The film I chose for this week’s installment of “Old Movie / Young Eyes” has some sentimental value to me, as Slaughterhouse-Five was the first Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. book I ever read. It was a suggestion I got as a high school freshman from the hip young English teacher I idolized, who played in a punk band and told me about all the cool books and movies to check out. Reading Slaughterhouse-Five, I was immediately hooked by Vonnegut’s style. In the next year or so I read Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Welcome to the Monkey House, and I’ve read many others since then. I didn’t even realize there was a film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five until I noticed it among the watch instantly titles in Netflix sometime in the last year or two.
Anyone who has read the book surely recalls the non-linear temporal arrangement of the story, and the film adaptation does a nice job of capturing that early on. In the opening scene, we see a woman running frantically around the outside of a nice middle-class home, shouting for her dad to come to the door. We then see Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) sitting at a typewriter, writing a letter to the editor of the Ilium newspaper, explaining that he his “unstuck in time,” and that he pops into different places in his life with no control over the phenomenon. To illustrate the point, we then see the middle-aged Billy look up from the typewriter to see that he’s lost in a snowy German countryside watching tanks pass by. He flips back to his seat at the typewriter, and he goes on to write that he has traveled to a planet called Tralfamadore.
In the somewhat rapidly-alternating scenes that follow, we follow Billy through some disorienting juxtapositions of World War II Germany and post-war middle class life in the United States. Having been captured by German soldiers, Billy finds himself marching with other American soldiers through a German city. Some pretty young German women, possibly prostitutes, smile and laugh in the second-story windows above, a sufficient distraction to cause Billy to step on the gnarly-looking mangled foot of the soldier in front of him. Twice. The movie cuts from seeing Billy ogling the German girls to a shot of him with the chubby red-headed American girl he will marry telling him that she never thought she would be married. Billy is pulled out of the line of soldiers to pose for a “look at this dumb American we captured” photograph, and he bounces back and forth from that scene to one of him as a successful business/family man having his photos taken by zealous journalists.
Billy and all the other American soldiers are then loaded into a boxcar to be sent to Dresden. Billy tries to stay warm by pulling a blanket over his head, but when he opens the blanket a little he’s in a hospital bed with his doting mother sitting nearby, explaining to another patient that Billy is in there “for his nerves—he was in Dresden when it was bombed, you know.” Back in the boxcar, the soldier with the mangled foot blames Billy for his imminent death, telling Billy he should contact his family when he goes back home to tell them he killed their boy. Another soldier, Paul Lazzaro (Ron Liebman), tells the dying soldier a gruesome story about killing a dog that bit him. “Anybody asks you,”
Paul says as the soldier dies in his arms, “the sweetest thing in the world—it’s revenge.” The movie cuts back to Billy in the hospital shortly after the war, preparing for electro-shock therapy to treat his “nerves.”
Things never seem to quite look up for Billy, who alternates between experiencing a seemingly mundane version of the American dream and being marched around Germany as a prisoner of war. He plays a rather passive role among the other POWs, including the loud and angry Paul Lazzaro and the fatherly middle-aged man named Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche), who are quite adversarial toward one another in the ensuing tension and internal politics of the POWs. Back in the states, Billy’s wife becomes hysterical when she hears that Billy’s been in a plane crash, and she wrecks up the Cadillac he bought her as she tries to figure out where the hell she’s going. Billy ends up surviving his plane crash injuries with some help from doctors who cut into his head, but his wife ends up dying of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by driving around in her damaged Cadillac. So it goes.
Recuperating from the plane crash in a hospital room, Pilgrim’s roommate mentions Dresden and how long the fire-bombings had been kept secret. Pilgrim wakes up and tells the roommate he was there, in Dresden, when it was bombed. Over the course of his stay, we hear Billy’s roommate talking about how the 135,000 Germans deserved what they got in Dresden, juxtaposed with scenes of the POWs being marched through the city, marveling at the seemingly happy people of Dresden, including kids wearing colorful masks for some sort of parade. The POWs are taken to an unused slaughterhouse, “Schlachthaus funf.” In the midst of hearing from an American Nazi about how “Germany is an ally—Communism is the enemy,” the POWs hear the air raid sirens begin going off and evacuate to the basement, where they listen in awe as the sounds of heavy bombing can be heard overhead.
Amidst these bleak experiences of real life, it’s no real surprise that Billy Pilgrim finds comfort in being whisked away from Earth by Tralfamadorians. One way that the movie seems to differ from what I recall of the book is that we don’t get to meet Vonnegut’s fascinating character Kilgore Trout, who writes science fiction about aliens from Tralfamadore, among other things. Any fan of Vonnegut is surely familiar with Kilgore Trout, who appears in numerous other Vonnegut books, as well. In the film, we get to hear as Billy interacts with the Tralfamadorians, who are able to see in four dimensions and know how and when the universe will end. Initially, this troubles Billy, but soon they bring him a topless porn actress from with nice boobs (Valerie Perrine—Lex Luther’s girlfriend, and first woman to have her nipples shown on network television), so he begins to have a much better time in Tralfamadore.
It is during his stay in Tralfamadore that Billy gets his exposure to the Eastern-sounding Tralfamadorian philosophy. “There is no how, there is no why; there is only the moment. . . .” his captors explain to him. “Only on earth is there any talk of free will.” Free from the notion of time progressing in a linear fashion, Billy is told that for a pleasant way to spend eternity, he should ignore the bad times and concentrate on the good.
Back in Dresden, the POWs and their German captors emerge from the bowels of Schlachthaus funf to find the city still smoldering. The American captives help to gather German bodies into a pile before setting them on fire, to burn as the city did.
In the states, Billy’s daughter and son-in-law are very concerned by his talk of Tralfamadore. He explains to them that he’s seen his death many times. As he’s giving a speech about Tralfamadore to a large audience in Philadelphia, Billy explains that he will be killed there as he gives his speech. Billy is shot dead by Paul Lazzaro just as he finishes telling the audience the Tralfamadorian greeting: “Hello, farewell. Hello, farewell. Eternally connected, eternally embracing: Hello, farewell.” The movie ends with two final scenes: a symbolic moment in Germany when Billy is trapped under a grandfather clock after his looting companions abandon him, and the joyous occasion on Tralfamadore when his porn actress love interest has a baby boy. She begins breastfeeding the baby, which elicits great applause and fireworks from the Tralfamadorians.
Because it has been so long since I first read the book, it’s difficult for me to say with much certainty whether I think this film adaptation did the book justice. The film did pick up a number of awards, but I’m still reserving judgment until I read the book again—which I plan to do soon. In any event, there are rumors on Wikipedia that there may eventually be a remake involving Guillermo del Toro, which is something I would certainly be interested in seeing.
How about any of you who’ve seen and read Slaughterhouse-Five? Does the movie do the book justice?