Saturday Matinee 2016 08: Firing Squad (TV, Canadian, 1990)

firing_squad_extreme_unctionFiring Squad is one of those films that has many names. (We suspect that this is known in Hollywood as a Very Bad Sign). First, because it’s a Canadian TV show, it has to have a French version (Peloton d’execution) and an English one (called Execution at the time of production and in Canada). Then, it had to have a different name for US release, which makes it Firing Squad. It came, and went, and vanished nearly without a trace in the prehistoric days before the Event Horizon of the internet, and

The obscure movie takes some finding. We found it on a collection of 20-war-movies-for-$5, and might as well say up front that it seems a bargain at the effective price of 25¢, but value-for-money would probably not motivate one to spend the whole $5 on Firing Squad. 

Acting and Production

firing_squad_extreme_unction_2While some of the characters are coarse stereotypes, the actors are skilled Canadian journeymen and, where the script allows, bring the characters to life. Very effectively the condemned man is off the screen for the bulk of the production, building curiosity and suspense. The weakest performance is  Stepen Ouimette playing the protogonist, Captain John Adam, a man who is offered a chance to clean his blotted copybook by leading the firing party for an execution that no one wants. The next weakest is his chaplain, clearly the moral compass of the film, and in case you missed it, he listens to Bach and Beethoven, which the professional soldiers dismiss with, “What’s that racket? Turn it off!” The part is overwritten and despite an actor’s heroic effort to save it, winds up too precious by half. Conversely, the young man who played Danny Jones, the condemned man, played him very, very, well, and the “What’s that racket?” brigadier is a character who gives you no hints an actor is playing the part.

The production is a cheap one, but nothing feels missing. The story is told, in any case, in a series of outdoor set pieces and indoor close-ups.

As it’s a Canadian production, we were watching for American-bashing, and it shows up in this: the Canadians are prepared to let the accused man (deserter and accessory to a murder) go, but the Americans are going to execute one guy who was caught with him, and they expect the Canadians to whack their guy, too.

OK, we get it. Canadians are more moral than Americans. But if that’s the case, they have one hell of an ate-up military justice system.

Accuracy and Weapons

firing_squad_ready_aimThe movie’s end titles and credits play fast and loose with the suggestion that it’s a true story, but it isn’t. It’s an adaptation of a 1950s novel by a Canadian vet, who riffed off the one Canadian soldier shot for desertion, but changed the name, crime, circumstances, and character of the convict. The movie changed all these things again, moving away from the subtle morality play of the novel into a coarser version, and thereby moving still further from original facts. The units referenced in the production appear to be fictitious ones (we’re not up on Canadian regiments today, let alone the many more they had in WWII).

It is true that the death penalty was rare in Canadian Forces in WWII. It was more common in the US forces; despite the widespread belief thanks to a play and TV shows that the US only executed one soldier, Private Eddie Slovik, in fact Slovik was the only prisoner executed just for desertion; plenty of murderers and rapists stood before a firing party, regretting that decision.

Capital punishment was vastly more common in World War I, where British and Commonwealth units were shooting deserters and thieves wholesale, and the French had so many deserters and mutineers to deal with they merely tried to shoot a scientifically-selected representative sample pour encourager les autres. 

firing_squad_vehiclesWhile the show was shot on a TV budget, and on a Canadian TV budget to be specific, they did arm and equip the Canadian troops reasonably correctly, and they do use the sort of mixed bag of US, UK and Canadian vehicles that a Canadian unit in the winter of ’44-’45 might have had. There are some excellent scenes including fording a river. One of the most moving “gun” scenes is the whole process of the firing party drawing their weapons, which is filmed in thorough detail. One at a time, each man draws his rifle and a magazine, extends the mag towards his sergeant, and — thunk! — the sergeant pops in a single round. (Later, he will exchange one marksman’s live round for a blank). This rings of verisimilitude and builds tension as we approach Danny Jones’s date with the bullet end of all those cartridges.

"One for you..."

“One for you…”

"...and one for you...." Repeat, over and over, until you want the kid shot just to get it over with -- and so does he.

“…and one for you….” Repeat, over and over, until you want the kid shot just to get it over with — and so does he.

Historians will find plenty to quibble about, but not glaring things. They do depict a unit in France at a time when the Canadians were in the Low Countries trying to exploit Market-Garden, but that’s reasonable for a general audience, we suppose, to avoid exposition. Every Canadian knows Juno Beach — one hopes, anyway — but most of them get fuzzy on where their guys went after that. The original book put the action in the meatgrinder of Italy, and included combat scenes that are not included in the movie.

The bottom line

It’s a very predictable movie with a MESSAGE in all-caps, hammered into the audience at great length and repetitively. The subtlety in the original novel is lost in the small-screen adaptation. Strictly for Canadian war movie completists.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

We found it as part of a multiple-DVD package for $5 or $6 at a warehouse store.

