Director: George Roy Hill
Stars: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Valerie Perrine, Eugene Roche
Release Company: Universal
MPAA Rating: R
By human nature, novelists notoriously hate film adaptations of their work. Not so with Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut's highest regarded novel. Vonnegut was actually extremely pleased with George Roy Hill's 1972 film, once stating that it was almost as if the filmmakers had inserted a camera into his brain.
With its unorthodox structure about a passive protagonist (Michael Sacks) who becomes "unstuck in time," Slaughterhouse Five could have become a confusing cinematic collage. But it's not. Kudos to Hill and his editor Dede Allen for exceptional transitions. The simple story flows seamlessly despite Billy Pilgrim's continual time-tripping. Even more surprising -- the film continues to hold up 40 years after its release!
Vonnegut uses his WWII experience to great advantage. Many speculate that his long standing advocacy of pacifism was crystallized when he was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and witnessed the bombing of Dresden. Indeed, the central event in Billy Pilgrim's life revolves around the bombing of this beautiful German city. The film emphasizes Dresden's Oz-like architectural qualities and innocence with a montage of children and seniors in time with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto. Note: since the real East German city was destroyed in the war and inaccessible at the time, Hill authentically captures its beauty by filming these scenes in Prague.
The entire musical score consists of pieces from the famous German Baroque composer. Whether this was an economic choice for public domain material or to further emphasize Billy's connection to Dresden matters little--it works wonderfully and ties the film together even more tightly. Bach transcends time much like the film's protagonist, subtly enhancing Vonnegut's anti-war stream of consciousness narrative.
On the printed page Vonnegut's provocative dark comedy requires your brain to dance through decades of incidents, frequently indicating time tripping via a bird tweet or planet Tralfamadore's "so it goes" refrain. Hill's film doesn't require this. The surreal screenplay time trips visually through Billy's entire life simultaneously--from childhood to his death, and even makes sense of his zoo cage existence on the planet Tralfamadore, which he shares with Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine in her film debut).
Director Hill reached the pinnacle of his career between 1969 and 1973 with two outstanding Robert Redford and Paul Newman "buddy" movies--Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Ironically sandwiched between these two giants is this lesser regarded film starring character actors and unknowns, but it stands strongly with them and passes the test of time. Michael Sachs' low key performance perfectly matches Vonnegut's everyman protagonist--a basic nice guy far more comfortable hanging with this pet dog and passively observing Life as it passes by. The role would unravel if portrayed by most well-known Hollywood actors.
In fact, Slaughterhouse Five remains far more provocative than the Redford-Newman vehicles and is likely to haunt viewers the rest of their lives. If you've not seen it yet, it's always been there...and should remain available. Currently you can find it via Netflix streaming (and other methods).