Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ready, Aim,. . . Laugh?

A death by firing squad is a barbaric act dressed up with good manners and fine ceremony.  It is fake civility to gently ask a man if he wants to wear a blindfold while a line of rifles is being aimed in his direction.  And what is the point of having a drummer perform a drum roll?  The incongruity of these elements has long made the firing squad a source of both comedy and drama.  Movies allow us to emotionally process the unpleasantries of the world.  We can laugh about these things or we can cry.  But it would be difficult for me to laugh at a funny firing squad scene immediately after seeing a tragic firing squad scene.  For me, this stretches irreverence too far.


Hands Up! (1926) 

Not so funny

 Paths of Glory (1957)

This is the complete scene from Hands Up.

 Of course, nothing is more grim than a firing squad in real life.


Test yourself.  See how you feel after alternately watching comic and dramatic takes on the firing squad scene.

Breaker Morant (1980)

 Blackadder ("Corporal Punishment," 1989)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Monty Python's Flying Circus ("The Cycling Tour," 1972)

The Execution of Private Slovick (1974)

The In-Laws (1979)

Hell on Wheels ("Viva La Mexico," 2012)  

We are so accustomed to the lengthy firing squad ceremony that this abrupt execution is shocking. 

Mooching Through Georgia (1939)

John Huston managed to include a touch of black humor in this firing squad scene from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Hollywood has provided firing squad parodies since its early days.  This scene from the Keystone comedy Cohen Saves the Flag (1913) is the earliest example that I could find.

It is not surprising that Keystone, which specialized in mock melodramas, would turn to this type of material.  At the time, film melodramas that featured firing squad scenes were released to theaters on a weekly basis.
Unfortunately, Cohen Saves the Flag offers little more than Ford Sterling mugging for the camera.  A more clever scene, which was devised by Marshall Neilan, appeared in The Deadly Battle at Hicksville (1914).  Rotund John E. Brennan refuses to stand in place for a firing squad and manages to miraculously dodge bullets.  Two soldiers hold him still as the next volley of bullets is fired, but the soldiers are shot and Brennan remains unscathed.  An attempt is made to execute Brennan by firing a cannon at him, but Brennan catches the cannon ball in his bare hands.

Other comedy films that included firing squad scenes are The Battle of Ambrose and Walrus (1915), Mr. Jack Ducks the Alimony (1916), In the Ranks (1916), The Crackerjack (1925), The Kid from Spain (1932), Uncivil War Birds (1946), and A Southern Yankee (1948).  Woody Allen presented firing squad scenes in three films - Casino Royale (1967), Bananas (1971) and Love and Death (1975).


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