‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1972) revisited

❉  Writer David Llewellyn looks back on George Roy Hill’s darkly humorous adapation of Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece.

Science fiction has always served as a kind of Trojan Horse, smuggling contemporary issues into works designed ostensibly to entertain. H.G. Wells satirised British colonial policy by having his Martians invade rural Surrey, while Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ‘We’ (published in 1924) uses the dystopian, futuristic “One State” to critique early Soviet tyranny.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, as the US became ever more embroiled in the Vietnam conflict, a number of American war movies would perform a similar sleight of hand. Though Vietnam was too current, too raw for Hollywood to explore openly (the exception being John Wayne’s propagandistic ‘The Green Berets’), these films were set during earlier wars, but still presented audiences with the absurdity and futility of armed conflict.

Mike Nichols’s adaptation of ‘Catch-22’ and Robert Altman’s film ‘MASH’ (both released in 1970) were set during the Second World War and Korean War respectively, but left few with any doubts that the war being lampooned was the one happening in South-East Asia. ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1972), directed by George Roy Hill and adapted from the 1969 novel by Kurt Vonnegut, has the honour of being both a war film and a work of science fiction that invites the audience to contemplate the sheer madness of all wars while specifically examining one of the murkier episodes of the Allied campaign against Nazi Germany.

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‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is the blackly comic story of Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), a man who has come “unstuck in time”, and the narrative flits back and forth from his childhood to his death, via his time as a prisoner of war in Germany towards the end of World War II. The novel was based very closely on Vonnegut’s own experiences as a POW, and offers a first-hand account of the Allied bombing of Dresden, a series of attacks that levelled the city and left as many as 25,000 dead. (Both the novel and film cite a death toll of 135,000, taken from a book by the controversial – and largely discredited – historian David Irving.)

In many ways, Vonnegut’s novel is about the impossibility of addressing a subject such as Dresden in a straightforward, “sensible” fashion. Only by framing it within a story that also encompasses time travel, flying saucers, and a race of aliens (the Tralfamadorians) who resemble toilet plungers with giant hands for heads can the narrator – implied to be Vonnegut – make sense of what he has seen.

Wisely, the film adaptation leaves the Tralfamadorians off-screen (it’s unlikely contemporary special effects would have done them justice), and places much of the focus on Pilgrim’s wartime experiences, and his later life as an optometrist in the fictional town of Ilium, New York. Its non-linear structure, though drawn directly from the novel, makes a virtue of the fragmentary nature of film. In many ways, it resembles Fellini’s ‘8½’, and shares that film’s boisterous energy, using a single jump cut to take us from the snowbound Battle of the Bulge to a childhood memory in which Pilgrim is hurled into a swimming pool (“Sink or swim!”) by his father.

It’s during the winter conflict in Belgium that Pilgrim is captured by the Germans, and in this – as in every other moment of his life – he is the most passive of protagonists. Pilgrim doesn’t drive events; instead he is pushed back and forth by the tides of history, and one of the film’s chief preoccupations is the theme of “self-determination”, or rather its absence. When Pilgrim first meets fellow POW Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche), the older man complements him on his “self-determination”, but at no point is Pilgrim the master of his fate. He doesn’t jump into the swimming pool, he is thrown in. He didn’t sign up to join the army, he was conscripted. When he marries, it is effectively to the “boss’s daughter”. When he is abducted by aliens, he is nudged by his Tralfamadorian keepers into “mating” with Hollywood actress Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine) –though in all honesty, he doesn’t take much persuading. Instead, true to his name, Pilgrim is an almost Bunyanesque everyman who – by insisting that he’s been abducted by aliens and can travel in time – becomes a secular “Holy Fool”.

This brings us back to the idea that we can only approach the bombing of Dresden honestly by framing it in fantasy. Hospitalised after a plane crash, Pilgrim finds himself in a neighbouring bed to a history professor called Rumfoord, who – as chance would have it – is researching a book about Dresden. When Pilgrim tries telling Rumfoord about his experiences, the professor says, “The hell with him. Let him write his own book,” (which is precisely what Pilgrim/Vonnegut will do) and later: “Nobody’s gonna weep and wail over Dresden after they read (mine).”

The film’s philosophy runs contrary to both the “Great Man” theory of history (which suggests that major events are shaped by the Napoleons and Alexanders of this world) and the view put forward by writers such as Tolstoy; that history is the accumulative end result of countless ordinary and extraordinary lives. Here, in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, ordinary people are helpless in the face of those chance accidents (plane crashes, carbon monoxide poisoning) and historic events (the carpet bombing of civilians) that can bring life to an abrupt and premature end. Both the film and the novel see history as something absurdly chaotic.

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If this sounds like a bleak outlook, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is anything but. The film retains Vonnegut’s dark, surreal humour (the author was pleased with the adaptation), but in allowing its hero to see life not as a straight line but as a free-floating cluster of events, the conclusion is almost joyous. The death of Billy Pilgrim, at the hands of a psychotic acquaintance from his POW days, is not the end. Instead, the film leaves us with Pilgrim and Montana, safely cocooned in their geodesic dome on Tralfamadore, the proud parents of a new-born baby boy.

Off-screen, the Tralfamadorians burst into rapturous applause, and fireworks explode above their planet’s heavenly, cloud-covered surface. It’s easy to forget, just for a moment, that those clouds are made of cyanide that would kill Pilgrim, Montana and their baby in an instant, should they leave their dome. Even in this most sublime, celebratory of moments, death is just below the surface.


❉  ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ (1972) was released on DVD in 2006 by Universal as part of their Cinema Classics range, RRP £5.00. Vonnegut’s novel can be found in all good bookshops.

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