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Baron Alexander

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on March 11, 2022

This week I ordered a copy of The Hammer Vampire Scrapbook by Wayne Kinsey. It hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m already fascinated by this page (one of a dozen made available as previews on the Peveril Publishing website, and which I hope they therefore won’t mind me replicating):

It shows the signet ring David Peel wore as the Baron Meinster in The Brides of Dracula (1960): something I’d never previously noticed when watching the film. Checking back, I could see why. It isn’t very prominent. However, Peel certainly is wearing a signet ring in the film, and after revisiting it and some of its publicity materials, I’m pretty convinced it is indeed the one shown in Kinsey’s book.

The signet part of the ring seems to be an ancient coin. Although the pictures in Kinsey’s book don’t show the back, presumably at some point the ancient coin was welded onto a modern ring so that it could be worn, and in the bottom of the two images it seems to be standing propped up on that ring.

But the image on the ring isn’t the Emperor Constantine, as Kinsey has it. It is most definitely Alexander the Great. If you need convincing on that point, here’s a page of the coinage of Constantine, and here’s an equivalent for Alexander the Great. They lived 600 years apart, and it’s not just that their portraiture is different: their coinage is technically and stylistically extremely different too.

I’m not saying this purely to be pedantic. I’m saying it because I think knowing that David Peel wore an Alexander the Great signet ring to play the Baron Meinster adds at least two, possibly three, extra little windows of insight into Brides of Dracula as a film.

1. The Queer

Recently, I took part in a livestreamed webcast with notorious Hammer-enablers and all round lovely fellows Hammer Gothic and exclusivephd. We talked our way through the first three of Hammer’s vampire films, including Brides, and very much agreed that all three are absolutely dripping with queer subtext. There is a long-standing tradition in both literature and film of vampires being coded as both queer and gender-transgressive anyway, while a large part of Hammer’s approach to vampirism was to treat it more or less directly as a metaphor for sex, inviting those themes ever closer to the surface.

In Brides specifically, the queer coding around the Baron Meinster includes the way his mother keeps him out of the public eye and talks about how she is ashamed of his lifestyle, and the final confrontation between him and Van Helsing, in which the Baron swings a chain at his opponent, chokes him and then bites him. After the bite, we get a close-up view of the Baron’s face with Van Helsing’s blood dripping down his chin, followed by a cut to Van Helsing, his face beaded with sweat, his clothes askew, and the open wound on his neck oozing with those same bodily fluids. I am just telling you what’s there on the screen.

It’s possible that some of this came to the fore within the narrative because David Peel, who played the Baron, was gay: at least as far as we can reliably say for someone who died in 1981 and couldn’t have been publicly out in 1960. Certainly, although there are ways in which Christopher Lee’s Dracula is also queer-coded and gender-transgressive, we never see his character biting another man on screen. Perhaps Peel was willing to play up those angles in ways that Lee wasn’t, or other members of the production team found them easier to imagine?

Back to the Alexander the Great signet ring. Alexander’s sexuality is even harder to pin down in modern terms than Peel’s. He lived in a time when there was no real concept of a person’s sexual identity, and the sources for him are highly mythologising anyway. But he is widely regarded as a queer icon. Here’s just one rather good blog post on the topic.

In that light, knowing that in Brides the Baron Meinster wears an Alexander the Great signet ring definitely adds to his queer coding. In fact, I wonder if that little touch came from Peel himself. Wikipedia tells me that when he moved out of acting only a few months after completing Brides of Dracula, one of the alternative careers he pursued was in antiques dealing. If he had that interest and those contacts already when making Brides, it might explain why he had such a ring or understood its historical resonances. Perhaps in fact it was simply a ring he wore regularly himself as a veiled way of expressing his sexuality? I’d love to know.

2. The Pagan

Another aspect of Brides of Dracula which I’ve always loved is the way it casts vampirism specifically as a pagan cult. At one point, Van Helsing explains to the local priest, Father Stepnik, that vampirism is ‘a survival of one of the ancient pagan religions in their struggle against Christianity’. This doesn’t come out of nowhere. Stoker’s novel contains references to pagan deities such as Morpheus and Demeter, and at one point when things are going badly with Lucy, Van Helsing exclaims: ‘Is there fate amongst us still, sent down from the pagan world of old, that such things must be, and in such way?’ The zodiac wheel on the library floor in Dracula (1958) is also inscribed with some distinctly pagan texts. But Brides states it outright as an explicit part of the equation.

