Kurt Vonnegut’s quirky sci-fi novels didn’t always adapt well to film, but George Roy Hill’s 1972 effort is a faithful winner. The filmmaking craft used to ‘unstick’ Billy Pilgrim in time is nothing short of brilliant, highlighting the camera talent of Miroslav Ondricek and the editing skill of Dede Allen. The book even has a built-in sex angle that the film doesn’t shy away from — providing our first encounter with Valerie Perrine as a starlet kidnapped by aliens curious about human mating habits. The somber, sometimes spiritually-defeatist tone of the show represents the book well; it ought to be better known.
1972 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 104 min. / Street Date December 3, 2019 / Available from Arrow Academy
Starring: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Sharon Gans, Valerie Perrine, Holly Near, Perry King, Kevin Conway, Friedrich von Ledebur, Sorrell Booke, Roberts Blossom, John Dehner, Stan Gottlieb, Karl-Otto Alberty, Henry Bumstead, Lucille Benson.
Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek
Visual Effects: Albert Whitlock
Production Designer: Henry Bumstead
Film Editor: Dede Allen
Music played by: Glenn Gould
Written by Stephen Geller from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Produced by Paul Monash
Directed by George Roy Hill
Critic Kim Newman is quite right about George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse-Five: only a filmmaking team coming off a monster commercial hit, leveraging serious of clout, could get a studio to bankroll a screwy project from author Kurt Vonnegut Jr.. This sort-of sci-fi epic has no stars and a screenplay more convoluted than any European art picture by Alain Resnais. Vonnegut’s non-linear science fiction novel leaps constantly to and fro in space and time with a Resnais-like pattern of overlapping memories — Renais’ own time-quandary picture Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968) is far less accessible. Vonnegut’s focus was the cruel absurdity of war, which he experienced personally by surviving the Allied firebombing of Dresden, as an American POW. The author’s analog character Billy Pilgrim spends the film’s hundred minutes time-tripping: leaping between his war experience, his disappointing marriage and career, and most weirdly, his experience (or fantasy) of being kidnapped by space aliens, and housed somewhere in the stars for an alien experiment less sinister than sensual.
Because the star is the story, movie stars would only have gotten in the way of George Roy Hill’s film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five. Hill was no slouch behind a camera, although his previous pictures varied in merit — one wouldn’t naturally co-bill Slaughterhouse-Five with Thoroughly Modern Millie. The World of Henry Orient garnered praise for its gentle expressionism in depicting some aspects of the imagination of two young girls. The enormously successful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is certainly beautifully designed and directed, even with its anachronistic ‘everything’s lovely’ music score. Slaughterhouse-Five won a big prize at Cannes, but made no money; Hill immediately bounced back with The Sting, a monster pop hit that could be described as ‘Butch and The Kid are Even Cuter Now!’
That leaves Slaughterhouse-Five as an odd duck, but for what it is, an almost PERFECT odd duck. The writer is Stephen Geller, whose book became the industry-admired Pretty Poison; he and Hill took on the task of adapting Kurt Vonnegut without flattening the writer’s style, attitude, or wicked sense of humor. Although the book conjures much more philosophical despair — it’s always rubbing some cruel irony in the reader’s face — Hill and Geller’s picture nails the basic flow of despairing absurdity, crossed with cosmic acceptance.
Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks, of The Sugarland Express) has ‘come unstuck in time.’ That is, his consciousness constantly switches between three (and perhaps more) time periods in his strange, yet placid, life. Captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, he’s protected from his own lack of guile by a fellow POW Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche). He survives the fire-bombing of Dresden, protected in a cellar by an aged warden-guard (Friedrich Ledebur, of Moby Dick, The Roots of Heaven and The 27th Day). Pilgrim’s sole talent seems to be the ‘accidental survival’ of adversities that kill others. His only enemy is Paul Lazzaro (Ron Liebman of Norma Rae) an irrational hothead who constantly threatens to kill Pilgrim. As if aware of his odd status, Billy remains passive as tragedies strike his family, through the wailing hysteria of his wife Valencia (Sharon Gans), the concern of a loving daughter Barbara (Holly Near) and the delinquent behavior of his son Robert (Perry King). Billy has found it impossible to fully concentrate on anything in his life. We can’t tell if he’s living it in splintered pieces of time, or just remembering it in an odd sequence. The third major element is so crazy, he might be insane anyway: invisible aliens have spirited him away to the planet Tralfamadore, and placed him in a king-sized bed in an observation dome. They soon bring the voluptuous starlet Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine) to share the dome with him. The two earthlings find that they’re quite compatible.
