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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Slaughterhouse Five (1972)
(2017 Reissue)


Starring: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman and Valerie Perrine
Distributor: Fabulous Films Ltd / Fremantle Media Enterprises
RRP: £14.99


Certificate: 15
Release Date: 26 June 2017

Slaughterhouse Five (1972. 1 hr. 43 min 21 sec) started life as a controversial novella, written by Kurt Vonnegut and published in 1969.

Immediately on its release it courted controversy and there have been many attempts to get the book banned for its perceived anti-Christian stance. In many ways, this arises from establishments not understanding the fatalistic, but not nihilistic, black humour that is the heart of the story. The film was directed by George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting (1973)) from a screenplay by Stephen Geller (Pretty Poison (1968) and The Valachi Papers (1972)).

The story revolves around Billy Pilgrim who is captured during the Battle of the Bulge and is eventually transported to the supposed safe city of Dresden, in time for the allies to fire bomb the city killing more than twenty-five thousand people, some would say unnecessarily.

Billy is special because he has become unstuck in time and so travels backwards and forwards in his own timeline. Near the end of his life he is abducted and placed in an alien zoo on Tralfamadore. Here Billy learns that the Tralfamadorians have a very different idea of time and free will, surprised that in all the planets that they have visited only Earth has this concept.

When Billy questions why they have abducted him, they answer that they have, because they always have, they see time as a fixed, event which can be visited out of sequence to the point of telling Billy that the whole universe will be destroyed by one of their test pilots and cannot stop it as in one sense it has always happened.

As the book was a non-chronological jigsaw of Billy’s life it was thought to be unfilmable, whereas if you except that Billy can experience any part of his past and did not always experience them in the right order the film works well.

In a chronological order, we see Billy’s (Michael Sacks) war experiences, from meeting Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche) an older teacher who had to push to get into the army, he becomes a father surrogate figure. Unfortunately, he also meets Paul Lazzaro (Ron Leibman), a psychotic infantryman who erroneously blames Billy for the death of a fellow soldier and promises to kill him at some later point.

That Lazzaro succeeds has two effects, it further undermines the idea that humans have free will, but also Billy’s peculiar relationship with time means that he loses all fear of dying, he even confesses to another character that he had experienced his own death many times, but here he was alive and well in his own past. This further adds weight to the Tralfamadorians idea that death is not an end to life as you continue to experience life and exist in your own past.

If the film has a fault it is with the portrayal of Billy Pilgrim. His acceptance of things means that he can often come over as uncaring, whether it’s the death of his wife or the killing of tens of thousands in Dresden. Michael Sacks plays the role with a fatalistic acceptance that he will live and relive all these moment.

Likewise, the film tries to make him an everyman character, but the portrayal is at odds with how people would react to loss and horror. It means that the portrayal is flat, lacking emotion, fine for a novel, but I don’t think it works well in a film.

There is also an uncomfortable visual juxtaposition between the war sequences, which are done well and the scenes set on Tralfamadore which at best can be described as looking like a pulp magazine cover. That said Vonnegut was very happy with the result, feeling the film captured the essence of the novel.

The film is presented on a single 1080p Blu-ray disc with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The picture is free of fault but does have an amount of fine grain from the original film stock. The disc contains no extras.


Charles Packer

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