A grim footnote to the epic saga of World War II, the fate of Private Edward Donald “Eddie” Slovik speaks to the deepest questions about the relationship between morality and war. The only American soldier executed for desertion during World War II, and the first such U.S. casualty since the Civil War, Slovik was among thousands of soldiers who rebelled against fulfilling their military obligations while serving in Europe (as Slovik did) or the Pacific. The unique resolution of his case, however, has profound significance. If the purpose of a nation going to war is to protect its citizens, doesn’t killing one of those citizens betray the nation’s common purpose? Yet if soldiers are allowed to flee combat with impunity, how can the armed forces maintain discipline and morale, much less battlefield momentum? And even if generals and government officials seek to reconcile these questions by employing non-lethal forms of punishment for desertion, does the lack of an ultimate deterrent weaken the force of law? Once the complexities of individual personalities are thrown into the mix, the whole question of how to handle such situations becomes an ethical quagmire.
To its great credit, the acclaimed telefim The Execution of Private Slovik does nothing to simplify these issues. Based upon William Bradford Huie’s book and adapted by writer/producers Richard Levinson and William Link together with cowriter/director Lamont Johnson, The Execution of Private Slovik is slightly more than a straightforward docudrama re-creation of historical events. Starring Martin Sheen at his most soulful, the picture opens with preparations for Slovik’s execution, then flashes back to sketch his life story and early military career before depicting the private’s final hours in meticulous detail. The picture employs a heavy narration track, with some of the voiceover stemming from Slovik’s letters and the rest of the voiceover emerging from supporting characters, each of whom offers a different perspective on the protagonist.
Eventually, a portrait emerges of an unfortunate young man who spent his youth in and out of trouble, got his life together and settled down with an understanding young woman, and is thunderstruck by a draft notice that he’d been promised would never arrive because of his criminal record. From his earliest days of basic training to his final verbal exchanges with superior officers, Slovik self-identifies as a nervous individual who can’t deal with the stress of combat, but the Army denies his myriad requests to serve in a support function. Slovik eventually forces the Army’s hand by deserting, thereby triggering his arrest and court-martial process. Although viewers know that clouds of doom hang over the entire story, Slovik and the other onscreen characters never believe an actual execution will take place until the very moment it does. In that sense, the movie is about both Slovik and the U.S. military paying terrible costs for commitment to ideals.
Sheen, who received an Emmy nomination for his work, hits myriad tonalities, from childlike obliviousness to deer-in-the-headlights terror, while Ned Beatty serves as the film’s de facto conscience by playing the military chaplain assigned to comfort both Slovik and the members of the firing squad tasked with killing Slovik. Both actors deliver work that suits the compassion, intelligence, and seriousness of the entire project.
The Execution of Private Slovik: GROOVY