The Execution Of Private Slovik

The Execution Of Private Slovik


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In 1945, US private Eddie Slovik, 24, was bound to a stake in a snowy yard and fired upon by his fellow soldiers until he was dead. He had been convicted, along with 21,000 other soldiers, of desertion. He was the only one to be executed. Despite an initial attempt by Frank Sinatra in 1960, it wasn't until 1974 that his story was told on film, and not until now that it has become available on DVD for international audiences.

Telling a story like Slovik's is always a challenge. Drawing on Huie's excellent book, Johnson strives hard for balance. We learn about the young soldier's difficult background - his petty crimes, his time in prison - and he is never portrayed as a saint. Even his marriage is shown to have its problems, though it is clearly also a source of joy that has the power to change his life for the better. Martin Sheen is superb in the central role, delivering a carefully judged, downbeat performance that emphasises Slovik's ordinariness. There are echoes of Camus; is this, in the end, about the consequences of a man's choice or about a sort of accident?

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As befits a man talked about after his death, Slovik is mostly seen through the eyes of others, with simple illustrated testimonies from those who knew and worked with him. This segmentation of the story helps to balance the lengthy film and provide perspectives that cross class barriers, important to exploring the social issues that contributed to Slovik being used as an example to others. It's not an anti-military film; throughout, people try to help Slovik and persuade him to change his mind, to go back to the front, but his determination that he cannot and will not face that again leaves them unable to intervene. Individual human values thus give way to an inexorable process which comes to seem unstoppable. One is reminded of Zygmunt Bauman's depiction of the Holocaust as a product of the industrialisation of human affairs.

Notably, there is little in the way of psychological anaylysis here, and no focused attempt to depict shellshock. The cinematography is deliberately muted (at least up until the final scene) so that the film's outstanding quality is its plainness, its simplicity. Viewers are invited to make up their own minds or, perhaps, to share Slovik's own gradually dawning understanding of the reality of what is happening to him. Slow paced and thoughtful, it's a film that builds almost imperceptibly toward a devastating conclusion.

Reviewed on: 07 May 2012
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The story of the only US soldier executed for desertion since the country's civil war.
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Director: Lamont Johnson

Writer: Lamont Johnson, based on the book by William Bradford Huie.

Starring: Martin Sheen, Mariclare Costello, Ned Beatty, Gery Busey, Matt Clark, Ben Hammer, Warren J Kemmerling

Year: 1974

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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