In March 1974, NBC ran a major campaign to promote “TV Event of the Year!” – a made-for-TV movie about World War II soldier Eddie Slovik, the only American shot for deserting since the Civil War. A large advertisement, which ran widely in the newspapers, showed a man in uniform standing with his head bowed as two soldiers tied him to a stake for execution, his plaintive expression somewhat reminiscent of a puppy in the rain. . The ad left viewers in no doubt how they must feel: “For the first time in his life,” his text read, “Eddie had a good home and a good wife. Suddenly, war, panic, court-martial and…The execution of Private Slovik.”
If that wasn’t enough to strike a chord, the promotion continued: “Millions Served. Thousands have deserted. And a– only one in more than a century – has paid the high price for his desertion. Why Eddie Slovik, who finally had something for him?
Why indeed? The answer is simple: whatever Slovik had going for him. He got what was his. No one was more sure than Slovik himself.
Directed by Lamont Johnson and starring Martin Sheen in the title role, The execution of Private Slovik is far more nuanced and powerful than that treacly newspaper ad; the film respects its audience too much to tell them how they feel. Its first 20 minutes don’t focus on Slovik, but on the ill-fated collection of infantry snatched from the front lines and tasked with the task of executing him. They did their duty by killing Germans in the heat of the moment. Now their country demands that they must kill a fellow American in cold blood. They don’t like it. Nor is army chaplain Father Stafford (emotionally played by Ned Beatty), who has been assigned to serve as Slovik’s spiritual adviser in his final hours, but who also makes a point of providing care. pastorals to the execution team.
When Stafford pushes the men to tell him what they think about the upcoming job, they are reluctant to speak. Finally, one opens up: “If you want to know the truth,” he says, “we all feel terrible about this,” adding that he tried to get out of the mission. “He’s a deserter,” says another man without conviction. “A lot of men are deserters,” observes a third. “None of them were shot.”
Eventually a truck arrives carrying a group of deputies with the convict himself, Edward Donald Slovik, 24, of Detroit, Michigan. He’s gentle and courteous to his captors, who clearly think he’s a nice guy. He is a nice guy. The following flashback, comprising most of the film, makes it very clear.
The flashback begins several years earlier, with Slovik being released on parole following a series of petty crimes. He goes in search of an honest job and finds not only a good job but a good wife, Antoinette (Mariclare Costello), who soon becomes his wife. Slovik cares about Antoinette and the life they are building together, and not much else; certainly not his country’s struggle to defeat the Axis powers.
The couple view Slovik’s criminal record as a shield against separation, as as a convicted felon he is automatically classified as 4-F and exempt from conscription. But when heavy losses on the battlefield lead to an urgent need for replacements, Slovik is reclassified as 1-A and drafted into the army. He considers this to be inexcusably unfair; after vain attempts to withdraw from his service, he decides that if he must stay, he can at least ensure his survival to return to Antoinette. He deserts, not out of a desire to escape, but out of an urgent desire to be caught, believing that prison is preferable to death in battle. He even writes an unconstrained confession declaring that he has deserted. He promises, in capital letters, that if he is sent to the front, he will desert again.
Slovik is court-martialed and found guilty, which he expects, but then he is sentenced to death, which is disturbing. He doesn’t believe he’ll be shot, but he thinks that when the military commutes his sentence, he could end up in military prison a year or two longer than he expected. After all, none of the other guys convicted of desertion were shot.
That’s true, but none of the other doomed guys ever tried to outwit the system so blatantly.
The execution of Private Slovik insists that the public sympathize with Slovik, but that doesn’t require him to view his fate as a miscarriage of justice. Slovik expected leniency from the military justice system, but leniency is an act of mercy, a masterful display of leniency by a powerful authority. Slovik didn’t see it that way. He mistook indulgence for weakness – and strength is never mistaken for weakness, even when the person confused is a good boy. And the men tasked with clearing up the confusion were – as the film makes clear – other nice guys who would have preferred to be somewhere else.