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“I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen … I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”– Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to Between Time and Timbuktu
DIRECTED BY: George Roy Hill
FEATURING: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Valerie Perrine
PLOT: Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the thick of WWII, comes unstuck in time and yet endures, partly through the philosophical guidance of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: While this movie is no weirder than it has to be, it is the most faithful movie adaptation of as novel from one of the strangest geniuses in American literature, so it has that going for it. Standalone, it punches the same weight as the war movies we honor here, while taking a novel that was seemingly impossible to film and making it look so natural you wonder that it wasn’t written as a script in the first place.
COMMENTS: At last, our quest for the ideal Kurt Vonnegut adaptation brings us to Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). This is the Papa Kurt movie that comes most highly recommended, with a promising directorial credit. George Roy Hill also directed the film adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), another difficult book-to-film challenge with another author of sophisticated black comedy, which he pulled off with somersaults. Hill’s resume is bursting with offbeat cleverness like Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the weirdest musical about a roaring-20s flapper busting a human trafficking ring. Charged with putting Kurt Vonnegut’s most acclaimed novel to film , Hill made an effort which the author himself would go on to praise, miracles never cease! Now let us pause to quaff a shot of something that will make our breath smell of mustard gas and roses, and prepare to be thrilled. I will try to explain what it means to be unstuck in time: take a normal life as a deck of cards, then shuffle it. That’s all; there’s no time-traveling DeLorean here.
We open with Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) in an unexpectedly graceful setup: he’s typing a letter explaining how he is unstuck in time, jumping back and forth in his life, with no control over where or when… Then we segue into the war. Billy served as a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army during WWII; he revisits this part of his life at random. He also shifts to the planet Tralfamadore, where he is held by aliens as an intergalactic exhibit with a mate, Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine), who was chosen for him by his alien hosts—who are quite pushy about having them breed. She’s sweetly understanding of his “time tripping,” as she calls it, but tries to pin him down in her moment. There’s also the reality of Billy’s earthbound post-war life, as a domesticated optometrist with a wife and two kids in the blandly pleasant suburbs. But back in the war, Billy is captured during the Battle of the Bulge and marched off as a POW along with his psychopathic comrade Paul (Ron Leibman) and the paternally kind Edgar (Eugene Roche). They will be imprisoned in Dresden, Germany, in the title slaughterhouse, and eventually witness the firebombing of Dresden. The war is the chief focus of the story, the central wampeter around which all the other parts of Billy’s life spins.
Because Billy lives his life on chronological shuffle, he is always off-balance, reacting to the scene he just flashed back from in the present moment. Somebody is always screaming in Billy’s face about something very important to them, while Billy half-listens and waits to jump to a more pleasant moment with a puppy licking his face. If he tries to avert anything, such as a disaster which he knows will happen, nobody believes him anyway. He is also in a veteran’s hospital for PTSD, where he is reassured that the war is over. But the war is never over for Billy, since he finds himself tumbled about to random moments throughout his life. We are left to draw our own conclusions. The story might all be the delusions of a shell-shocked veteran, or it might be reality verbatim, but either way we ride along in his head to see it all from his point of view. At the same time, there is no real plot to speak of, just experiences; yet we can see outcomes before the setups and still get a payoff. True to the novel, we also don’t have much of a character in Billy. He has the personality of tofu, but actor Sacks manages to imbue him with enough meek humor to make him watchable. Billy is also graced with a fatalistic lack of agency, because he sees his whole life and knows that he won’t die in the war, but that he will nonetheless die someday. So it goes.
This is an achingly beautiful movie, with a soundtrack full of wistful, lonely piano solos (supplied by Glenn Gould) over scenes of hapless blighters trudging through snowy hillsides, punctuated by gauzy fantasies of life with a porn star in an alien geodesic terrarium. It is also a lesson in using film to tell a story, with the out-of-order scenes revealing whatever detail falls lyrically into place next. After you settle into the film’s rhythm, it makes its own kind of cockeyed sense. You don’t need to even know who Vonnegut was to enjoy the film, and yet both film and book are equal gems of timeless fiction, using the relative strengths of their native narrative devices to evoke the same feeling. Of course it’s not a completely faithful adaptation of the book, but every single decision on what to change makes sense and makes the movie better. For instance, Edgar and Paul’s roles are vastly embellished from the book, but each serves as a structural scaffold to carry other parts of the story. A lot of the novel was understandably cut from the script, replaced by condensed incidents with an economic use of symbolism, giving the film surprising depth. Slaughterhouse-Five is at least a peer to Catch-22 or Full Metal Jacket, capturing the madness of war as a microcosm for the general madness of people. Yet just like Billy, the movie doesn’t pound us on the head with a judgment. It is but one more moment in time, crystallized, while we choose what to focus on, and thus choose our attitude towards life.
Arrow Video restored Slaughterhouse-Five for a December 2019 Blu-ray release that includes a commentary track from critic Troy Howarth and a slew of interviews and mini-docs.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a wild, noisy, sometimes very funny film that eventually becomes as unstuck in its own exuberance as its hero, Billy Pilgrim, the Illium, N. Y., optometrist, is unstuck in time.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)