Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Victors/The Execution of Pvt. Slovik

Movie poster courtesy of The Passionate Moveie Goer blog
War films follow an evolutionary path over time. Those made during the conflict will be propagandised in so far as to say "We fight for right!"  Films made later after a time of reflection will tend to be anti-war, as if to refute the patriotism and glory shown earlier.

"The Victors" (1963), is such a film. Although not the first to present war as barbaric and dehumanizing, it definitely goes for the jugular in its portrayal of wars brutality. The basic premise follows a squad from North Africa to Italy to England to Normandy and finally to Berlin. Gradually the war wears them down physically and mentally to where at the end they barely resemble the young, eager, and naive men they once were.
Eli Wallach plays the tough and war-weary sergeant. George Peppard, George Hamilton, James Mitchum, and Vince Edwards are the junior troops. 

One scene toward the end is noteworthy in contrasting the change in the men as they progress through the war. A very young Peter Fonda shows up as a replacement troop. When he arrives he is made to feel about as welcome as a skunk at garden party. Reason being is new guys have a low survival rate. The troops that have survived the combat thus far don't want to get to know the guy since he won't be around long. So to fill the void from lack of friendship, he adopts a stray puppy. His squad leader discovers the dog and tells him to get rid of it with the admonition not to become attached to things that you can't carry in haversack. From then on, Fonda keeps the dog hidden. The time comes for the platoon to move out and the puppy is discovered again. This time the Sergeant throws the puppy out of the tent and in no uncertain terms tells the new troop to get his stuff together and get on the truck. The truck pulls out and the puppy starts to follow. The newby is heartened by this, and starts yelling for it to catch up. Meanwhile, a couple of the grizzled troops make bet on who can shoot the small target. Well, the puppy is dispatched in short order and Fonda slumps against the canvas cover of the truck and quietly sobs.

Another scene worth a mention is when the platoon is detailed to be witnesses for the execution by firing squad of a soldier sentenced to die for desertion. This actually happened during WWII in the winter of 1944. The scene is given further pathos by the soundtrack of Frank Sinatra singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". I have heard this scene was cut from the original theatre version.

This incident would later be adapted for a made-for-TV movie called "The Execution of Private Slovik", with Martin Sheen in the title role. This film gets little airplay and I'd lay bet that few readers of this blog have seen it, but Sheen's performance is noteworthy.
There is one scene in particular that is memorable. Throughout the courtroom phase of the movie the impression is given that Slovik will get some brig time, a dishonorable discharge and go home. However, he was chosen to be executed as an example because the Army was experiencing a high rate of desertion at the time. This order came from the top - Eisenhower. When the sentence is read that he is to be executed by firing squad the camera lingers on Sloviks/Sheens face. His understated reaction to the sentence is a truly piece of brilliant acting and Sheen should have received an Oscar for this scene alone.

A discussion of anti-war films would not be complete without mentioning "All Quiet on the Western Front". Similar in plot to "The Victors" in that we see young men eager to go to war, however, as the war grinds on so does their enthusiasm for it.  "All Quiet" is significant due to the period it was made. Memories were still fresh from the carnage of World War I, but we were rushing headlong into the second installment. "All Quiet" was remade in the '70s as a TV film starring Richard (The Waltons) Thomas in the lead role. This version is, in my opinion, superior to the original probably due to modern production techniques. It's message was still quite clear: war is insanity. 

"The Victors" and "The Execution of Private Slovik" are not available on DVD at this time. Both versions of "All Quiet" are available and affordable.