Slaughterhouse-Five has a deep humanistic angle — Billy Pilgrim is an inoffensive everyman who encounters awkwardness in life just as we all do. Michael Sacks embodies an awkward, highly likable fellow; we’re never alienated from him. His married life is a series of sketch-memories arrayed like Kodak Moments — beautifully designed sequences show Billy growing into middle age with his dog Spot. It’s his one relationship that lasts.
Everything else is a mystery, reducible to a phrase not carried over from the book, ‘So it goes.’ Life and death are accidents happy and ironic, and the cruelty is that nothing adds up. The Tralfamadoreans eventually let Billy know that life is resoundingly meaningless, that all we have is their advice to concentrate on the good moments and not think about the bad. That’s not particularly reassuring. Vonnegut fans will have plenty of references to mull over. The planet Tralfamadore appears in several other books. The fictional American Quisling Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Richard Schaal of The Mary Tyler Moore Show), who makes an appearance trying to get the POWs to join the Nazis, is the subject of another Vonnegut book called Mother Night.
Michael Sacks isn’t standard movie star material, but he’s perfect for the cheerful, open-hearted Billy. All of the parts are cast for fidelity to the book — Eugene Roche’s sincere teacher-turned soldier, Ron Liebman’s vengeful madman. Activist Holly Near is effective as the dutiful daughter and Perry Lang is somewhat disturbing as the tearaway juvenile delinquent. German actor ‘Nick’ Belle is a child soldier helping to guard the GIs in an abandoned slaughterhouse, the ‘Schlachthaus funf’ of the title. In just her second feature, Valerie Perrine (The Last American Hero, Superman: The Movie) simply goes for it. Perrine establishes her status as a ’70s actress that played scenes nude yet kept her dignity — she always projected the feeling that she was in control of her image.
Is the movie surreal, in the Luis Buñuel sense? The litmus test for that is the Wizard of Oz question: are there clear delineations between reality and fantasy, dreams and waking life, sanity and delirium? Surrealists prefer that there be no clearly marked boundaries. Aspects of the Tralfamadorean notion of Time leak into the proceedings, as when a plane-crash victim sees his eventual ski-masked rescuers before takeoff, in the farewell crowd. But we’re told that we’ll be jumping around in time from the get-go, and we always know which part of Billy’s life we’re seeing. I’d have to say that in terms of hard definition Slaughterhouse-Five is not surreal. We always know exactly where we are.
We know where we are in this puzzle because of the smart screenplay and direction, but also through the precise, clear and artful work of the Editrix Supreme Dede Allen (America America, Bonnie and Clyde). Forget the long dissolves that were all the rage in the early ’70s; Allen’s elegant transitions use simple cuts. The changes in tone are beautifully managed — the dark, cold-looking journey of the POWs, the broad Americana of Billy’s prosperous home life. Ms. Allen’s montages in Dresden are flawless — the arrival in the city (“It’s like the Land of Oz”) sees Billy soaking up the town’s beautiful streets, architecture and public artwork. We share his amazement; a similar sequence in Barbra Streisand’s Yentl pales by comparison (and both were filmed in the same city, Prague). Allen makes the most of Miroslav Ondrícek’s moody images for the post-firebombing scenes, with Billy detailed with other POWs to collect and burn corpses.
The editing rhythms also suit the film’s more overt science fiction material: the night Billy’s first child is born, he and his dog Spot watch as a curious celestial light peeks at them over the lake by his house (top image ↑ ). Years later, the same light waits patiently for the right moment to once again manifest itself and transport Billy and his pooch to their new home billions of miles away.