Again, Alexander the Great adds to this. He lived in a pagan world, but more than that the specific image of him shown on the Baron’s signet ring reflects the ways in which he used religion to enhance his position as a ruler. It shows him in a divine guise, his head adorned with the horns of Zeus Ammon, whose priests hailed Alexander as his son when he visited Ammon’s sanctuary in Egypt. Alexander seems to have encouraged this belief in life, but the coin used for the Baron’s signet ring in Brides is actually a type widely minted by Lysimachos, who became king of Thrace after Alexander’s death. Here’s a typical example. By the time Lysimachos was minting those coins, Alexander was being treated posthumously as the object of religious cult in his own right, so the coin shows a chain of divine descent: Lysimachos’ patron deity, Alexander, with horns indicating his own connection to Zeus Ammon.

Going back to Brides, there are all sorts of things we can do with this. Was the pagan religion Van Helsing referred to the cult of Zeus Ammon? Or perhaps of Alexander himself? Perhaps the Baron is like Lysimachos: an aristocratic ruler drawing his power partly from association with the patron deity whose image he bears on his signet ring? Again, not to be pedantic, these possibilities aren’t available for consideration if we think the signet ring bears the image of Constantine. Indeed, it would make absolutely zero sense for a vampire in the Hammer-verse to be wearing the image of a Christian emperor.

3. The Hair?

The third aspect I’m not so sure about, but I’ll put the idea out there anyway. In Brides of Dracula, David Peel sports not his own natural dark hair, which can be seen here, but a blond costume wig with a sort of curled quiff at the front. In keeping with a trope already established in Dracula (1958), we see this in two guises: neatly ordered when he is engaged in passing as human for nefarious purposes, and tousled when his bestial vampiric nature comes to the fore.

Peel’s hair in this film is normally discussed in terms of appealing to the teen market by presenting him as youthful and charming, but as it happens, Alexander the Great was also blond, and his portraiture showed him with tousled hair and curls breaking over his forehead.

We don’t need to believe that anyone in the Hammer make-up and wardrobe department was familiar with the ancient portraiture of Alexander the Great to draw a link between the two, because there had been a recent intermediary. Richard Burton’s title character in Alexander the Great (1956) also sports curly, tousled hair in a very similar strawberry-blond shade to the Baron Meinster’s.

The styling isn’t quite the same, of course, which is why I’m not sure I really want to commit to this one. But it’s just possible that the Baron Meinster’s curly fringe and tousled vampire-mode hair were designed as another way of evoking Alexander the Great: specifically as portrayed in the 1956 film.

I’d love to be able to close the loop at this point by saying that such a connection also feeds back into the Baron’s queer-coding, but there things definitely fall apart because Richard Burton’s Alexander is thoroughly straightwashed. But it doesn’t really matter. We have an image of the real Alexander on the signet ring right there in the film, and that’s enough for me.


Posted in art, classical receptions, films, greek history, horror, sexuality | Leave a Comment »

Fidelis et mortem: making sense of Dracula’s family motto

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on January 25, 2014

I must apologise for neglecting this blog somewhat recently. Most of my effort at the moment is going into my Commemorating Augustus project website, which is busier than ever now that we have reached Augustus’ bimillennial year. In between matters Augustan, though, I’ve recently been having a lot of fun revisiting Hammer’s Dracula (1958).

Since the discovery in 2011 of some lost scenes from this film and the release of a new Blu-Ray / DVD edition complete with those scenes lovingly restored, it has been enjoying quite a renaissance. Late last year, I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen as part of Manchester’s GrimmFest 2013, and soon afterwards I bought my own restored copy and got stuck into the DVD extras.

The one I enjoyed most was a half-hour documentary with Christopher Frayling, entitled ‘The Demon Lover’, in which he explains how Hammer introduced full-blown sexuality into the Dracula story for the first time, effectively making it a metaphor for a couple (Mina and Arthur) overcoming the threat of an adulterous relationship (between Mina and Dracula). I’m a big fan of Christopher Frayling, and I think this reading is absolutely spot on. But in the course of pursuing references to the adultery theme through the story, Frayling picked up on the family crest which is visible over the fireplace in Dracula’s castle:

Dracula fidelis et mortem fireplace

Between two sea-creatures and underneath a shield surmounted by a sailing boat, the motto reads ‘Fidelis et mortem’. In case we are any doubt about what it says, the same motto is also visible on the letter which Dracula leaves out for Harker when he arrives at the castle. Here, the ‘F’ on ‘fidelis’ is just out of shot, but there is enough to see that the motto is spelt the same way:

Dracula fidelis et mortem letter

In his documentary, Frayling makes a point of saying that ‘Fidelis et mortem’ means ‘Faithful and dead’. The same translation is also repeated (presumably on the basis of Frayling’s statement) by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby on the commentary track.

However, they are all wrong.

