George Roy Hill was a well-known director of television dramas in the 1950s. When he broke into Hollywood feature films he quickly became a successful, but always seemed to lack the critical praise which would label him as an A-list filmmaker. That is, until he matched up Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the 1969 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This fictionalized tale of famed outlaws capitalized on the popularity of the ‘60s anti-hero films, such as Bonnie and Clyde. Then Hill hit the big time with the Newman/Redford team again in the Depression era caper film The Sting (1973). It won Oscars for Best Picture and Director.
Between these two films though, Hill took on a seemingly impossible project in the screen adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 cult classic Slaughterhouse Five. This 1972 hidden gem skillfully blends a strange, satiric comedy and a strong, anti-war message with the World War II firebombing of Dresden, to sci-fi time traveling to a futuristic planet called Tralfamadore. It’s the story of Billy Pilgrim, former army chaplain’s assistant, optometrist and survivor “unstuck in time”.
Based loosely on Vonnegut’s World War II experiences as a POW, this screen adaptation was written by Stephen Geller. While modern critics and filmmakers tend to credit Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan for experimenting with recursive storylines, Geller also ever so aptly managed the time shift and mixed chronology of this story’s events – as Hill switched from modern day New York, to war torn Europe of the 1940s, to a time in the distant future on an obscure planet, 400 billion miles from Earth.
Mostly obscure actors were cast very effectively in the film’s lead roles. Many were either Broadway entertainers or young actors making the film debuts. Michael Sachs is the unlikely hero Pilgrim. Sharon Gans is his aggravating wife, Valencia, who drives a large white Cadillac with a Reagan bumper sticker in the opposite direction on the freeway. Ron Leibman is the crazed GI, Paul Lazzaro the guy who thinks “the sweetest thing in the world” is revenge. Eugene Roche is Pilgrim’s older army pal Edgar who meets a tragic fate in Dresden, and Valerie Perrine (soon to star in Lenny and Superman) is Montana Wildhack, the porn star Pilgrim is trapped with, in a zoo-like bio-dome on Tralfamadore. Oddly, “And so it goes,” – though Vonnegut’s famous trademark catch phrase, which came from the novel and became a sort of philosophical motto of the 1970s – was omitted from the film by Geller’s decision.
This technically fine film was shot by famed Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek; Dede Allen’s creative editing makes the time transitions smooth and effectively reflect the lucidity of Billy’s sometimes random thinking.
Hill won the Jury Prize (in third place) at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival for Slaughterhouse Five. Even though Hill’s career would plateau after the early ‘70s, he would go on to direct the cult amateur hockey film Slap Shot, with Paul Newman, and a wonderful adaptation of John Irving’s The World According to Garp, with Robin Williams. The true fans of Vonnegut mostly loved this kooky film Slaughterhouse Five.