Political Film Society - Newsletter #281 - June 15, 2007

June 15, 2007


PierrepontPierrepoint, directed by Adrian Shergold, is a biopic of England’s most famous and most prolific executioner, Albert Pierrepoint (played by Timothy Spall). From 1933 to 1955, according to titles at the end of the film, he performed 608 hangings, some of which are portrayed on the screen. Hanging was a part-time occupation, as he and his spouse Annie (played by Juliet Stevenson) were grocers in 1933. Although he did not disclose why he was making trips to London from time to time, Annie inferred his occupation from the timing of executions that were printed in the newspapers. What made his so essential that Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery personally selected him to perform executions of Nazis convicted of war crimes in the British occupation zone after World War II was that he had perfected the most humane hangings in history. His method was to determine the length of the rope by the height and weight of the victims, such that death occurred within a matter of seconds by severing the place between the first and second vertebrae. Pointing out that the Americans allowed those hanged to languish as many as thirty minutes before death, Montgomery wanted to demonstrate the superiority of British justice by hiring Pierrepont for a two-week assignment in which as many as thirteen executions were performed daily.

Among those executed in Germany were the “Beast of Belsen,” who was responsible for unspeakable horrors at one of the most notorious concentration camps. Pierrepont, however, was not interested in the crimes of those executed; instead, he saw the procedure as a payment for a crime after which he considered those dead to be innocent. Nonetheless, the press got hold of his name as the executioner of the Belsen Nazis. When he returned to England, he was celebrated as a hero, and his spouse persuaded him to open a pub where his admirers would frequent. But in time the movement to abolish the death penalty branded him as a beast, heckling him as he passed by crowds in his taxi. Pierrepoint finally resigned in 1955 after two unpleasant executions. The first was of his best friend, Tish (played by Eddie Marsan), who strangled his onetime fiancée in a rage, after which he broke down crying upon arrival home. The second was of a beautiful woman, with many supporters outside the prison, who smiled as he was about to hood her. After the latter execution, Annie suggested that he resign, which he did. Pierrepoint is a most remarkable biopic, one that eloquent presents the case of abolition of the death penalty. Although the British version of the film is melodramatically entitled The Last Hangman, Britain finally abolished the death penalty in 1973 after its use for some 1,500 years. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Pierrepoint as best film raising consciousness about the superiority of nonviolence as well as best film on human rights. MH