Firing 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
While 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
The 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.
While 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- IMFDB page (n/a: “There were no results matching the query.”)
- Rotten Tomatoes review page (n/a)
- Wikipedia page:
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.