provokes an examination into the problems surrounding society’s annual commemoration. Who was the man behind the mask, and why do we dedicate a day to him?
Did any of us really know who Guy Fawkes was when we skipped off to set fire to a fake man on a stick and twizzle some sparklers in the dark? Was Guy Fawkes a moral man? A bad man? Or somewhere in-between?
Furthermore, why have we chosen to commemorate him all this time, when November 5 was first remembered for the passing of the Thanksgiving Act of 1606, rather than being initially named after Guy Fawkes?
Do we know why we’re doing it? Are some of us hoping a real-life V will reignite and succeed the plot, overthrowing those in power? Are others celebrating its failure, like they’ve been told to by authorities? Or are many of us just pretty clueless and wanting to join in purely for the spectacle of fireworks, sparklers and festive food?
Guy Fawkes was born in 1570 in York, as a Protestant. He fought for the Spanish in Flanders and later converted to Catholicism, National Geographic reports. His expertise in explosives resulted in Fawkes being recruited to take part in the Gunpowder Plot.
In May 1604, he swore an oath alongside four other men to maintain secrecy and stay loyal to the plot, which hoped to overthrow the rule of King James I and restore a Catholic government and kingdom.
With Fawkes later posing as a servant, the size of the conspiracy group grew and gunpowder was sourced. After a series of delays, in November 1605, the plot was finally put into motion. However, a letter revealed the plan of the 13 conspirators and Fawkes was later arrested and taken to the Tower of London on November 5.
He was tortured and then confessed, before later being sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered on the orders of King James. Fawkes’ execution was set for January 1606, however, after jumping from the gallows, he broke his neck and died, and was then quartered to be sent to ‘the four corners of the kingdom’.
While V (Hugo Weaving) is initially presented as an inspirational freedom fighter and a hero after rescuing Evie (Natalie Portman), the cracks in that view soon begin to show, which in turn provokes a questioning of the cause he stands for – the figure of Guy Fawkes.
In the film, V is morally contradictory, as was Fawkes. A freedom fighter but with little or no thought to the human cost, and advocating violence and manipulation – such as the abduction and torturing of Evie, a triggering and intense scene to say the least.
While V may seem to restore power to the people by the end of the film, he has done so at the expense of many innocent lives.
With the futuristic portrayal of the Gunpower Plot eventually succeeding, the film subsequently forces an audience to confront the violence the plot entailed, and the contradiction in naming a day after a member of the scheme.
Naming the day after Fawkes glorifies him and ‘elevates him to lasting fame’, as per National Geographic, despite his fairly insignificant role, as well as the violent and extremist nature of his character.
Guy Fawkes Night is therefore confusing in its commemorative message, as it is also named after his message – which seems like a positive act in itself – despite celebrating Fawkes and the plot’s failure.
This is contradictory and has resulted in the real purpose of the commemorative day being partially lost over time. More concerningly, why have some since glorified him as a symbol of freedom? Especially when the film highlights that freedom comes at a severe cost.
V, like certain members of society, memorialises Fawkes’ name to an extreme and problematic extent.
The film also examines how, over time, society has continued to celebrate it out of habit, which conveys an extreme lack of historical awareness or re-evaluation as to the significance and intention behind such a commemoration. Many people don’t even know who he is, what the plot entailed, or that the day is to celebrate his failures.
The film may centre the anarchist character of V, but his political views and violent actions – mirroring Fawkes’ own – are not justified by the film, despite his opposition of a fascist and discriminatory governmental power, in the form of the Norsefire Party.
The Norsefire Party, led by Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) echoes that of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party.
The colour palette of the uniforms, swathes of red fabric and even Sutler’s facial hair are all reminiscent and a symbolic warning of a history we should not forget – and one which should not ever be repeated.
However, just because of the similarities to the Nazi Party, the film does not project the idea of V being the saint and Adam Sutler being the villain – both are problematic, violent, dictator-like figures, and neither are desirable rulers. So why is one still commemorated? V being an extension of Fawkes?
Throughout 2020, the argument surrounding statues of problematic historical figures – whether we tear them down, move them to a museum or simply place new ones up – has been much debated.
The right answer is certainly not to lock all dedicatory artwork, commemorative practices or remembrance days in a dusty basement, but more care is definitely needed when considering why we have them, whose voice we are promoting and if it should be continued.
V for Vendetta subsequently forces us as a society to question why we choose to commemorate figures as we do – even more relevant now following statues being torn down or removed in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and other statues being investigated as to their historical significance and problematic natures.
The film subsequently not only interrogates the past, but sets a precedent for how society should treat figures and notable voices in the future.
It proves how society has continued to commemorate some historical figures, even when the whole purpose of why they were remembered in the first place has been forgotten or distorted.
For the night to be named after Fawkes, and for many people to not have educated themselves as to certain aspects of history, the continuation of Fawkes’ name has been done so without considered or careful thought.
So this November 5, remember, remember to do your research, not blindly follow in commemorating figures you don’t know the significance of, and to question certain historical voices who we have been made to remember by the rest of society.
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