If George Roy Hill had asked anybody in 1972 whether it was a good idea to try to film Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five their advice would probably have been - don’t even think about it. Maybe people did give him that advice. In any case Hill went ahead and filmed it anyway, and the result is one of the most interesting American movies of the 70s.
It won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and Vonnegut loved it, but it died at the American box-office. It’s since been more or less forgotten, and most people who’ve heard of it assume it was a turkey. It’s hard to imagine the director of such staggeringly mainstream movies as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting being able to successfully film an unfilmable Kurt Vonnegut book, but that’s exactly what he did.
Billy Pilgrim, the hero of the story, has come unstuck in time. His life has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. He moves randomly between past, present and future although in fact his life is simply a collection of moments and past, present and future have little meaning. He lives some of these moments over and over again, and not all of them occur on Earth. A significant part of his life takes place on the planet Tralfamadore.
Billy was training to be an optometrist when the Second World War intervened. He is taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, and as a prisoner-of-war he is present in the city of Dresden when it is fire-bombed by the Allies. This was one of the most horrific episodes of the war, causing a greater loss of life than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and being all the more horrifying since Dresden was not a military target. Vonnegut himself was in fact a prisoner-of-war in Dresden when it was bombed, and this was in some ways the central event in his life.
Billy’s experiences in the war are crucial but the movie, like Billy’s life, cuts back and forth to other events both before and after the war. Billy’s postwar life as a respectable and rather dull optometrist, a pillar of the community and president of the local Lions’ Club, is enlivened by other strange events. He survives a disastrous plane crash, which of course he knows is going to happen because it’s happened to him before. He has a wife and son on Earth, but he has a kind of second family on Tralfamadore. He was kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, but they just want to observe and study him. They’re particularly fascinated by the mating habits of other species so they provide him with a potential mate, a sexy Hollywood starlet named Montana Wildhack. She’s about as big a contrast as one could imagine with Billy’s wife on Earth, but he loves them both in his own way. He accepts Montana Wildhack as part of his destiny, just as he accepts everything else that happens to him.
The most pleasing thing about the film is that Hill and screenwriter Stephen Geller assume their audience will not be panicked by the non-linear narrative and will work out what’s going on. The cuts between various episodes in Billy’s life are not explained. They just happen. For a mainstream Hollywood movie in 1972 that’s a fairly bold approach. The movie’s commercial failure suggests that perhaps Hill was a little too bold, but artistically it’s the right approach.
The movie successfully preserves Vonnegut’s sense of the absurdity of life. It also captures his black comedy, which is done rather subtly in the movie which again proves to the right approach - the juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrific provides the black comedy, and there is no need for the actors to try to play any of the scenes in an overtly comic way. They play it straight, and the results are funnier and more disturbing as a result.
Michael Sacks, an actor with a remarkably short career, is superb as Billy Pilgrim - innocent but accepting. Valerie Perrine attracted most of the publicity at the time because of her frequent disrobing in the movie. Her role as Montana Wildhack is really fairly minor. Her performance can best be described as adequate, but she has the right mix of innocence and sexiness for the part.
The scenes of the bombing of Dresden are exceptionally well done. Hill resists the temptation to sentimentalise the events or to consciously manipulate the audience’s responses. This matter-of-fact treatment is much more effective, and the events in themselves are sufficiently harrowing not to require editorialising.
While the movie omits parts of the novel it does this mainly to keep the running time within acceptable limits (it runs for 104 minutes). Most directors today would have succumbed to the temptation to try to include too much. There is no attempt to dumb down the story.
This is an adventurous, complex and intelligent movie, a relic of a time when major Hollywood studios were still prepared to take risks and to accept the reality that on occasions those risks would not pay off at the box office. I caught it on Australian television (on the ABC so it was uncut and commercial-free) but it’s available on DVD. It’s well worth seeking out.