Capital punishment is very much alive and well in the movies. Here are ten infamous movie execution scenes from the vast archives of Hollywood history. Warning: These are not for the squeamish.
Hang 'Em High (1968) - A Swinging Time in the Old West
As befitting the movie's title, United Artists' Hang 'Em High features a mass execution on the gallows in 1889 Oklahoma/Indian Territory. Pat Hingle as Judge Adam Fenton – a.k.a. the "Hanging Judge" – orders the execution of six men. Amidst a lighthearted, carnival atmosphere, the condemned are marched up the gallows, hooded and, with a nod from the judge looking on from an upstairs window, sent packing into eternity feet first by Schmidt the Hangman (Bert Freed). When asked if he has a final request, one impatient prisoner (Paul Sorensen), fed up with a long-winded speech by the condemned Francis Elroy Duffy (Michael O'Sullivian), spits out his cigar and answers, " Yeah, tell him to shut up and let's get this over with." And of course rancher Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood) is nearly lynched by vigilantes in another scene, but survives the attack to become one of Judge Fenton's U.S. marshals.
Six condemned men on the gallows in Hang 'Em High (1968) - United Artists
The Green Mile (1999) - Delacroix's Wild Ride in the Chair
The Green Mile, the 1930s Stephen King prison flick starring Tom Hanks as guard Paul Edgecomb, features three execution scenes in the electric chair. The most gruesome one by far involves the hapless Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter), who literally fries in the chair after sadistic little runt Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) purposely fails to follow proper procedure. The botched execution is like something out of the supernatural, as the condemned cooks in the chair, emitting sparks and acrid smoke while the guards frantically try to up the voltage in order to hasten his death.
Eduard "Del" Delacroix literally fries in the electric chair in The Green Mile (1999) - Warner Bros.
Papillon (1973) - Execution in French Guiana
When it was first introduced in 1792, the guillotine was touted by its French backers as a more humane means of capital punishment. In the movie Papillon, prisoners Henri Charriere a.k.a. Papillon (Steve McQueen), Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) and other assembled guests are "treated" to a live demonstration of the guillotine at the infamous penal institution in French Guiana circa the 1930s. The struggling condemned man is brought out by the guards followed by a priest reading Scripture. His head is quickly placed in the wooden frame, the silent command is given with a nod and the razor-sharp blade comes barreling down, neatly separating the head from the torso.
The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) - Death by Firing Squad
In this NBC-TV movie Martin Sheen plays the real-life Private Eddie Slovik (1920-1945), who on January 31, 1945, was executed in France by the U.S. Army for desertion. Of the 49 American soldiers condemned to death for desertion during World War II, Slovik was the only one to actually be executed. The execution scene is harrowing, with the scared, befuddled Slovik, repeatedly muttering the Hail Mary and Our Father, strapped to a post, read his death sentence, black hooded and then shot by an Army firing squad. When the attending doctor pronounces that the moaning Slovik is still alive, a disgusted Catholic chaplain Father Stafford (Ned Beatty) calls out, "Give it another volley if you like it so much."
Martin Sheen and Ned Beatty, right, prepare for the firing squad in The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) - NBC-TV
The Great Escape (1963) - Shot While Trying to Escape
After busting out of "escape-proof" Luft Stalag III, British POWs Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), MacDonald (Gordon Jackson), Cavendish (Nigel Stock), Haynes (Lawrence Montaigne) and 46 others are eventually recaptured and driven to a remote field. Ordered out of the truck in order to "stretch their legs," the men then hear the click of a heavy machine gun, which is mounted in the back of another vehicle. The order is given by a German SS officer, with all 50 prisoners summarily executed. Oberst von Luger (Hannes Messemer), the commandant of Luft Stalag III, later has the unpleasant task of informing the ranking British officer that the men were shot while trying to escape. The execution scene is a bloodless one, brilliantly staged with only the echo of the machine gun reverberating off the surrounding mountains, signaling the POWs' inglorious end.
In Cold Blood (1967) - The Kansas Gallows
Truman Capote's haunting "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood features real-life convicted killers Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) awaiting their turn on the gallows. Hickock goes first, followed by Smith, who sums up his miserable life while a hard rain beats outside his death row cell. The executions were filmed at the Kansas State Penitentiary, with an actor playing the state's official hangman.
