WHEN The Execution of Private Slovik aired 40 years ago last month, it became, according to some sources, the most-watched made-for-television movie in American history. It starred Martin Sheen, featured Gary Busey and Ned Beatty, and even brought us the screen debut of Sheen’s son Charlie. But casting does not explain why this grim, harrowing film had such broad appeal in 1974 — or why it’s largely forgotten now. Explaining that requires us to look at three historical moments: the one late in World War II that saw the execution of Eddie Slovik; the one when the film came out, as Americans were confronting their withdrawal from Vietnam; and the one we’re living in now, which has had its own wars, though sometimes you wouldn’t know it.
On January 31, 1945, Eddie Slovik became the only American soldier since the Civil War to be executed for desertion — the only one of the 40,000 American soldiers who deserted during World War II, the only one of the few thousand who were court-martialed for deserting, the only one of the 49 whose death sentences for deserting were approved. Slovik was, his widow said, “the unluckiest poor kid who ever lived.” He left school at 15 and spent much of the rest of his youth in prison for petty crime. But as the film, which was based on William Bradford Huie’s carefully researched book of the same name, shows, things started looking up for Slovik (played by the elder Sheen) when he was paroled in 1942. His criminal record made him 4-F — unfit, in the eyes of the government, to serve in the army, and that was fine with him. He got a job and fell in love with a bookkeeper, Antoinette, whom he courted as he seemed to do everything — in deep earnest. The movie has a scene of their long Polish wedding in Detroit (it’s here that Charlie Sheen appears, pocketing treats from the buffet table, then asleep in an auntie’s lap), and poignant moments from their newlywed life in World War II–era Detroit.
But on their first anniversary, the night he and Antoinette moved into a new home, Slovik received a draft notice. The war was dragging on, and many 4-Fs were reclassified as 1-As and trained to be replacement soldiers. As the drill instructor in Slovik’s stateside training says, “The Army needs warm bodies now, and even the bottom of the barrel looks good.” Not that Slovik is listening. Under his rain poncho he’s writing one of the 376 letters he sent Antoinette in the year he served before being court-martialed and put to death. Martin Sheen reads haltingly from them in voice-overs.
All I know mommy is that ever since I was born I’ve had hard luck. Then I lived 15 months with my darling wife and was so happy with her. Now they break up my happiness and try to kill us both and take everything we got. Why don’t they leave us alone. We didn’t do anything to anybody, did we?
Slovik wrote this in July 1944, when he was still training in Fort Meade, Maryland.
A month later, three days after he arrived in France, Slovik was on his way to the front line when shells started falling. Slovik and another soldier (played by Busey) lost contact with their fellows and stayed with a Canadian unit for six weeks before they were finally able to join their company. They were welcomed — men were often separated from their units in the chaos of war — but Slovik told the company commander that he was “too scared, too nervous” to serve in a rifle company. When his request to be assigned to the rear was refused, Slovik put down his rifle and left. The next day he turned himself in and submitted this candid confession:
[I Pvt Eddie D. Slovik #36896415 confess to the Desertion of the United States Army. At the time of my desertion we were in Albuff in France. I come to Albuff as a replacement. They were shilling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The flowing morning they were shilling us again. I was so scared nerves and trembling that at the time the other replacements moved out I couldn’t move. I stayed their in my fox hole till it was quite and I was able to move. I then walked in town. Not seeing any of our troops so I stayed over night at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me lose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out their again Id run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND ILL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT Their.
Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik
The defiant resolve of the note seems strange coming from a man “so scared,” but that resolve persisted — and it did not help Slovik’s case. The officer to whom Slovik submitted the note recommended he retract it, but Slovik refused, and at his court-martial he said nothing to explain or qualify the confession; in fact he said nothing at all. Slovik was not just unlucky but unwise, and as the movie makes clear, the Army had good reason to be severe in its treatment of him. Executing Slovik would show that shirking would not be tolerated, and, as the officer who presided at the court-martial put it, “Given a circumstances of a division locked in bloody battle and taking heavy casualties, I didn’t think I had the right to let him get away with it.” The other members of the court-martial felt the same. Slovik was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. Yet neither Slovik nor the members of the court-martial thought the sentence would actually be carried out. In every other case of the kind, the sentence had been reduced.
Slovik was being made an example of — shoot one to encourage the others, in Voltaire’s phrase — but the Army kept strangely quiet about it. Even Slovik’s wife did not know about the execution until Huie got in touch with her. As the movie has it in Antoinette’s voice-over during a scene of her and Slovik dancing on their last night together, “They told me he had died under dishonorable circumstances … but I didn’t know until eight years later that they killed him.” The book came out in 1954 to some acclaim, and the story drew interest from Hollywood, but the fact that the man who had signed the execution order for Slovik was now President Dwight D. Eisenhower may have given pause to prospective filmmakers. Frank Sinatra bought the rights and was determined to have the blacklisted Albert Maltz write the screenplay, but this provoked outrage and Sinatra backed down. His friendship with presidential candidate John Kennedy (and a tongue-lashing from Kennedy’s father, Joseph) also kept him from doing the project. The screenwriters Richard Levinson and William Link, best known for the Columbo series, finally got the rights in the early 1970s. NBC heavily promoted the premier with full-page newspaper advertisements that showed Slovik (Sheen) being strapped to the execution pole. “Millions served,” one ad stated,
Thousands deserted. And one — only one in over a century — paid the full price for desertion. Why Eddie Slovik, who finally had something going for him? That was 30 years ago, but no motion picture has dared to tell his story. Tonight one does. […] Prepare yourself to be moved and shaken. Maybe shattered.
