“Have yourself a merry little Christmas…” – the execution scene from “The Victors” (1963)

The Victors is a 1963 film depicting American GIs over the course of World War II.

Portrayals of World War II now tend to be reverent and serious, ever since Saving Private Ryan I guess – and I guess the fact that many of the “Greatest Generation” are dying off underlies this. Irreverent World War II films like Hannibal Brooks , Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen and Catch-22 were very much a product of the later sixties. Many of the stars such as Terry Savalas and Charles Bronson had seen combat service and I wonder if the generation that had actually fought frontline were now in a position to influence the movies that were made.

The Victors came before these films and suffered at the box office. Its most famous scene is a stark, dialogue-free few minutes accompanied by Frank Sinatra singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” This must be one of the first deliberately ironic uses of a piece of popular music on film (though I guess the bombast of some of the Citizen Kane soundtrack, for instance, is an ironic comment on its subject)

This scene was inspired by the execution of Eddie Slovik, the only GI executed for desertion in World War II – indeed the only US soldier executed for a “purely military” offence during the War. Slovik’s story inspired Kurt Vonnegut to write a new libretto for Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Life.

The Wikipedia page on Slovik contains this poignant detail of his wife’s efforts to clear his name;

Slovik was buried in Plot E of Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en-Tardenois, alongside 95 American soldiers executed for rape and/or murder. Their grave markers are hidden from view by shrubbery and bear sequential numbers instead of names, making it impossible to identify them individually without knowing the key. Antoinette Slovik petitioned the Army for her husband’s remains and his pension until her death in 1979.

Slovik’s case was taken up in 1981 by former Macomb County Commissioner Bernard V. Calka, a Polish-American World War II veteran, who continued to petition the Army to return Slovik’s remains to the United States. In 1987, he persuaded President Ronald Reagan to order their return.[13] In 1987, Calka raised $5,000 to pay for the exhumation of Slovik’s remains from Row 3, Grave 65 of Plot E and their transfer to Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery, where Slovik was reburied next to his wife.[13]

Antoinette Slovik and others petitioned seven US presidents (Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter) for a pardon, but none were granted.

Sinatra actually recorded this version specifically for The Victors. From Mark Steyn:

if I had to name the second best movie deployment of “Merry Little Christmas”, check out its ironic reprise in Carl Foreman’s film The Victors (1963), a big sprawling drama of George Hamilton, Peter Fonda, Albert Finney and co on the march through Europe, loving and leaving Melina Mercouri, Romy Schneider, Jeanne Moreau, Elke Sommer and other Eurototty en route. The most memorable moment is the execution of a deserter by a firing squad. Anyone who thinks Quentin Tarantino started this sort of thing with “Stuck In The Middle With You” should check out the scene where the guy’s comrades are driven through the snows to witness his dispatch to the accompaniment of Frank singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”. In Tarantino’s case, the movies just use the old pop records. But Sinatra chose to make his third recording of “Merry Little” for this macabre little scene. With Bill Miller on piano, he put down a vocal in July 1963, and two months later in Britain Wally Stott conducted along the orchestra to Frank’s voice track, and created (to my ears) a superior version to the Jenkins chart. If you’re wondering who that British conductor is, Wally Stott was a famous London arranger who became Angela Morley, moved to America and wound up doing the music for “Dallas”. Muddling through somehow, you might say. You can find my favorite Wally Stott story here, about halfway down the page.

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