‘The army,’ to paraphrase mobster Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero aka Lefty Guns aka Lefty from Mulberry Street, “is some guy you don’t know, telling you to kill another guy you don’t know.”
Eddie Slovik, essayed in a superb Emmy-nominated role by Martin Sheen, holds the dubious honour of being the only man shot for cowardice by the US military during the entire 20th century. Slovik was also the first man, at the time, to be executed since the American Civil War. Uncle Sam needed to send out a message to other soldiers that refusing to fight would result in a bullet to the heart and shame for the family.
The Execution of Private Slovik is a 1974 television movie made by Universal Pictures that definitely taps into the mood of ill ease regarding the military at the tail end of the Vietnam era. American cinema was beginning to express itself with a host of titles and this neatly fits into that history even on the tiny scale of television. Lamont Johnson’s film, too, was made only a year after Sheen’s stunning turn as Kit Carruthers in Terrence Malick’s Badlands.
Sheen presents the viewer with a character utterly confused by the outside world and who naively thinks his honesty regarding an unwillingness to shoot his rifle will lead to a bit of time in a stockade and a return home. The concept of home, according to the US army shrink is actually prison. Slovik, a reform school raised petty crook, is portrayed as a kindly chap prone to rages and possessing a sort of anti-Forrest Gump spirit. This isn’t some sentimental whitewash of events. Slovik leaves reform school and works hard to get a job and live the quiet life. He marries an older woman and refers to her as ‘Mommy’.
Eddie Slovik’s story was picked up by William Bradford Huie and turned into a much praised non-fiction book in 1954. Frank Sinatra had the filming rights for years but could never get it off the ground. It is easy to see why some studios and producers would baulk at a project which criticises the US army for its callous treatment of a human being.
The film is told using a flashback structure after opening and closing segments running up to the execution with a highly moving finish. Bill Butler’s wintry photography is another major asset this production boasts with the prison cell sequence towards the end surely making a nod to Carl Th. Dreyer in its use of a stark interior.
Notions of ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ are invoked with the same bitter irony as Wilfred Owen’s First World War poem and serves as a reminder that institutions, no matter how romanticised these days, can crush an individual with bureaucracy and uncaring attitudes. Slovik was a sacrificial lamb and served as a reminder that you can be a nation’s property. Another cruel irony given how much the American Dream prizes individual freedom and expression.
The release of this long unavailable film is well worth checking out for Martin Sheen’s excellent performance in the lead. In scope, it is clearly a TV movie but that does not negate the power of any message imparted. The final moments are unbearably sad. Another irony is Slovik thought he was being executed because of past crimes as a small time felon. The upper echelons of the US brass didn’t give a hoot about his background. The ultimate decision came down to one man who coldly lets the sentence go ahead. No more, no less.
This re-release DVD contains no extra features or audio options.
UK Release Date: 23rd April