Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
That’s the line that opens the story Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The story of Billy Pilgrim, World War II, sexual desire, post-war suburban malaise, the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, free will vs. fate, and planet Tralfamadore — a place where time runs past, present, and future simultaneously.
But, that’s not the first line of Slaughterhouse-Five, even though most people think it is. The first line is this: “All of this happened, more or less.” It’s Vonnegut addressing the reader and taking them through the painstaking personal process of writing the following book. It’s 28 pages, the first chapter, and if you think that’s an unusual way to start a novel today, imagine what it would have been like for readers in 1969.
Vonnegut’s sixth novel, his breakthrough. He wrote it over two decades, in fits and starts, always hinging on the titular event, a retelling of the firebombing of Dresden on Feb. 13-15, 1945. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war back then, and he, along with his fellow captors and a few German soldiers, was locked in a slaughterhouse (slaughterhouse number five) during the bombing. When they went down into the slaughterhouse, the ancient city of Dresden — it was first established in 7500 BC — was still standing. When they exited a few days later, Allied forces had incinerated over 90% of the city’s center. Over 3,900 tons of bombs were dropped on the city, which caused a firestorm that destroyed over 1,600 acres; killing somewhere between 22,000-25,000.
As Suzanne McConnell chronicles in her book, Pity the Reader: On Writing With Style, Vonnegut tried several times to write about his experience at Dresden. He visited the city hopping to jog his memories, talked with friends who were there, did as much research as possible, anything. He worked on it in between other novels, short stories, day jobs, and family. But it wasn’t until he incorporated his old sci-fi stand-in, Kilgore Trout, and the Tralfamadorians that the real story of Slaughterhouse-Five, Or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death started to shake loose.
A movie from filmmaker George Roy Hill, fresh off the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Producer Paul Monash acquired the rights to the novel and gave it to Hill while they were working on Butch. Hill wanted William Goldman to pen the script (Goldman wrote Butch), but Goldman passed saying the book un-adaptable. Hill turned to novelist Stephen Geller. Michael Sacks plays Billy Pilgrim, and Valerie Perrine plays the curvy Hollywood starlet Montana Widhack. The great Czechoslovakian cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček lensed the picture, and the incomparable Dede Allen edited it.
A box office bomb. Released on March 15, 1972, to positive reviews and the jury prize at the ’72 Cannes Film Festival, Slaughterhouse-Five failed to garner any monetary success or cult following. No one knew what to do with it, least of all Universal Pictures, who failed to market it properly.
A good picture. It’s not great, like the novel, but it is good. Though it is faithful to the novel, Geller’s script lacks the bouncy humor of Vonnegut’s prose, the repeated phrase “So it goes,” and the presence of Trout. Sacks has a hard time making Pilgrim work on screen. It’s not entirely his fault: Billy Pilgrim is a passive protagonist. Life happens to him; he does not make it happen. That’s half the message of the book. And while passive protagonists abound in literature, they rarely make for captive cinema. Cinema is an art form of energy and kinetics. Even slow cinema features characters of resolve.
A movie that should not be forgotten. It may not be as powerful as the book, but the movie does feature spectacular cinematography of Prague doubling for Dresden, Minneapolis doubling for Vonnegut’s fictitious Ilium, New York, and a Hollywood set doubling planet Tralfamadore. Allen’s time-jumping jigsaw editing is remarkable, and Glenn Gould’s performance of various Bach pieces gives the movie a sense of timelessness.
A handsome new Blu-ray set from Arrow Video. The new 4K restoration, from the original camera negative, is spectacular. As are the slew of extras providing historical background. Troy Howarth’s commentary track is informative and lively, as is critic Kim Newman’s video appreciation of the film. Perry King (who plays Robert Pilgrim, Billy’s son), Rocky Lang (son of executive producer Jennifer Lang), Robert Crawford, Jr. (Slaughterhouse-Five’s behind-the-scenes documentarian), and film music historian Corey Brickley all weigh in on the production and artistic success of the movie in a series of video interviews. And Peter Tonguette’s essay — included in the Blu-ray’s booklet — is thoughtful and informative.
Worth owning — in book and movie form.
Directed by George Roy Hill
Screenplay by Stephen Geller
Based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Produced by Paul Monash
Starring: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Valerie Perrine, Holly Near, Perry King, Kevin Conway
Universal Pictures, Rated R, Running time 103 minutes, Released March 15, 1972.
Available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.
Audio commentary by critic Troy Howarth
Video appreciation by critic Kim Newman
Video interviews with actor Perry King, Rocky Lang, Rocky Crawford, Jr., and Daniel Schweiger
Booklet essay from Peter Tonguette