Using his own terminology, Billy Pilgrim is "unstuck in time", which means he is moving between different points in his life uncontrollably, although he is aware of it at certain of those points as witnessed by the letter to the editor he writes to the Ilium Daily News about his situation. Primarily, he is moving between three general time periods and locations. The first is his stint as a GI during WWII, when, as a pacifist, he was acting as a Chaplain's assistant for his unit. This time is largely as a POW, where he was in Dresden the day of the bombing, spending it with among others an older compassionate GI named Edgar Derby, and a brash loudmouth GI named Paul Lazzaro. The second is his life as an optometrist in Ilium in upstate New York, eventually married to the wealthy and overbearing Valencia Merble, and having two offspring, Robert, who would spend his teen-aged years as a semi-delinquent, and Barbara, who would end up much like her mother. And the third is as an abductee on...Written by
The realization of this glimpse into the mind's eye of a man unstuck in time is brilliant to behold. Yes, the book is a brilliant work in its own right, and open to interpretation, as a truly complex work must be. The movie is not the book. It is Hill's interpretation of the book, and a brilliant and viable one it is.
Hill won the best Director Oscar the next year with "The Sting". He later filmed the similarly unfilmable "World According To Garp" and also did a brilliant job with it, partially by letting go of John Irving's more depressing side. Other notable credits include Butch Cassidy... and The Great Waldo Pepper.
Michael Sacks, in his first movie, and only starring role at the tender age of 24, is completely convincing and natural. He is equally effective, compelling, and believable at the six distinct stages of Pilgrim's life memorialized herein. If he weren't up to the six-in-one role, the film wouldn't work, but he is, and it does. (I wonder why he has no other major credits, and ceased acting altogether in 1984. If anyone knows, please e-mail me.)
Valerie Perrine is fine as Montana Wildhack. The other characters are all played for maximum irony and effect, and the cast delivers beautifully, without exception. Eugene Roche is the epitome of kindness as Edgar Derby, the yin, to Ron Liebman's yang, a twisted ball of anger named Paul Lazaro. John Dehner is brilliant as a war-hawk professor upset at the Vietnam protesters. His character would be as appropriate amidst today's global conflagration as it was in 1966. Lucille Benson, Kevin Conway, Sorrell Booke, Holly Near, Richard Schaal, and Perry King are the more familiar names in a uniformly excellent cast, including the German actors.
The musical score is also perfect, both in tone and substance. Vonnegut is a master of superimposing satire over irony over futility. The movie does a marvelous job of blending these contrasts and making its audience feel enriched. The music underscores all of these contrasts. The cinematography also is magnificent.
Searching desperately for something to say to show that the movie cannot be 100% perfect, the only thing I can come up with is that the pacing of the movie drags slightly when the soldiers leave the first camp for Dresdner until their new Kommandant gives his "welcoming" speech. It might have played better with about three minutes cut from that sequence. So what?
I recently saw Slaughterhouse Five for the fifth time in 27 years since I originally saw it at my college campus -- this time on DVD. I never fail to catch something new, and I never fail to enjoy it all the more.
Given how many 70's movies have failed miserably to withstand the test of time, Slaughterhouse Five is a true treat to be savored.
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