Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman (2005)

“What have we done? We’ve just killed a man.”

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman is an excellent film that takes a fresh look at the subject of capital punishment through the eyes of Albert Pierrepoint, a British hangman. The film’s title is a bit of a misnomer. Pierrepoint (pronounced ‘peer point’) was not the last hangman in Britain. Hangings continued in Britain until 1964, 8 years after Pierrepoint’s retirement, and he was the last official Chief Hangman for the United Kingdom. But, Pierrepoint was the last executioner in his family, and here’s the extraordinary thing–apparently being a hangman was the family trade amongst the Pierrepoint males. Both Albert Pierrepoint’s father and uncle were also hangmen, so this family dominated the hangman profession in Britain for the first half of 20th century.

When the film begins, Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall) has applied to be a hangman (the film doesn’t mention that in his youth he’d assisted his uncle upon occasion), so when Albert gets the job, he knows exactly what he’s in for. The film depicts the first hanging, and here Albert is employed to be the assistant with another man as the lead hangman–the person who’s supposed to slip on the noose, etc. But the other man’s nerve crumbles. Not so Albert. With precision, he takes over the procedure. The hanging takes place, and the head executioner, obviously sickened by the experience chucks the job and hands Albert the money he received. In his mind, the money is no good, and he can’t get rid of it fast enough.

The film charts Albert’s career from 1932-1956. Although not a lucrative job (executing people is Albert’s side job), he certainly has steady work, and over the course of his career, Pierrepoint executes more than 600 people. Eventually, Albert and his wife save enough to buy their own pub, and the subject of Pierrepoint’s side job is never discussed between them.

Other people at the scenes of the hangings (guards, etc) discuss the crimes of the person about to be executed in order to persuade themselves that the condemned man (or woman) deserves to die. Albert, on the other hand, doesn’t want to discuss the prisoners’ crimes or whether or not they ‘deserve it.’ On the contrary, such matters simply don’t matter to him; he argues that the government wants these people dead, and he’s just doing his job. He makes no moral or emotional investment in his actions whatsoever, and states: “when I walk in that cell, I leave Albert Pierrepoint behind.” At the hangings, Pierrepoint must calculate the precise length of rope necessary for each condemned person. Emotionless, he conducts the executions with an emphasis on efficiency, and this includes conducting one execution with the record speed of 7 seconds.

Over the course of his career, Pierrepoint executes some controversial people–including a few men for treason (post WWII), Ruth Ellis (the last woman to be hung in Britain), Derek Bentley (who was in police custody when the murder took place) and Timothy John Evans who was found guilty of strangling his daughter. This latter case was reopened (somewhat too late for Bentley) when it was discovered that serial killer John Reginald Christie was responsible for the murders of Evans’s wife and daughter.

Pierrepoint’s sangfroid attitude to his work comes a cropper when he is sent to Germany to execute Nazis for war crimes. Of course, these people, while slaughtering and torturing countless victims, have only been following the orders of their government too. It’s unclear whether Pierrepoint makes the connection, but the film does stress the point that the sheer numbers of hangings Pierrepoint conducted in Germany did have an adverse affect on him. But the negative impact was partly from the result that Pierrepoint moved from having anonymity to public notoriety. At first worshipped as some sort of patriotic hero for hanging Nazis, Pierrepoint’s popularity sinks as the public outcry against execution grows. While ostensibly Pierrepoint resigns from his position as government executioner due to a dispute over lack of payment (a prisoner was reprieved), Pierrepoint later claimed that his participation in the hanging of an acquaintance led him to hanging up the noose and instead declaring himself opposed to capital punishment. The film doesn’t mention that Pierrepoint discussed selling his story to the newspapers, and this prompted the Home Office to consider prosecuting Pierrepoint for treason. Instead, the newspapers were pressured to not publish the story.

Pierrepoint is not an emotional film. Instead this is a presentation of a man who hangs hundreds of people with no emotion whatsoever. He begins the film believing that he is doing only his duty–after all this is what his government wants, and he happens to be the best there is. Pierrepoint seemed unperturbed by events he engaged in, and yet obviously, on some level, the stream of deaths, and pleas of the condemned eroded the barrier he’d constructed to protect his conscience. The film doesn’t mention that in childhood, as a treat, Pierrepoint was allowed to read his uncle’s accounts of executions. So as a child he accepted executions as the family trade, and then took up this trade while still a young man. Obviously he didn’t question the morality of his gruesome job because he grew up thinking this sort of job was normal. Pierrepoint offers a different, and interesting perspective on the topic of capital punishment.

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Filed under British, Political/social films

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