Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman is a biographical film about the career of the last prolific executioner in British history. His career ran from the 1930s to the 1950s. (The last execution in the United Kingdom was in 1964, though the definitive legal abolition of capital punishment wasn’t completed until 1998.) Though the movie makes it appear his time as an assistant executioner lasted less than one execution (he’s shown stepping in and taking over when the person he’s supposed to be assisting loses his nerve), in fact he was an assistant executioner for about the first half of his career.
As may be apparent already, I was more inspired by this movie than most to look up information to learn more about the subject of the film, and to see how accurately it stuck to the historical facts.
And on that score I get the impression it’s average to below average as movies go. Maybe not so much in getting major events wrong, as just in oversimplifying things for dramatic purposes. So whereas in the movie there are emotional confrontations and surprises that seriously alter the characters’ worldviews and such in simple and attention-grabbing ways, it appears Pierrepoint’s real life was marked by considerably more nuance, complexity, and uncertainty.
For example, the movie ends with a note that after he retired, Pierrepoint stated that he had changed his mind about capital punishment and decided it was not justified in that it served no purpose beyond revenge. Well, at best that’s a half-truth. He did indeed write that in an autobiography in the 1970s, but after that (and obviously before, when he executed hundreds of people), he made statements indicating otherwise. At best he was ambivalent about capital punishment late in life, but some who knew him wouldn’t even go that far and speculated he had been insincere in his autobiography, just going for whatever would be most attention-grabbing and sell the most books.
But anyway, just judging the movie as a movie, I’d say it’s fairly good.
One thing that’s interesting is that the executioner is not masked or otherwise hidden. And it’s the executioner who is responsible for leading the condemned the short distance from his cell to the gallows. (The method of execution is hanging.) As a result, there’s more of a personal feel to it. The executioner and the prisoner look each other in the eye, and interact as two individual human beings.
Perhaps in part because of this, Pierrepoint finds he needs to consciously detach from his role as an executioner. He says he simply ceases to be Pierrepoint once he enters the prison, and resumes being him once he leaves.
He takes the attitude that he’s just doing a job. He explicitly rejects the strategy of focusing on the condemned’s crimes in order to work up enough animosity toward him (or her) to be willing to kill. His attitude is that it’s other people’s role to decide who lives and who dies. He is there to perform executions as skillfully and efficiently as possible, avoiding or minimizing delays, struggles, suffering, or for that matter his own emotional involvement—anything that is extraneous to the process itself.
In keeping with his not working up a hatred of the people he executes, his philosophy is that once their punishment is complete, once they are dead, they are to be respected as having paid their debt. “He’s innocent now,” he says of one that he’s just hanged. He is meticulous about cleaning the corpse and seeing that it is treated in a dignified way. Two of the few times he snaps at people in the movie are when someone suggests that preparing the body for burial is a chore better left to a mortician, and when there is one too few coffins available and it is suggested a body be buried on a stretcher.
He does not take his work home with him. (He lives a working class life delivering groceries, until eventually he saves enough money to buy and operate small pub. Like NFL refereeing, executing people is a very part time thing, and executioners have to have “real jobs” as well.) For a long time he does not even tell his wife what he does when he occasionally leaves town overnight. Later he does, after she’s already figured it out.
But bit by bit his stoicism crumbles. There are a number of reasons for this.
One is the sheer volume of executions. Different sources claim different numbers, but whether it was 300, 400, 600 or whatever, he killed a lot of people, one by one, having looked into their faces knowing he was going to kill them. That takes a cumulative toll.
This especially starts to get to him when his pace of executions is accelerated dramatically following war crimes trials of Nazis. At first he and his wife are thrilled and flattered that Field Marshal Montgomery has requested him personally to be the executioner, but the rush job of killing dozens of condemned Nazis per day takes him out of his comfort zone, as he ponders whether the Nazi obsession with making mass murder more and more efficient is what his focus on the cold, detached efficiency of execution taken to its logical extreme would look like.
Another reason for his struggles is that as a result of his work after the war crimes trials, he becomes a public figure. At first he is lauded as a hero, but later he also has to deal with plenty of abuse and vitriol for being an executioner, as well as in at least one case the mother of a condemned man seeking him out and begging for her son’s life. But both the favorable and the unfavorable public reactions mean he can no longer be an executioner only those very infrequent and brief periods he spends at a prison. Now his full time identity is that of an executioner.
Plus, the way people react to him is a constant reminder how rare is his attitude that the people he executes are not to be hated, especially after they are dead and have paid their debt. Even those who laud him for what he does, do so with a glee based on their hatred and dehumanization of those he’s killed. He isn’t just being humble when he manifests discomfort at their praise; he’s alarmed that he’s somehow become an instrument of their rage when he’s always seen his role so differently.
One of the last blows to his emotional detachment comes when he must hang a friend of his from his pub for a crime of passion murder. (The movie depicts him as having no idea until he looks in the cell that his friend has been convicted of murder and is scheduled to be hanged by him, though I find that hard to believe and assume it’s just one of those things they figured makes for a more dramatic scene to do it that way.)
Unfortunately for him, when he finally breaks down and realizes that he can’t separate his two selves anymore, and that he desperately needs to talk about what’s going on inside him, he finds that his wife has not reached that point and insists they maintain the façade that his executioner job and his life with her remain as untouched by each other as different foods on a finicky little kid’s plate.
There are parts of the movie that are a little slow; there are parts that are a little overdone for effect. But all-in-all, it’s a psychologically interesting portrait, a solid movie.
It’s also worth mentioning that Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman is aided by the fact that the lead actor—Timothy Spall—has a great movie face. I don’t mean great in the sense of being unusually handsome, nor for that matter unusually freakish looking like a Marty Feldman, but just the kind of distinctive face and expressive eyes that is somehow fascinating to watch.