SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE was adapted for the screen in 1972, script written by Stephen Geller, with direction by George Roy Hill. Geller’s previous credits were the hipsterish, quasi-hallucinatory 1966 novel “She Let Him Continue”, which two years later became the Tony Perkins/Tuesday Weld cult fave Pretty Poison, and an adaptation of Peter Maas’ book “The Valachi Papers”, which became a hit for Charles Bronson the same year as this film. Hill had a solid, diffuse track record as director: The World Of Henry Orient, Hawaii, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Their task here had been considered “unfilmable”—the word turns up in virtually every review of this movie—making some theatrical sense of and doing partial thematic justice to Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 best-seller, his 6th and most famous novel, a bitter-funny sci-fi-infused, anti-war mosaic piece. Behind its humor, pathos, irony and scope, its consideration of how free will, fate and morality mix in seemingly random, possibly predestined ways, and its jiggle of traditional linear framing, Vonnegut’s time & dimension skipping satire was also semi-autobiographical. *
The life, or lives, of placid optometrist ‘Billy Pilgrim’ (Michael Sacks), a walking nonentity and literal universal victim, are viewed through his psyche shattering experiences, a cascade of loss and separation seen through a lens of dark satire and cosmic objectivity. A young American P.O.W. who survives the destruction of Dresden, Germany in WW2, he turns into a put-upon husband and father who loses his irritating family members, in accidents and through disaffection. At some point becomes an inadvertent time traveler, placed by extraterrestrials—Tralfamadorian’s—in an Outer Space terrarium, shared with a friendly, sex-happy porn model named ‘Montana Wildhack’ (Valerie Perrine). Or is that just in his fractured fantasizing? On dimes, the story flips back & forth between, places, events and times.
Screenwriter Geller pared it to accommodate 104 minutes, then director Hill and editor Dede Allen did a superb job setting up and cross-cutting the bizarre material, which ranges from absurd comedy to enveloping tragedy. The Dresden scenes were filmed in Prague, most of the US shooting was done in Minnesota. The production design is keenly envisioned: the period material as well as the unearthly slices, along with the “normal” hometown portions, were accomplished for only $3,200,000.
It was the debut for Sacks, 22, and the feature bow for Perrine, 28. Gap-toothed and gangly, Sachs doesn’t make much of an impression, but then Pilgrim is mostly a cypher for the colorful characters around him. After another dozen parts over 12 years, he left showbiz for a powerhouse career on Wall Street. Perrine bares all, though even with the nudity and buoyant bent to boinking, I don’t really find the Wildhack character too appealing. Much better are the vivid supporting roles put over by Ron Leibman, darkly funny yet properly unsettling as the seething nutcase ‘Paul Lazarro’, and Eugene Roche, warm and winning as the kindly, doomed ‘Edgar Denby’: his exit from the story is particularly effective, maybe the single best scene in the picture.
The bombing of Dresden and aftermath are fairly well done, if briefly; barely hinting at the enormity of the event. The zany car-crash sequence with Pilgrim’s wife is a standout. Vonnegut was satisfied: “I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel… I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.” For some reason, Geller & Hill chose to not make a single mention of his “So it goes” refrain, which turned up 106 times in the novel. Reviews were positive, but the public only came in enough numbers to bring the film to spot 47th among 1972s releases, grossing just $7,300,000.
With Perry King, Kevin Conway, Holly Near, Friedrich von Ledebur, Sorrell Brooke, Roberts Blossom (as ‘Wild Bob Cody’), John Dehner, Karl Otto Alberty. Music score by Glenn Gould.
* In December, 1944, 22-year-old G.I. Kurt Vonnegut was captured during the Battle Of The Bulge. Two months later, slaving away under the SS in Dresden, he survived the horrendous firebombing of the city, an event that left him bodily unhurt but psychically scarred for life, the singeing cataclysm imprinted on his subsequent work as a writer.
The book had a trial of fire of its own, with many attempts to ban it. One 1972 example: following the ruling of Todd v. Rochester Community Schools, it was banned from Rochester Community Schools in Oakland County, Michigan, with a circuit judge describing it “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian.” Pretty much a recommendation.
As for the wanton, needless horror of Dresden’s immolation, Vonnegut and the movie use death total figures posited by British military historian David Irving, who claimed between 100,000 and 250,000 people, almost all civilians, perished in the bombing. The movie uses 135,000. This held sway for years, but Irving has since been discredited (for among other things, denying the Holocaust and admiring Hitler) and the figures currently accepted are in the range of 25,000, still an awful toll.
Vonnegut: “The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.”