Prison Pairs #4: The Hill and Pierrepoint

THE HILL (1965)

We’re stretching it a bit here, as this one takes place in a military prison in the Libyan Desert, but as this is one of the best British films of its kind – of any kind – ever made, we figure why not. Directed by the great Sidney Lumet (an American, of course, like Joseph Losey). Simply put, The Hill is one of the most searing, outraged and compelling depictions of the abuse of authority in a prison setting ever committed to film. Sean Connery, in his absolute prime, stars as Joe Roberts, who has been banged up for assaulting his former commanding officer. The camp he finds himself in is run by a combination of vicious sadists (take a bow Ian Hendry, who also appears in our favourite British gangster film, Get Carter) and other officers too weak or disinterested to confront them. The reign of terror holds firm until Roberts arrives and shows the other prisoners what resistance looks like through a one-man disobedience campaign that sees him ruthlessly bullied and brutalized. A sharp, dark, savage classic.


Albert Pierrepoint was something of a hero to our dad, who we can recall (this would be early in our childhoods) rolling around the house saying things like ‘Give him to Pierrepoint!’, or ‘Wait till Pierrepoint gets hold of him!’ during high-profile murder trials. So on the one hand there’s that…and on the other this dark and thought-provoking little film.

First, the facts: Albert Pierrepoint was, by the time he retired in 1956 having followed his father into the job, one of the most prolific and longest-serving hangmen in British history (sending off to meet their makers upwards of 600 killers according to some estimates, including 200 or so Nazi war criminals). So there’s a lot involved here in this man’s life story, and Adrian Shergold’s film is a fascinating attempt to render the truth of it – of what the man did and what it meant to him.

The film depicts Pierrepoint’s extraordinary occupation as work of considerable skill and, to an extent, spiritually charged (as the man himself described it on more than one occasion). Yet it also illustrates the contrast between the pathos and fragility of the killers’ final moments and the professionalism of a man who took life away from them; this is a detailed, atmospheric, grim prison tale of death by order, in which Pierrepoint (played here with his customary intensity by Timothy Spall) is shown as moving from being a significant public figure to a broken-down shell of a man, full of doubt where once he’d been certain, as public opinion shifted away from capital punishment until it was abolished in 1965.

At least that’s how the story goes. In point of fact the abolition of the death penalty was driven through parliament against public opinion, which at the time favoured the retention of hanging to the tune of 85% according to some estimates, and was still at 75% in 1983.

So there we are: Pierrepoints’ successors were put out of work by a vote in the House of Commons that went 200 to 98 in favour of abolition (or, to be technically accurate, a 5 year ‘suspension’ that never ended), despite calls for a referendum and overwhelming public opposition. Remind you of anything?




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