‘Desertion at a time of war is a capital offence’

Finally getting a DVD release, the 1970s TV movie The Execution of Private Slovik could perhaps be a difficult sell. However it is certainly worthy of attention, even given that nearly four decades have passed since it was made. Released a year after Badlands (1973) this marks an early role for Martin Sheen, here playing the titular character in a film that was well received critically at the time (it was nominated for eight Emmy’s) but has been discussed little since.

‘I wasn’t particularly surprised by his attitude, I had heard too many like him say ‘I want my court martial’ and why shouldn’t they? No American soldier had been shot for desertion since the Civil War’

Eddie Slovik (Martin Sheen) faces that death by execution. The soldiers and chaplin are aware of the duties expected of them as well as the rituals, mechanics and expectations of the lethal procedure. Eddie Slovik was not expecting a life in the army. Indeed it seemed as though his life was finally taking a turn for the better as his wife, a job and a real future seemed to counterbalance two incarcerations in state penitentiaries for number of crimes he committed as a younger man, crimes which he was determined to leave behind him. But military service beckoned and he was not exempt from undertaking duties in the war in Europe. After training the actualities of war become all too clear and, following a sustained artillery attack, he and a colleague (Gary Busey) desert their duty. The penalty for desertion means that Private Slovik is to be executed by a firing squad. Returning to jail or becoming involved in other duties does not somehow seem to be an alternative option. To Private Slovik this seems that, ‘They’re shooting me for the bread and gum I used to steal when I was twelve years old.’ Nothing, it seems, can prevent the inevitable outcome.

Based upon a true story, Private Eddie Slovik was the first American soldier to be tried and executed for desertion since the Civil War. What helps set the film up is the way that Eddie’s background is depicted, with Martin Sheen portraying a protagonist desperately trying to escape his past as a convict, through honest work and his emerging relationship with Antoinette (Mariclare Costello). This helps us identify with him as a more rounded character and to understand his emotions and attitude. This is as much a social drama as a class, political and militarily story. Although very different, it recalls Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) in the way that it centres on military courts and social judgement in a manner that raises questions about their purpose, although the structure here is deliberately more confined to make more of the personal heartbreak. And it does approach the harsh realities of the story in a straightforward and direct manner. This is not graphic or overtly visceral visually but doesn’t flinch from the horror of the actualities of the events as they unfold. Uncompromising but not gratuitous, there are a number of disturbing elements within the film but these are necessary to discuss the subject and do not gloat.

Never short of watchable, The Execution of Private Slovik is not a classic lost drama, but is nevertheless a worthy release. Well structured and with good performances, it is informative and also raises questions without needing to resort to overt political declarations.