Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

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"Excuse me, do you have any Grey Poupon?"
“Excuse me, do you have any Grey Poupon?”

Twitter Plot Summary: The life of time traveller Billy Pilgrim, mostly seen through his WW2 experiences and his time on the planet Tralfamadore.

Five Point Summary:

1. He’s unstuck in time, like Sam Beckett!
2. Death threats and Nazis.
3. Gratuitous nudity!
4. Dresden bombing.
5. Sorry, but Tralfamadore looks rubbish.

Having read the original novel by Kurt Vonnegut, the story never struck me as one that could be adapted particularly well for the screen. Featuring a story where the lead character, Billy Pilgrim, can travel through time to various points in his life, from childhood all the way to his incarceration on the planet of Tralfamadore where he is poked, prodded and analysed by generally benevolent alien overlords.

You could argue that Slaughterhouse Five is a potent anti-war message, concentrating primarily on Billy Pilgrim’s time spent as a prisoner of war during World War 2 and surviving the subsequent bombing of Dresden. This would be a perfectly valid argument, of course, but it misses out on what I think is the key point of discussion. At its core, Slaughterhouse Five (named for the camp/animal slaughterhouse where Pilgrim is interred) is an existential work, delving into what it means to live, to be an individual, to exist. The impact of war plays a large part of that, for obvious reasons, and plays a large part of the story, but the very nature of human existence is questioned throughout as a result of Billy Pilgrim’s ability (or inherent lack thereof) to travel through time.

One man and his dog. And aliens from the fourth dimension.
One man and his dog. And aliens from the fourth dimension.

Due to his time travelling ability Pilgrim is entirely aware of how his life will end, which in its own way is a powerful piece of information to hold. What does a person do with their life when they know how it will end? In the case of Pilgrim, this knowledge adds a layer of calm to his existence, almost to the point of being nonplussed about everything that goes on around him, even settling into a career and marriage despite seemingly having little interest in either of them. This is played out to a lesser extent in the film’s extensive scenes set during World War 2, with Pilgrim constantly threatened by his nemesis Paul Lazzaro and building his friendship with Edgar Derby. The Dresden scenes are certainly some of the more powerful, the bombing of Dresden in particular – and the destruction we see afterwards – are ones that linger in the memory. At times it’s almost easy to forget the science fiction/time travelling angle.

The film covers these big themes as well as any film adaptation of a slightly obtuse narrative source material can, although much of the knowing and somewhat fatalistic humour of the novel’s repeated phrase “so it goes” doesn’t even feature in the film script. This is perhaps a good thing, as drawing too closely to Vonnegut’s text would have undoubtedly made the narrative too difficult to follow – as it is it’s already pushing its luck. This even includes a number of key differences between the novel and the film – Vonnegut doesn’t appear nor act as the narrator, for example. Whilst to a modern audience it looks dated and incredibly 70s, those big themes are still hard hitters and the film remains engaging despite still barely holding a torch to the novel. But then – so it goes.

Score: 4/5

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Slaughterhouse Five (1972)
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