Sunday, 10 January 2016

So it goes… Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

"All this happened, more or less…”

So goes the first sentence of Kurt Vonnegut Jnr’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, widely regarded as amongst his best work and one which contains elements of stunning autobiographical detail.

Vonnegut was a US Army Prisoner of War in Dresden at the time of the Allied bombing between 13 and 15 February 1945. He had survived along with other prisoners held deep in the cold store of the abattoir Schlachthof-fünf – as the city above was raised with fatalities currently estimated ranging from 25,000 to 40,000. The figure is 130,000 in the film, based upon the now vastly-discredited historian David Irving’s estimates, but Kurt wasn’t to know what a charlatan that man is. Either way, so much death…

Prague doubles for the destroyed Dresdon
The film was directed by George Roy Hill and was sandwiched between two of his box office smashes, Butch and Sundance and The Sting: it’s more experimental than either and, in spite of success at Cannes, Slaughterhouse-Five didn’t capture the public’s imagination in the same way. But Hill’s successes no doubt allowed him the freedom to try and match the book’s vertical narrative in which everything, seemingly, is happening at the same time.

Billy sees the future, past and present
Michael Sacks plays Billy Pilgrim the film’s nominal hero who zips from point to point in his life in order to tell the painful tale of the devastation Vonnegut experienced on that night: an event so horrifically extra-ordinary that it has fragmented Billy’s life and his ability to encapsulate the experience in a linear way. There is no escaping the horror: it becomes your life.

Home from home
I’m never sure if the story is science fiction, even though it contains elements as Billy is seemingly whisked into space by an alien race called the Tralfamadorians who experience existence in four dimensions and, as with Billy, all at the same time. This is either an extension of Billy’s splintered self – looking back from near his own death – or the natural progression of the narrative momentum. It doesn’t matter, either way the aliens help to make sense of the brutality and even offer Billy a future when porn star Montana Wildhack (the divine Valerie Perrine) is taken from Earth to provide him with a mate.

Valerie radiates
The war sequences are the backbone of the film and have an almost comic unreality, even in the face of ever-present danger. Billy stumbles into a warzone, an assistant chaplain without a soldierly-clue, and encounters two war-weary troopers, Roland Weary (Kevin Conway) and the psychotically defensive Paul Lazzaro (Ron Liebman).

The men get captured almost immediately and Weary’s shoes get taken leaving him wearing wooden clogs as they trudge through miles of snow. He walks himself to death and as he dies on the train transporting them like so many cattle, he blames Billy, asking Lazzaro to avenge him on the hapless youngster. For Lazzaro vengeance is all that matters in life – he is the embodiment of the call to violence.

Comrades in arms: Billy meets Weary and Lazzaro
In the camp Billy meets the bizarrely theatrical British who put on the bravest of faces and an older American, Derby (Eugene Roche) who defends him from Lazzaro… So begins their life in captivity whilst many years later Billy’s life progresses – a middle-aged optometrist who has successfully married his bosses daughter and acquired the house and family to go with it.

Billy loves Valencia (Sharon Gans) and his children, conformist daughter Barbara (Holly Near) and rebel, later Vietnam volunteer Robert (Perry King) but he takes inordinate comfort from his pet dog.

One man alone with his dog
Billy is “unstuck in time” but he’s also disconnected from the life around him… he’s involved but in a perfunctory way. He confiscates one of his son’s Playboy magazines and is transfixed by the centrefold, Montana Wildhack. He takes the family to a drive-in movie featuring Montana and whilst wife and daughter complain at the explicit content he is captivated by Montana’s natural energies and her way of just being in the moment.

Family viewing?
Everyone else is back and forth between tragi-comic post-war events and the war itself... sometimes events are juxtaposed such as Billy’s speech to a meeting of his local Lions Club with a company meeting to deice a leader for the prisoner’s transfer to Dresden.

When Billy encounters the four dimensional Tralfamadorians his request is that they provide him with Miss Wildhack’s company: wish fulfillment or someone who is genuinely in the same moment as himself.

Spoilers: In the desolation of Dresden, Billy experiences the pointless death of Derby for picking up a porcelin doll for his wife, the soldiers drag him away far off camera and almost before he can realise the impact of his innocent action the consequences take him away. So it goes.

A Dresden Doll
Billy and Montana have a baby on Tralfamador just after he experiences his own death - assassinated by Lazzaro still bitter after all these years - as he talks to a huge audience about his life. He has seen it before and he will see it again: one moment for always.

Death is revealed as pointless and all those thousands who were blasted and burned above the prisoners of war in Dresden have their own places in eternal time: that's the best that Vonnegut can offer and that's the most we can hope.

Dusty verdict: Slaughterhouse-Five received the Prix du Jury at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and Vonnegut was supportive but it was not commercially successful. Having read the book the film makes more sense and it is indeed one of those narratives that is difficult to capture but Hill does a good job and his work should be considered in this context.

Billy starts to end again
Michael Sacks makes for a suitably centered Pilgrim with emotional extremes provided by all those around him from the panicked Valerie to Lazzaro all hollowed out with hate.

Valerie Perrin is superbly warm as Montana who just is, sympathetically radiating on Billy’s wavelength… his dream and his reward for an eternity of suffering.

Interestingly, Michael Sacks is now confused on Wiki and elsewhere with Michael J Sacks a highly-successful business man who is a decade younger - a life of success far greater than Billy’s – how does the time pass for him?

Glenn Gould provides a deceptive score playing selections of Bach piano works that fit the timeless drift of the narrative…

Slaughterhouse 5 is readily available in book and as film – I’d recommend both but perhaps the latter after the former or maybe even all at the same time.


  1. How did you find out about the confusion over MS the actor -not businessman? That struck me when I read the article on Wiki.

    Good resource, but not 100% by any means!

    1. It would have been good if it were true but the actor, born in 1948,is 67 and the businessman is 52 according to a Chicago magazine.

      Which begs the question - who edited the Wikipedia entry? :-)