The moment that I gave up on terrestrial broadcasting of feature films was at some point during a BBC broadcast of George Roy Hill’s 1972 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five Or The Children’s Crusade. Edited for content, with sweary dialogue, plot-driven nudity and whole scenes missing, then finally panned and scanned in a way that rendered the compositions meaningless, seeing this film cut to ribbons made a decision for me; no more trusting the authorities when it came to providing cinematic content.
Watching Slaughterhouse-Five now is something of a revelation. George Roy Hill’s 70’s output needs no excuses; post Butch Cassidy, he followed up with great star vehicles The Sting, The Great Waldo Pepper, Slapshot. But for the key role of Billy Pilgrim, a metaphorical time traveller, he went with Michael Sachs, an unknown who won a Golden Globe nomination here for a strong, subtle performance. Sachs plays Billy Pilgrim, a man who, not unlike a literary Doctor Who, finds himself unstuck and moving back and forward in time. Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t really sci-fi; the action moves, briefly, to an alien planet where Billy is put in an alien zoo and encouraged to mate with Playboy Playmate Valerie Perrine, but that’s essentially the last ten minutes. Otherwise, this film is largely a historical and personal meditation on the firebombing of Dresden during WWII, evoked using real, sobering footage here.
Seen in HD, Slaughterhouse-Five has a crisp, clean look by the wizardly Miroslav Ondricek, with technical specs through the roof; The great Dede Allen (Reds, The Breakfast Club) edits, with smash cuts back and forward in a fragmented timeline. Glenn Gould provides a remarkable soundtrack that, together with an imaginative sound-editing palate, makes Roy Hill’s film more like playing an album that watching the movie. And the digressions are intense as a 70’s movie might promise; a scene in which Billy’s wife crashes her car, dislodges her exhaust, and dies of carbon monoxide poisoning after driving the wrong way down a freeway is crazily downbeat, not least because the previous scene shows how joyful she was when Billy gifted her the same car. There’s all kinds of pleasures here, not least in the acting, with Ron Liebman and Eugene Roche particularly strong as the two experienced soldiers that Billy bounces between morally, Platoon-style, and John Wood as a British officer with a practical, worldly view that Billy finds hard to understand. And a final scene, as Dresden is looted and Billy finds himself trapped beneath a stolen clock, perfectly encapsulates the idea that although Billy moves freely in his mind, the physical world can still trap him in a moment in time.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a brilliant adaptation that even the author was delighted with; it distils key moments from a sprawling text, and creates something cinematic that is probably easier for us to get our heads round in 2020 than in 1972. A Cannes winner of the time, Slaughterhouse–Five is one of the best grown-up movies you’ve never seen, a wise, satirical and important story that sees several great talents realise a difficult text. And if you’ve only ever seen it on tv, it’s worth taking another look. So it goes.