In the early 1990’s, I attended a speech of his in suburban Chicago, and the man I listened to certainly was the man who had written those sometimes-angry works. He frowned a lot. He seemed disinterested with answering questions. He talked about things in the world that bothered him. Dare I say that he even seemed a bit resentful of the audience who’d come to hear him speak? While the event was scheduled to last ninety minutes, the writer himself concluded it after just under sixty minutes when he was asked by a student if he planned to write anything new.
“I think I’ve written enough, and it speaks for itself,” he said and walked off stage.
To be perfectly honest, I found his “Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death” occasionally inaccessible … so much so that I even put it down once or twice during reading for an extended break away from it. This wasn’t due to its subject matter, some perceived negativity, or even its anti-war stance; rather, it was because I just couldn’t ‘get’ into the character of Billy Pilgrim, the perennial milquetoast of the tale. Having cut my teeth on some of SciFi’s more blustery heroes – the Flash Gordon’s, the Buck Rogers’, the Captain James T. Kirk’s – I wasn’t prepared for the likes of Billy, nor did I much care for him. Pilgrim was the last person I wanted to discover derring-do with … and now that I’m older (and maybe a bit wiser) methinks that might’ve been part of Vonnegut’s point all along.
As a result, I’d avoided watching director George Roy Hill’s 1972 adaptation of the popular novel. I figured I’d be in for more of the same, and – as it was common knowledge that the motion picture had largely tanked at the box office – I concluded I quite possibly wasn’t missing much. But I do so love a good film, and I’m thrilled to report that I’ve been proven wrong (again!) as I just completed a full viewing of Arrow Video’s December 2019 Special Edition release of this undisputed masterpiece.
For those uninitiated to the story: Billy Pilgrim is a traveler who finds himself somehow ‘unstuck in time,’ leaping through the moments of his life in what appears to be no discernible order with no discernible reason. Through this existential device, he experiences the life he’s lived again, perhaps eventually finding immortality through his departure from our world by way of an alien abduction which may just deliver him to the life he’s always fantasized possible but never achievable on Earth.
If that summation is a bit to swallow, then you really ought to try Vonnegut’s book: the synopsis there isn’t any easier. Still, Hill’s adaptation succeeds largely because it is accomplished on film: transitions are blended in unique ways that pose small answers as to why the audience is being pulled from one bus stop to the next on the ride that becomes Billy’s life. In a way similar that chapter breaks help structure a novel, visual fade-outs serve as gateways to fade-ins. A celebration from one’s past can be intercut with an entirely different one from the future, giving new meaning to both in a manner impossible with words on the printed page. Remember the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words?” Hill and his compatriots accomplish this ten-fold in bringing this journey to life on the silver screen.
Still, the Arrow release is solid with extras exploring the work of art as well as the place it earned itself in film history. There’s a great 20 minute ‘appreciation’ with author and critic Kim Newman (do NOT watch it before watching the film if this is your first time, be warned). There are also a few other shorts which look back at the film’s score, distribution, and the typical behind-the-scenes bits. There’s also a nice interview with actor Perry King who has a small but critical role in the film as Pilgrim’s son. And, of course, there’s a commentary track, this one provided by author and critic Troy Howarth: I was a bit disappointed with this as Howarth’s observations tend to be more biographical in nature about the folks involved before and behind-the-screen, oft times letting key moments in the flick go by without so much as an interesting aside or observation on what it may’ve meant … but, still, it’s nice to have something that gives the work the inspection long overdue.
The last word? This release is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. If you’re a SciFi junkie like me, then there’s enough in here to keep you interested even though so very much of the film feels far more conventional than it does a genre flick. If you’re a film nerd (also like me), then there’s more than enough substance to the film, the commentary, and the supplemental materials (though a bit tangential at times) to invest a few hours in watching director Hill and his cast of players work their cinema magic. And even if you’re seen the film before I suggest that you might want to see it again if for no other reason than to enjoy the merits of this brand new 4K restoration: admittedly, the print is grainy in a few spots, but it all looks great nonetheless.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a Blu-ray copy of Slaughterhouse-Five by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review, and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.
For those interested in picking up their own copy of this release, Amazon.com has it for sale; and you can follow the link right here.