DVD: Slaughterhouse-Five | reviews, news & interviews
Deft and faithful film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s bold novel
“I never saw anything like it,” declares Billy Pilgrim in wonderment. “It’s the Land of Oz.” He has just seen Dresden’s splendour from the train carriage into which he and other American prisoners of war are crammed en route to the city. They’ve been told it will be easier there than the prison camp they’ve left: they will experience less hardship at their new quarters. Dresden is not the Land of Oz, though. The new camp is named Slaughterhouse-Five and fire from above is about to slaughter the city’s residents. Soon, Billy and his fellow prisoners are stacking corpses.
February 1945's bombing of Dresden is among World War Two’s many still-debated episodes. The future author Kurt Vonnegut was there. His surrogate Billy Pilgrim became the main character in his bold, hyper-real 1969 book Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. The film, released in early 1972 with its cut-down title, was awarded the Jury Prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Michael Sacks, who plays Pilgrim, was nominated for a Golden Globe. Although not canonical cinema, the contemporary recognition emphasises that this is something special.
As the novel did, the film – which condenses and cherrypicks the book while remaining faithful to it – shifts episodically through time and space. At the core is the war-time Pilgrim, with episodes from his childhood, post-war life and the one he lives inside his head (with Valerie Perrine’s saucy starlet Montana Wildhack on the planet Tralfamadore) seamlessly interposed throughout. The shifts, though sudden, never interrupt the dramatic flow. George Roy Hill’s direction is masterful. On a hot streak, he made Slaughterhouse-Five between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. There are, in the juxtapositions of civilian and war-time life, similarities with his later film The Great Waldo Pepper. Also tremendous is Sacks, whose affecting Pilgrim is a blank slate, childlike, an emotional barometer, horrified observer, naïve, shell-shocked and a cork bobbing through time and space – all at the same time. Glenn Gould’s soundtrack interpretations of Bach are equally notable.
While this release’s picture quality and sound are razor sharp, putting previous editions in the shade, its only extra is the trailer. There is no booklet, and it is a pity the film is packaged as Slaughterhouse Five rather than correctly as Slaughterhouse-Five. Nonetheless, this is must-see.
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