What ties together all these disparate elements? The ‘unity’ of temporal displacement is maintained with music by Bach, played by Glenn Gould. The music counsels patience, as do the Tralfamadoreans. All things shall pass in their own good time. Fate is almost Christian in its simplicity — Billy has been told when his end will come. It will happen. It has always happened. It will always be happening. That’s the definition of the Christian concept of ‘The Kingdom of God.’
The book and movie of Slaughterhouse-Five are anti-war in the same way that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is anti-war. It’s not coincidental that Mike Nichols’ lavishly produced movie adaptation of Heller (1970) was made by another director on a career roll, fresh from a major success. Slaughterhouse repeats the book’s claim that 135,000 civilians died in Dresden, although later estimates are less. Whoever prevailed on Wikipedia insists that the city was not a strictly non-military target, either. That argument can be waged elsewhere, especially after Robert MacNamara explained how mass U.S.A.F. bombings of civilian targets were conducted for their own sake, for strategic research.
Billy Pilgrim cares about everything and nothing; his life is a parade of stunted emotions and passive resignation. He disputes the view of the man in the next hospital bed, an author of war history, about Dresden (John Dehner), saying “I was there.” The man snorts back that Billy can write his own war history book. The Fog of War, indeed … why not just The Fog of Making Sense of Anything?
Viewers that know Vonnegut will find the movie mordantly funny, others will be made curious and some will be put off by what optimists would call defeatism — the Tralfamadorean insistence that what we do in life doesn’t matter. The human effort to be moral and good makes us nice, but both the show and Billy Pilgrim see only futility in trying to fix anything. This is of course an understandable view for a philosopher who endured appalling events in WW2. To me it’s a theory to be argued — it’s almost as rigid as Fritz Lang’s notion of fatalism.
The movie’s production values are nicely attuned to the requirements of the book. The war scenes are big-scale, with huge railroad stations, POW holding camps, and the city of Dresden, which would surely seem magical to a young American. Billy’s lakeside home is a beauty, apparently a perk of a prosperous life that came along with marrying the boss’s daughter. The show even has a hair-raising car chase scene, one fully justified by the storyline. The producers wisely keep the planet of Tralfamadore mostly an abstraction. Albert Whitlock engineered the matte shot of its surface, which looks quite a bit like an extension of art director Alexander Golitzen’s work years before on This Island Earth. Perhaps what Billy and Montana can see outside their bedroom dome is an illusion to keep them calm — the Jupiter-like planet on the horizon never moves.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Slaughterhouse-Five is said to be extracted from a new 4K restoration from the original camera negative, produced by Arrow. The show looks fine, and less grainy than the first-run print I saw in Westwood when it first opened. (I believe I went with Randy Cook, who thought the show well made but too dry to appeal.) The clear soundtrack allows us to appreciate the quality of the subtle sound design.
Arrow’s new extras make sure that the film is well covered. Both commentator Troy Howarth and video ‘appreciator’ Kim Newman take us deep into the production, into the background of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and his novels, imparting plenty of information and opinion. Actor Perry Lang talks about his career, and the son of Executive producer Jennings Lang explains that George Roy Hill’s producer Paul Monash is the person that took the galleys of the novel to Jennings Lang, where the project was enthusiastically embraced — he says it was his father’s favorite production. Another interview featurette gives us the maker of behind-the-scenes films for George Roy Hill to tell of working with the director, and on a final piece, a music expert talks about the film’s classical soundtrack (‘like in 2001’) and explains Glenn Gould’s role.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: All-new extras: audio commentary by Troy Howarth; video appreciation with Kim Newman; interview featurettes Pilgrim’s Progress: Playing S-5, with actor Perry King, Only on Earth: Presenting S-5, with Rocky Lang, son of executive producer Jennings Lang; Unstuck in Time: Documenting S-5, with filmmaker/producer Robert Crawford, Jr.; Eternally Connected: Composing S-5, with film music historian Daniel Schweiger. Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: December 1, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson