Slaughterhouse Five (1972)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Billy Pilgrim lives - from time to time.”

Kurt Vonnegut's novel of the same name gave me a tremendous amount of enjoyment quite a long time ago. I read the book not long after it was published: before I saw the film. Unlike my experience with most movies based on previously published books, I don't recall any disappointment in this movie. Although I don't believe a two hour film ever captures all the nuance of a full length novel, this film comes as close as any other in my recollection. Watching a movie usually requires less time than reading a book. For this reason, and probably others as well, more people watch movies today than read books. A good movie's accessibility can propagate a book's story beyond the audience size of even a very popular book. I believe that happened with this classic story.

As I get older I often find that a particularly rich fragment of memory can have a vividness which even current reality might lack. My stream of consciousness often has interludes of such memory. In that aspect I doubt I'm terribly unusual. However, with Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), much more “displacement” seems to occur as the events of his life unfold in this film. Billy's mental associations take him to life events out of synchronization with the normal flow of time. His experience and the movie's sequence jump from childhood, to his World War II experiences, to his marriage and raising a family, to life on a distant planet. I suppose that makes the film sound difficult to follow, but this movie's “flashbacks” really pose no difficulty since the episodes make such striking breaks. Actually, instead of difficulty, the opposite occurs as screenwriter Stephen Geller and director George Roy Hill engage the viewer in the construction of Billy's life.

Many of the film's sequences concern Billy's experiences during the war in Germany. In one of these he meets a pair of soldiers, one an extremely unpleasant character, who plays a continuing part in the story: Paul Lazzaro (played masterfully by Ron Leibman); the other Roland Weary (Kevin Conway) has a shorter, but also important, part to play. Aspects of Lazzaro's character may seem familiar to many people. Even Billy Pilgrim, a middle class kid who later becomes a Lions Club optometrist, experiences first hand a threateningly violent psychotic.

On the other hand, after Germans capture both Billy and Lazzaro, they meet a generous and friendly American: Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche). Billy's experiences with Lazzaro and Derby in German POW camps, one a slaughterhouse in Dresden, make up one thread of this well woven film. In other threads we meet Billy's mother (Lucille Benson), wife Valencia (Sharon Gans), and children. All this happens before space aliens abduct Billy and actress Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine in a “breakthrough” role) taking them to the planet Tralfamadore.

Sound a little strange? Often Kurt Vonnegut's science fiction differs greatly from that of more “mainstream SF” authors such as Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov. However, whether one follows Tralfamadorean belief as regards the sequencing of events, or shares a more conventional understanding of the nature of time, Vonnegut's insight into the nature of war and humanity's place in the universe offer very good reasons to view this classic film.

Kurt Vonnegut recently passed from life on Earth, apparently without Tralfamadorean abduction. This story was my introduction to his work and has occupied a special place in my estimation. Although I have this special bias in its favor, I believe this film deserves attention from all people who wish to spread understanding about the nature of war and violence and the alternatives of peace and harmony. I recommend Slaughterhouse Five highly and hope you enjoy it.

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