I would not have thought any film version of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” could capture the off-kilter genius of that unique, seminal book. Reading it is such a profoundly literary experience, as Vonnegut himself continually reminds us through a jumping bean storyline and even inserting himself (briefly) as a character. The book deconstructs itself even as you turn the pages.
Consider that the 1972 movie directed by George Roy Hill from a screenplay adaptation by Stephen Geller does not contain either of the signature lines that appear repeatedly throughout the book: A bird chirping “Poo-tee-weet” at the senselessness of war, and the Tralfamadorian observation on death and destruction, “And so it goes,” which Vonnegut employed 106 times.
And yet I found the film captured the essence of the book even while diverging from it. Vonnegut himself always claimed to be extremely pleased with it. That should be good enough for me.
I confess that I hadn’t even known there was a cinematic version of “Slaughterhouse-Five.” I only came across it while researching another Reeling Backward film, “The Sugarland Express,” and found that actor Michael Sacks made his film debut in the starring role as Billy Pilgrim.
In the book, Billy is almost a completely passive entity — he reacts to things, rather than acting to influence people and events around him. Sacks, though, brings a little more authority and independence to the role.
As a time-traveler who jumps around in his own life, he has a perspective on events — including foreknowledge of his own death and the end of the universe — that lends him a preternatural calm. Sacks’ Billy Pilgrim is a man who is an observer in life, but that’s because it’s the role he chose.
The movie, at a crisp 104 minutes, wisely focuses on the two pivotal events of Billy’s life: His capture by the Germans during World War II and presence at the fire-bombing of Dresden; and his kidnapping and display in a zoo on the planet Tralfamador.
The aliens are unseen creatures who live in the fourth dimension of time, and experience all events simultaneously. Even though they know an accident by one of their scientists will wipe the universe from existence, to them it is the same as the past — something they cannot change.
When Billy asks them why they won’t let him leave their benign prison of his own free will, the Tralfamadorians respond that Earth is the only planet where the concept of free will exists. All the ugliness of existence — including the charred, rotting devastation of war — is uncontrollable, and therefore not really to be regretted.
The film boasts some really fine supporting performances. Eugene Roche plays Edgar Derby, a fellow war prisoner who becomes Billy’s protector and mentor. An older teacher who joined the Army because of all the students he’d urged to get into the fight, Derby is a man of goodwill and common sense. We can see Derby’s influence in Billy’s postwar life, settling down with a fat wife and a booming career in optometry — even though he seems to have little real passion for either.
Valerie Perrine, in her first credited film role, is sweet and saucy as Montana Wildhack, a Hollywood starlet also zapped to Tralfamador to be Billy’s mate in captivity. She probably spends at least 50 percent of her screen time in the nude.
Ron Leibman brings a twitchy energy to Paul Lazzaro, Billy’s lifelong nemesis. For imagined slights during their captivity, Lazzaro repeatedly promises to assassinate Billy when he leasts expects it. Since he knows the future, Billy has already learned that Lazzaro will eventually make good on his threat.
The music is an elegant collection of piano pieces by Glenn Gould — one of only two film scores he ever wrote.
The Dresden scenes have a spare, raw beauty that lingers. I appreciated the layered portrayal of the Germans — imperfect in their own human frailties.
I give enormous credit to George Roy Hill and Stephen Geller for translating a book I thought would never receive a worthy reflection on the big screen.