Televised executions are all the rage these days, but the long drops in Iraq brought to mind two made-for-television movies that I saw decades ago, but remain fairly vivid for their imagery and their unshaking lens. They were seen as anti-death penalty arguments on the small screen, but as I remember, both The Execution of Private Slovik and The Executioner’s Song were delivered straight up. And because we don’t televise our executions in America, they became stand-ins for what was then a raging discussion about the morality of capital punishment, as the death chamber came back into active use across the United States.
Of the two, Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the scared and confused Eddie Slovik, the first American shot for desertion since the Civil War, has the most staying power (this is possibly because Gary Gilmore, played well by Tommy Lee Jones, was convicted of one murder and suspected in several others). Slovik was clearly an innocent, whose death warrant was approved by Eisenhower to send a message to an Army facing a desperate and dangerous enemy in Europe – an American force whose desertion and AWOL rates were growing rapidly in 1944.
In the 1974 TV flick, Sheen portrays a very simple person, a 24-year-old draftee rifleman from Detroit, who decides he simply won’t fight anymore and would rather take the prison time. Thinking the court martial will go better for him if he simply admits his guilt and offers no defense, Slovik submits to the court – which (as the movie portrays) has no choice but to sentence him to death. When the brass punches Eddie’s ticket – to the evident surprise of the officers who sentenced him to die – the film moves to its most effecting and haunting sequence.
As filmed by veteran TV director Lamont Johnson (who co-wrote the screenplay with author William Bradford Huie), the execution segment is shown in real-time, without any melodrama. From a cell to the snow-covered back garden of the French house, Sheen moves slowly and looks with friendly eyes to his guards; he even greets the firing squad of hand-picked sharpshooter GIs. Ned Beatty plays the priest who sees Pvt. Slovak through his last hours, torn between the evident injustice and the fulsome carrying out of his duty as a military chaplain. A radio plays Bing Crosby singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas just before the execution. Blindfolded, the prisoner begins to recite the Hail Mary, over and over as the squad lines up and takes aim. The shots interrupt the prayer. When he’s shot, Sheen slumps and moans on the ground before dying. Then his body is covered and removed.
The partial documentary style removes any forced emotion; so the “actual” feelings of the men attending to the killing are that more starkly portrayed. Their horror is that much more evident. The end of minor criminal Gilmore’s life became a major national story in 1977, when convicted of murder, he opted for the firing squad and refused appeals for his life. Only three months after his conviction in the cold-blooded murder of a Utah gas station attendant, he was taken out to a prison storage room, strapped to a chair, and shot.
Sheen didn’t play Slovik as smart, and Jones doesn’t play Gilmore as particularly noble; that puts the execution itself at center stage – its method (considered brutal back in the more genteel 70s) and those who vehemently opposed it. Gilmore was the first man to be executed after the U. S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, and in those days, a state’s ritual killing was news. The impending execution was national news for weeks, and the Saturday Night Live cast famously sang “Let’s Kill Gary Gilmore For Christmas” to the tune of Winter Wonderland.
The TV film was aired five years after Gilmore was shot and Jones won an Emmy for his portrayal; it was based on Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which copped a Pulitzer. Unlike Slovik, who was simple and innocent, Gilmore was smart and guilty – not the first sociopath to stir the artist’s pen. He reportedly quoted Nietzsche to his brother at their final meeting: “time comes when a man should rise to meet the occasion.” Gilmore’s appointment with the Utah marksmen took on the noble quality of the monster in life facing death with dignity – we’ve seen this scene recently, I think, in some blurry cameraphone footage.