Of the thousands of GI's who deserted during WW2, only one, Eddie Slovik, paid the ultimate price. His story is one of sheer bad luck on an appalling scale. Having done time for a minor offence (it was Grand Theft Auto), Slovik is determined to put the past behind him and start afresh. He gets a job, finds a wife and settles down, happy in the knowledge that his prison record means he's a 4F when it comes to military service. But when the army changes the rules and he registers as 1A, he finds himself in a situation he's emotionally unable to cope with.
Eddie Slovik should never have been on the front line. He was terrified of guns and at boot camp they had to cheat to get him through the rifle range. Right from the start it was clear this was not the sort of man any soldier would want defending his rear, since he was incapable of doing it. Despite this, he was sent into Europe after the D-Day landings. Separated from his platoon he found a niche for himself as a forager for a Canadian unit and there, frankly, he should have stayed. When ordered back to his own unit, which was on the front line, he deserted, having made his situation plain. It's a downhill run from there.
The film uses actual letters written by Slovik and comments from people who knew him to fill out the background of this tragic story. Sheer bad timing, combined with a belief that no one would see the sentence through (since it had never been down before) contributes to the film's heartbreaking conclusion.
Martin Sheen's performance is stunning. He manages to capture the pathos, fear, confusion and final terrified resignation of the man in the face of the inevitable. Slovik is the victim of fate and circumstance; the little guy, totally unprepared for the world in which he finds himself, more than willing to apply those skills he does possess to the war effort, but incapable of fulfilling what the army demands of him. While you can appreciate the army's need to make a point, you are left with the unalterable conclusion that here they picked the wrong man.
This film left me feeling extremely angry, and it's a rare one that does that. It also made me want to find out more about the circumstances surrounding the events and I was pleasantly surprised to find the film, by and large, stuck to historical fact.