In fact, the motto is not even good Latin in the first place. That’s no great surprise. Film and TV productions are full of mangled Latin – indeed I’ve written about a similar case in Doctor Who before. But it’s when people start offering up incorrect translations of the mangled Latin, which then in turn get treated as though they are authoritative, that the Classicist in me feels the need to step in and call a halt.

So what do we have here? First, the motto as it stands: ‘Fidelis et mortem’. ‘Fidelis’ does indeed mean ‘faithful’ (an adjective), as Frayling says. But ‘mortem’ is not an adjective – it is a noun, and thus means ‘death’ (not ‘dead’). At best, then, we have ‘Faithful and death’, which is already a bit meaningless.

But ‘mortem’ also has an accusative ending. This should normally mean it is the object of a verb, but there is no verb within this motto, or any very obvious absent verb which we can understand. The wrongness of this can’t really be conveyed very easily in English, since we use word order rather than word endings to show how the parts of a sentence relate to one another. But the best way of getting it across would be to translate the motto as something like ‘And death faithful’. That’s about how much sense the Latin makes.

So someone’s Latin was a bit shaky – probably production designer Bernard Robinson‘s. It’s likely that what he was actually aiming at was something more like ‘Fidelis ad mortem’, which is perfectly good Latin, and means ‘Faithful unto death’. This is the motto of (amongst many others) the NYC Police Department.

But to my mind, that still doesn’t suit the Dracula story, or its main character, very well. After all, Dracula is immortal and undead, so nothing needs to stop with death for him – not even fidelity. And in fact, part of the reason why Frayling mistranslates the motto in the first place is that this is the point he’s making about the Dracula character – that even in death, Dracula is attempting to pursue his own tragically-distorted form of fidelity.

The film begins after all with him in what might well be the vampire equivalent of settled domesticity – he has a(n unnamed) vampire bride, and possibly even wears a wedding ring (though it may just be a signet ring) on the little finger of his left hand. We might surmise that all is not well chez Dracula, since at the first available opportunity the vampire bride begs Jonathan Harker to help her escape, tells him how awful Dracula is, and then bites Harker, very obviously against Dracula’s wishes. But it’s reasonable to assume that at least at one time, Dracula liked having her around. Certainly once she has gone his entire motivation for the rest of the film is the attempt to replace her – first with Lucy, and then, when that is scotched by Van Helsing, with Mina.

So that’s why amending the motto to ‘Fidelis ad mortem’ doesn’t work for me. Dracula is not merely ‘faithful unto death’. In his own way he is ‘faithful and dead’, just as Frayling says. But that still isn’t what the Latin over his fireplace says.

Thinking this over, I came up with another solution. It’s obvious that there’s an error here, but what if it isn’t the substitution of an ‘et’ for an ‘ad’? What if instead we knock the final ‘m’ off ‘mortem’ to get ‘Fidelis et morte’? Once we’ve done that, it puts ‘morte’ in the ablative case, and this allows it to mean ‘in death’. Meanwhile, the Latin word ‘et’ is actually quite flexible. It doesn’t just have to mean ‘and’, but can equally cover ‘also’ or ‘even’. So we can translate ‘Fidelis et morte’ as either ‘Faithful also in death’ or ‘Faithful even in death’ (both are essentially the same).

That works for me as a Classicist, and I’m ready to guess it would work for Frayling as a film critic, too. Maybe it’s even what Bernard Robinson actually intended?

This is as far as I got with the motto under my own steam, anyway. But when I asked a few friends on Facebook about it, the brilliant Peter Olive (who is available for Latin tutoring) came up with an even better solution. Remember how I said that the ‘mortem’ in ‘Fidelis et mortem’ has no good reason for being in the accusative case, since this is normally used to mark out the object of a verb? Well, Peter pointed out that there is another rather specialist use of the accusative known as the accusative of respect (no, really!), which allows a word to be translated as meaning ‘with respect to’.

If we apply this to ‘Fidelis et mortem’, we can now translate it as ‘Faithful even with respect to death’. Suddenly, everything falls into place! It has the merit of preserving the motto as we actually see it on screen, which is something I’m definitely in favour of. Otherwise, we have to assume that Dracula isn’t very good at Latin, which is at odds with what we know about his historical counterpart. It also suits the character of the Hammer Dracula perfectly, preserving Frayling’s idea of the lonely immortal who is really just after a vampire bride to call his own – doggedly faithful to the pursuit even in death.

In the end, Frayling is still wrong to translate ‘Fidelis et mortem’ as ‘Faithful and dead’; and I also very much doubt that Bernard Robinson knew about the accusative of respect when he designed the props and sets for the film. But by applying the collective talents of a few Classicists, it’s turned out that we can smooth over the gap, and get the Latin as it appears on the screen to make sense grammatically, as well as to work in service of the story. Now that is satisfying indeed.

Posted in films, horror, latin | 23 Comments »

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