Firing Squad (Film)


Execution was written in 1958 by PPCLI veteran Colin McDougall (1917–1984). The book, McDougall's only published novel, won the 1958 Governor General's Award for English language fiction.

Based in part on McDougall's experience as an officer with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in the Italian Campaign, the novel follows the fictional Canadian 2nd Rifles through Sicily and into Italy and the Battle of the Hitler Line.

Execution focuses on several characters, including Brigadier Ian Kildare who wears a balmoral and has a piper accompany him into battle; he is an old military romantic, and gives orders for his men to shoot Italian deserters. The main character - presumably a stand-in for McDougall - is an infantry subaltern named John Adam, and he and his men reluctantly kill two Italian deserters.

According to a review at

"The brutal execution of the two Italians forces the Canadians to confront the ethics of warfare, now that "the enemy" is no longer a distant and faceless target. Major Bunny Bazin, the most battle-hardened and philosophical of the Canadians, voices the novel's central theme when he states that "execution is... the ultimate degradation of man." Here the term "execution" works both literally (the killing of the Italians as a brutal act) and as a metaphor (war as a form of mass execution)."

Adam and his platoon are granted an opportunity for redemption when Rifleman Jones, a mentally slow soldier apparently inspired by real life soldier Harold Pringle, receives a death sentence for his part in the murder of an American soldier, after Jones absented himself from the unit and joined a gang of deserters in Italy.

The execution of Jones is to be done for political reasons, and there is no direct evidence tying Jones to the murder, and Adam is placed in charge of the execution squad.

Interpretation of the Novel

The novel espouses McDougall's thesis that although the Canadians inhabit a brutal and unforgiving world, they are not intrinsically immoral. War makes men act brutally and inhumanely, but at their root is an essential goodness that even war cannot subsume completely. As Warren Cariou shows in his afterword to the New Canadian Library edition of Execution, the novel is not a realist novel, but an existential meditation on the ethics of war. Like Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny or Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, both of which were key models for McDougall, Execution is a novel that combines visceral depictions of combat with philosophical questions about the blurred boundaries between good and evil.

Other important themes include the abuse of military power, especially in one scene involving Allied generals planning an attack against the Germans that is bound to fail, and the isolation and alienation of front-line soldiers from mainstream society.

The second execution scene establishes Jonesy as a Christ-like figure, and his death is a symbolic atonement for the Canadians' "sin" of murdering the two Italians. Jonesy's execution is based in part on the real-life execution of Private Harold Joseph Pringle of The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, who was the only Canadian soldier executed for desertion in the Second World War. His story is told in Andrew Clark's book, A Keen Soldier (2002).

Television Play

Epidose 87 of "Four Star Playhouse" featured a story called The Firing Squad and was televised originally on 6 October 1955 (Episode 1 of Season 4).

The play was directed by Robert Florey, and writing credits went to Frederick Brady (for adaptation) and Colin McDougall (for story).

Episode Credited cast:

  • Hugh Beaumont .... Padre

  • John Dehner .... General Hatfield

  • David Niven .... Captain Adams

  • Michael Pate .... Sergeant Gibbons

  • Tom Powers

  • Jon Shepodd .... Private Jones

  • John Warburton

Film Version

A made for television movie was made using the novel for inspiration, also entitled Execution. The film differed from the book significantly, taking place in France in the winter of 1944 (oddly enough, during the timeframe depicted, the Canadians in Northwest Europe were concentrated in the Nijmegen Salient in The Netherlands). A fictional unit, the Alberta Fusiliers, is depicted, as part of a fictional formation - presumably a "Sixth Division" wearing black formation patches.

Like the book, the film seems inspired by the real life story of Private Pringle, yet focuses not on the alleged criminal but on the other men of his unit. Unlike the book, there are no combat scenes, as the action takes place during the winter stalemate, and in fact given the French location, lack of front line positions, and other evidence given in dialogue, the soldiers in the film are located well behind the front line.

The main characters include a Canadian Provost Corps officer sent by higher headquarters to oversee the execution, the infantry officer who had lost his nerve in the fighting in Normandy and wanted to gain redemption by carrying out the execution, and the men of the firing squad including a stereotypical French-Canadian sergeant and an equally stereotyped halfwit with the comically unlikely name of "Smedley".

The movie was a typical low-budget Canadian affair, with a small dirt road in back-woods Ontario masquerading as Maple Leaf Route, and little sense of scale in terms of equipment, locations, or number of characters on screen.

Private Jones is not introduced until the last quarter of the film, and is portrayed as mentally fit.

The Internet Movie Database has the following information:

Peloton d'exécution, Le (1991) (TV) Directed by Michel Andrieu

Writing credits:

  • Jeremy Hole

  • Colin McDougall (novel)

Cast overview, first billed only:

  • Cedric Smith .... Lieutenant Colonel Harfield

  • Malcolm Stewart .... Major Tom McGuire

  • Stephen Ouimette .... Captain John Adam

  • Robin Renucci .... Captain Philippe Dumont

  • Albert Schultz .... Captain Aubrey Bruxton

  • David Gow .... Lieutenant Wilson

  • Philippe Dormoy .... Sergeant Konzuk

  • David Hemblen .... Sergeant Mortlake

  • Hume Baugh .... Corporal Rameau

  • Brent Stait .... Corporal Bloggs

  • Duncan Ollerenshaw .... Daniel Jones

  • Charley Boorman .... Sammy Macartney

  • Simon de La Brosse .... Denis Fremont

  • Roch Leibovici .... Claude Martinon

  • Justin Louis .... Greg Blair

Review from Internet Movie Database

"Firing Squad" is based on Colin McDougall's novel THE EXECUTION. The plot line and the characters' names are basically the same as McDougall's story with some minor alterations like Sydney Jones becomes Daniel Jones and Brigadier Hatfield becomes Lt. General HAR-field. The story centres around Captain John Adam who is pressured by his military superiors to be the leader of the firing squad who will execute Private Jones, the first Canadian sentenced to death in WWII. If Adam accepts, his dishonourable service record will be erased and he'll be a hero; if Adam refuses, he will be further dishonoured and likely be the SECOND Canadian sentenced to death. Although the moral struggle suffered by Captain Adam is more impelling in the McDougall story, the film does offer the same satisfactory conclusion. Both the novel and film illustrate the irony of war and capital punishment. The subject matter draws the viewer in and they are kept in by the stellar Canadian cast which include familiar faces such as Albert Schultz, David Hemblen and Cedric Smith who is effectively villainous in the role of General Harfield. Overall, this film is worthwhile period piece.


  • Warren Cariou. "Afterword."

  • Execution by Colin McDougall. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart (New Canadian Library), 2005. ISBN 0771054343.

  • Andrew Clark. A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle. Toronto: Vintage, 2002.

  • Colin McDougall. Execution. (1958). Toronto: McClelland and Stewart (New Canadian Library), 2005. ISBN 0771054343.

  • Colin McDougall. Papers and Manuscripts. Rare Books and Special Collections Division, McGill University Libraries.

  • W.H. New, ed. The Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002.

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