Maybe shattered is right. The flashback to Detroit aside, this aptly titled film is unflinching in its focus on the execution as well as on the extensive preparations for it — preparations thought necessary because the Army was worried about whether it could do something it hadn’t done for 80 years. As Huie put it,
In 1945 could American youths, who had been taught that a man’s shortcomings might not be his own fault — could they be trusted to shoot the heart out of a fellow who was guilty, not of any crime of violence … not of murder or rape or treason … but only of a crime of refusal to undertake a hazardous duty?
So authorities went to great lengths to make sure things would proceed smoothly. They selected dependable “combative” marksmen, held a practice session, and gave them pep talks of a kind. “Nobody is asking you to like it,” the chaplain in the film (Ned Beatty) tells the marksmen, “but you’re going to do as you’re told. […] None of us made this decision, but we’re the men who are ordered to carry it out because a higher authority has accepted the moral responsibility.” The attending medical officer chooses a man Slovik’s size and taps on his chest. “It might help if you think of the heart as a circle,” he tells the marksmen. “It’s a semi-round organ and it’s found in the area of the lower third of the breast bone. In other words, here — not up here as some people think. But here. Right here.”
At the execution site, an odd-looking piece of equipment, a sort of cross-shaped stretcher, provokes a question from the chaplain. It’s a “collapse board,” he is told. “The man is a condemned coward, father. He may not be able to walk out here under his own steam.” Slovik walks to the execution pole without help. Depicting it being carried out and set behind the officer reading the orders to kill him, the film suggests that it was Slovik’s executioners who might have needed the collapse board. If Slovik was being literally shot to death, his executioners were being symbolically crucified.
Despite all their preparations, the 12 marksmen did not do their job. None hit Slovik’s heart. For a few excruciating minutes, as the film depicts, he lived on: he gasps, his hooded head bobs, the doctor attends him with his stethoscope. As the firing squad was reloading, Slovik died, a moment captured in the film when the rosary slips from his bound hands and falls into the snow. Levinson and Link noted that the audience got bigger as the film progressed, with the numbers peaking in this final excruciating execution scene.
Viewers tuned in because the film addressed a question that was at the forefront of the American consciousness in March 1974: what should we do with those who refused to fight in Vietnam? It was a question that applied not only to the young men who had deserted or who had evaded military service altogether. It also applied to the nation as a whole, as it left behind its allies in South Vietnam. The year before, the United States had officially ended its military involvement in an accord that President Nixon hailed as “peace with honor,” but many in South Vietnam felt betrayed, and a year after the film came out, when the last American helicopters left Saigon in April 1975, the country no longer existed. What right did America have to punish those citizens who had had the good sense to withdraw earlier, or to never go? The movie showed the terrible price that making an example of a man exacts, and not just from the man. Wanting to honor those who served in the latest war in its proud military history, but not wishing to damn those who refused to serve when that war turned out to be a doomed mistake, America found itself in a deep ethical quandary, in danger of needing its own collapse board.
It is hard to imagine a film like The Execution of Private Slovik being made today, much less it setting any ratings records. Huie’s question does remain an interesting one: in 2014, can American youths, taught more than ever that a man’s shortcomings might not be his own fault — can they be trusted to shoot the heart out of a fellow who was guilty of not wanting to kill or risk being killed? It’s an interesting question — but it’s not a question we really have to ask ourselves.
America still goes to war, of course. We fought in Iraq for twice as long as we did in World War II, and our engagement with Afghanistan has now become the longest war in our history — two years longer than Vietnam. But for a variety of reasons, we don’t feel the cost of war as deeply or widely as we used to. Advances in technology and changes in tactics have meant fewer casualties for our side. The military today also draws on a far smaller proportion of the population, and a narrower stratum of it, than it did during the Civil War or the two world wars or Korea or Vietnam. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, just one out of the 635 men and women in Congress had a child who might have seen combat; the proportions are similar for the privileged families of business, media, and academia. And our 21st-century wars have also been waged without asking civilian America to pay anything like an extra “war tax.” Further psychological insulation is provided by the fact that our soldiers are volunteers and professionals. They chose their path freely, we can tell ourselves. They get paid for their service and also receive our indiscriminate and unthinking gratitude. We call them all heroes and leave it at that.
It has been argued that the disconnection between the general population and the all-volunteer military helps explain American enthusiasm for seeking military solutions. We are militarily active because most of us don’t have to pay the price for our military activity. The disconnection may also explain why cowardice in the military is a topic too obscure and tender for nonmilitary Americans to contemplate. We are willing to have other people’s children put themselves in harm’s way, but we feel both ignorant and guilty about it, and that is enough to keep us from presuming to criticize, much less punish, a deserter. Reflecting on the alleged cowardice of a soldier like Slovik leads to disturbing questions: What would we do in his place? Why haven’t we joined the fight, or more actively supported those who do — or, alternatively, joined in the debate about whether fighting is the right thing? Why did we leave Iraq in such a mess, and is it as big as the mess we left in Vietnam? Bigger? Why did we invade in the first place? Did we really go to Afghanistan to get Bin Laden (who of course was killed independently of the war)? Why are we leaving there now? Is what has been called the cult of national security itself a symptom of cowardice? The prospect of executing a deserter is even more disturbing. Would you have hit Slovik’s heart?
The Execution of Private Slovik doesn’t answer these questions. But in asking them 40 years ago, it pushed Americans to ponder matters of duty — what a man owes his country, and what should be done if he refuses to honor his obligation — in a way that, as long as we don’t think too much about it, seems irrelevant today. No wonder the film has never been reissued on DVD, and what a shame.
National Archives, Military Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri.
Chris Walsh’s book Cowardice: A Brief History will be published in fall 2014 by Princeton University Press.