Amazon has what appears to be the same collection, same cover art and everything, but if you read the fine print there’s one different film: sure enough, the equally dreadful Battle for Blood Island substitutes for Firing Squad.

http://www.amazon.com/War-Movie-Collection-Paul-Gross/dp/B0080QOL4M/

Several other vendors have this collection. We leave it as an exercise for the reader to find out if they have the Firing Squad or Blood Island version (or maybe Amazon has a typo). Actually, looking at Disc 4 in the player (the disc that has Firing Squad on it), it also has Battle of (not for, oops) Blood Island. 

https://www.google.com/search?&q=war+collection+echo+bridge&tbm=shop&spd=14582816086150839634

This film has never been released individually on DVD. If you must own it (maybe you were the gaffer or something) there is an occasional used VHS tape.

http://www.amazon.com/Firing-Squad/dp/B00YQPZFCS/

It says interesting things about the movie that the notoriously grasping CTV hasn’t found some way to reissue it. We also can’t find it on YouTube, suggesting that it’s more a matter of weak demand than constrained supply.

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102649/

  • IMFDB page (n/a: “There were no results matching the query.”)
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (n/a)
  • Wikipedia  page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Execution_(novel)#Firing_Squad

14 thoughts on “Saturday Matinee 2016 08: Firing Squad (TV, Canadian, 1990)

  1. BDFT

    I have not seen this movie but I know what you mean about the “Canadians good, US bad” message. Our movie industry is even more left wing than yours and most Canadians are sick of it. Most self respecting Canadians won’t even go see a Canadian movie because they are mostly terrible whiney morality plays. At this point I think I am expected to apologize but I won’t. Sorry.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Hey, Canada and Canadians are cool, even if the basic definition of Canadian sometimes seems to be “not American.” That’s OK. It’s a big continent and we know you guys have got all that land mass up there under control. Nothing more dependable than Canada.

      You could tell in that movie that the actors were really, really good. The kid going to the firing squad did one of the best jobs of acting “scared $#!+less” that I’ve ever seen.

    2. Steve from Downtown Canada

      The problem with Canadian films — particularly Canadian films of that era — is they alternate between Canada Good/America Bad or just simply Canada Bad (because we aren’t more like some third word “paradise”). This is even more pronounced in CBC productions of which I am assuming this one was.

      At any rate, I thought you were going to review John Wick! I’ve been waiting weeks to hear what you thought about it!

      1. Hognose Post author

        I need to check on that. I think I wrote half a review and then the new week was on me so I never finished it. It was fantastic (if totally unrealistic) fun.

        1. Steve from Downtown Canada

          About what I thought about it as well. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

  2. DaveP

    “At this point I think I am expected to apologize but I won’t. Sorry.”
    Ha! Well-played.

    For some reason (maybe the inverted stripes, maybe the mil justice theme?), this review called to mind “The Hill”, one of my favorites when in a dark mood.
    DaveP

  3. Jonathan Ferguson

    You wouldn’t have removed the magazine from the rifle; if the NCO needed to load one blank (which they actually did), he’d have taken the whole rifle in hand & loaded/reloaded one round with the mag in situ.

    1. Hognose Post author

      No, Jonathan, what you describe is exactly what he did when he took one rifle and changed the round. He had the squad about-turn, marched them off 10 or 15 paces, and with them standing with their backs to the firing line, he selected one Enfield and ejected the live round, pressing a blank into it.

      The soldier extending the mag and the NCO sticking a round in, is what was done at rifle issue (as seen in two pictures), then the soldier put the mag in, and marched with it like that. That may have just been Hollywood (Maplewood, in Canada?) In the US, the whole thing would have been complicated by the Garand’s en-bloc clip (I don’t think we’ve shot anybody since 1945, but I could be wrong about that). The US Military still has a death penalty on the books for murder but hasn’t exacted it in a long time.

  4. Cattus Borealis

    Hognose,

    Have you ever seen the old Kubrick Movie “Paths of Glory”? It has similar themes in it.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yeah, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, IIRC. A much better movie, actually.

      ETA so is the Hill, mentioned above by Dave P. They both have name stars, Kirk Douglas in Paths and Sean Connery in The Hill.

  5. Alan Ward

    First saw the hill in the middle of my cadet service. Made me think my CSM wasn’t such an a$$hole after all.

  6. John Stephens

    Minor quibble: PVT Slovik was the only American soldier executed by firing squad, the rest were hanged.

  7. Steve from Downtown Canada

    At the risk of bringing up a movie *everyone* has watched on “military justice”, one absolutely needs to watch Breaker Morant, more or less based on an actual incident during the Boer War.

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