Robert Blake as Perry Smith awaits the hangman's noose in In Cold Blood (1967) - Columbia Pictures
Schindler's List (1993) - Dead Nazi Walking
SS Captain Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) – Nazi evil personified – acts as one of Hitler's "Final Solution" executioners in occupied Poland. Goeth's idea of "amusement" is grabbing a sniper's rifle and picking off concentration camp inmates from his balcony. The monster Goeth is later executed for war crimes during one post-war scene, with soldiers violently kicking away a stool as the noose tightens around his neck. In actuality, the real Amon Goeth, age 37, was hanged in Poland on September 13, 1946. The execution was botched twice – the rope wasn't long enough – with the third try finally accomplishing the grisly job.
Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List (1993) - Universal Pictures
Murder in Coweta County (1983) - Andy Griffith Gets the Chair
Based on a true story of the late 1940s, this CBS-TV movie features Andy Griffith as John Wallace, the most powerful man in Meriwether County, Georgia. When a tenant farmer named Wilson Turner (Robert Schenkkan) makes off with one of Wallace's prized dairy cows which he believes he was owed as compensation, Wallace and three of his cronies pursue the man into neighboring Coweta County, where Wallace savagely beats the man to death. Coweta County Sheriff Lamar Potts (Johnny Cash) takes up the case, eventually bringing Wallace to justice. The scene in which Andy Griffith's Wallace is executed in the electric chair is one of the most chilling sequences ever staged for television. Griffith, sporting a shaven head and a pseudo-Christian defiance right to the end, is strapped in the chair and fitted with a skull cap. Andy Griffith was a long way from Mayberry in this harrowing TV movie.
The Dirty Dozen (1967) - Lee Marvin Goes to a Hanging
Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) is invited to a hanging while stationed in England during World War II. U.S. Army MPs with a clergyman in tow escort the condemned soldier Private Arthur James Gardner (George Roubicek) to the gallows as he pleads that he didn't mean to kill the woman. The order is given and the trap door released, sending Pvt. Gardner into eternity. Later, Major General Sam Worden (Ernest Borgnine) asks Major Reisman how he liked the show. Reisman replies that it was a hell of a way to die, with General Worden commenting that more than a few souls he knows deserve the same fate.
The Passion of the Christ (2004) - The Crucifixion
Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ features one of the most brutal execution scenes ever filmed. The final hours of Jesus Christ (James Caviezel) are depicted in harrowing detail, including the actual nails being hammered into his wrists. There's perhaps no more gruesome a death than crucifixion as practiced by the Romans, with The Passion of the Christ horrifying many moviegoers. The production proved to be an especially difficult shoot for James Caviezel, who was accidentally whipped twice and struck by lightning during the Sermon on the Mount scene. The actor also suffered a separated shoulder when the 150-pound cross fell on him.
James Caviezel as Jesus Christ in The Passion of the Christ (2004) - Icon Productions
Ten More Memorable Movie Execution Scenes
- The Victors (1963). A U.S. Army soldier (James Chase) is executed for desertion – think Private Eddie Slovik – as Frank Sinatra sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in the background.
- Dead Man Walking (1995). Convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is executed in Louisiana by lethal injection.
- Billy Budd (1962). Billy Budd (Terence Stamp) is hanged for the murder of the sadistic John Claggart (Robert Ryan).
- The Chamber (1996). Convicted killer Sam Cayhall (Gene Hackman) is executed in Mississippi's gas chamber.
- Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005). Anti-Nazi resistance leader Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) goes to the guillotine in 1943.
- Cromwell (1970). England's Charles I (Alec Guinness) is publicly beheaded by a black masked executioner in 1649. "Behold, the head of a traitor!"
- Let Him Have It (1991). Convicted murderer Derek Bentley (Christopher Eccleston) is hanged at London's Wandsworth Prison in 1953.
- Paths of Glory (1957). Three French soldiers (Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel) are executed for cowardice by firing squad in World War I.
- The Hoodlum Priest (1961). Father Charles Dismas Clark (Don Murray) witnesses the execution of one of his young charges in the electric chair.
- Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman (2005). Britain's most prolific hangman Albert Pierrepoint (Timothy Spall) executes a reported 608 people from 1933 to 1955. Among his victims as depicted in the movie are Nazi war criminals Irma Grese and Josef Kramer a.k.a. the Beast of Belsen.
Three French soldiers prepare for execution by firing squad in Paths of Glory (1957) - United Artists
- Half sheet movie poster: Hang 'Em High (1968) - Heritage Auctions
Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.