Gary Gilmore is most known not for the people he killed so much as for the way that he died. As killers go, Gilmore wasn’t even a serial killer by definition. He was responsible for two deaths, both in the commission of a crime. We remember Gilmore mostly because he fought to be executed at a time the United States Supreme Court had stricken down our nation’s death penalty laws in a landmark decision, Furman vs. Georgia. Most people think that decision declared capital punishment as cruel and unusual. What it actually did was declare the procedures for assigning the death penalty as “fundamentally unfair”. At the time Gilmore was apprehended, death penalty laws had been rewritten to comply with the Supreme Court’s concerns and capital punishment was already well on its way to returning to the American justice landscape. States were being cautious and moving slowly. No one wanted to be that first test case so, while the penalty was back on the books, no state was yet willing to wade into the murky waters of actual executions. Then along came Gary Gilmore, who decided he wanted to be executed. His legal maneuverings and successful bid to be executed tolled an ominous sound on death rows across the country. Executions were back in form, and everybody knew who to blame: Gary Gilmore.
Career criminal Gary Gilmore (Jones) has been released from prison. He attempts to integrate himself back into society through a relationship with Nicole Baker (Arquette). He’s unable to control his own rages and impulsive personality. He kills in two separate robberies and is eventually caught. He fights to be executed for his crimes and ends up before a firing squad in 1977.
Noted writer Norman Mailer found the Gilmore subject to be a compelling one. He wrote the book, The Executioner’s Song, and took away a Pulitzer for the effort. There’s little doubt that Mailer was trying to find a way to romanticize the story a bit and create an American mythos of sorts. Whatever his intentions, that’s the effort the television mini-series accomplished. Since Mailer also wrote the screenplay, it can’t be argued that the story strayed far from its roots or intentions. The film was originally released as a mini-series running over 2 nights for 2 hours each. The actual film time was 157 minutes. That was back in 1982, and while I do remember watching the show, I carried very little memory of the event with me to this day. If you’re expecting an extended or somewhat “unrated” version from this Director’s Cut, you are in for a disappointment. The DVD actually runs over 20 minutes shorter than the original version. What was cut I can’t begin to tell you. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
The film runs entirely too long. Almost the entire running time is devoted to Gilmore’s relationship with Nicole. Tommy Lee Jones certainly impresses with one of his earliest roles, but even his dead on performance can’t keep this film from dragging on. There’s also a rather good performance by Eli Wallach, who attempts to mentor and help Gilmore. The pace is agonizingly slow. If you’re looking for action, there isn’t much to be found. Remember that Gilmore only killed a couple of people, and it wasn’t anything more elaborate than shooting as part of a robbery. If you were hoping that the film would explore the legal entanglements the case created, again, you will be in for a letdown. None of the court proceedings are really covered, and the significance of the case for other death row inmates is covered only in a text postscript to the film. Instead, we’re treated to Gilmore’s half-hearted attempts to go straight, while we bear witness to his abusive behavior along the way. If Mailer wanted to elicit sympathy, he failed miserably. Years ago I read the book and found it quite a good read. Something was lost in translation.
The Executioner’s Song is presented in its original broadcast full frame format. This is a terrible transfer. The print used is loaded with scratches and other specks and flaws. Colors are incredibly soft. There is far too much grain, rendering black levels almost non-existent. There just isn’t anything good to say about this print. It is one of the worst transfers I’ve seen in many years.
The Dolby Digital Mono track exists to serve the dialog, and it barely accomplishes that. There’s a lot of harsh tones, particularly in louder or higher frequency moments. You can hear the dialog, but it sounds scratchy and not at all better than it likely was over a bad aerial in 1982.
These kinds of stories have always interested me. I taught high school criminal law, and Gary Gilmore holds a significant place in that curriculum. I wasn’t so much let down by the lack of a dynamic story. I was very disappointed that the legal aspects of the case were treated as a mere afterthought. The truth is that none of Gilmore’s life would have any dramatic purpose if not for his impact on capital punishment. Now, if someone wants to do a story on that, then I say “let’s do it”.