Blu-ray Review: Slaughterhouse-Five

Often you hear an novelist complain that Hollywood ruined their beloved book. And that sadly is expected when filmmakers adapt 500 pages into barely two hours running time. There are few examples where all the characters and major incidents make it onto the screen. But often someone a devoted reader walks out of a cinema complaining that their favorite parts and people were missing. Sometimes only the book’s title survives the studio such as in the remake of Cheaper By the Dozen or many James Bond films. I was lucky during my time at NC State in that I was the student tour guide when Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. came to campus to speak. During one of our numerous conversations, he praised George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five. He felt the movie had captured his book when it came out in 1972. He was a fan of the movie and thanks to the Blu-ray, you can too.

Billy Pilgrim (Sugarland Express‘ Michael Sacks) has become unstuck in time. He’s a middle aged optometrist who keeps floating between the past, present and future. The past is his time during World War II when he was captured by the Nazis during a winter battle. He’s a chaplain’s assistant and is immediately marked by fellow soldier Paul Lazzaro (The Hot Rock‘s Ron Leibman) as someone to hate. Paul somehow thinks he killed a US soldier. Billy’s only protector is Edgar Derby (Cotton Comes To Harlem‘s Eugene Roche), an older man who had to re-enlist to stop the German’s from conquering the world. While they are first sheltered at a POW camp with English troops, they Americans are sent to the city of Dresden that has no military targets. But this is not a straight forward war film. Billy transitions through time from when his father threw him into the swimming pool as a child to the day when aliens abducted him and took him to the planet Tralfamadore. It is while on this distant planet that he meets Playboy playmate Montana Wildhack (Superman‘s Valerie Perrine). Will Billy ever be able to live a linear life again?

Slaughterhouse-Five was not a big hit when it came out. The movie did well with the 16mm being rented for screenings at colleges since Vonnegut’s novel was always part of a class reading list. During the glory days of Mom and Pop videostores, my local Videorama had the film on Beta. Which was great since I knew what Vonnegut was talking about when he praised the movie. The movie did capture the mix of comedy, dramatic and science fiction found in the pages of the novel. The movie doesn’t replace the novel. You should still read the pages. But gives flesh to so much in the novel. George Roy Hill doesn’t overplay the source. During the bombing of Dresden sequence, we experience it from the bomb shelter with Billy and from the bomber footage of the actual night time destruction. Hill doesn’t give us visual awe with disaster effects. He sticks to Vonnegut’s tone. Slaughterhouse-Five is a timeless take on a man unstuck from time.

The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The 1080p resolution brings out both the life in the POW camp and on the surface of Tralfamadore. The audio is Original lossless mono audio which still makes Glenn Gould’s piano playing sound so sharp. The movie is subtitled in English.

Audio Commentary by author and critic Troy Howarth which is interesting since I’m used to him mainly speaking about Giallo films. He is well informed about how the movie came about and the talent on the screen.

Video appreciation with author and critic Kim Newman (21:05) has him talk about the book, film and George Roy Hill. He goes into how Hill gets into the time shifting.

Pilgrim’s Progress: Playing Slaughterhouse-Five (14:07) is a new video interview with actor Perry King. He talks about going to Yale for acting school. He got into Yale even telling them he was only going there to be in Yale. While he was in school, they did a preview of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Robert Redford, Paul Newman and George Roy Hill. Three years later, he’s auditioning for George Roy Hill to play Billy Pilgrim’s son. John Houseman was his mentor at Julliard. He talks about the time Hill didn’t even let him speak during a scene because he knew a reaction shot covered everything that he would have said. He identifies the voice on Tralfamadore.

Only on Earth: Presenting Slaughterhouse-Five (8:41) interviews Rocky Lang, son of executive producer Jennings Lang, about the film’s distribution. Jennings worked his way up from publicity to starting Universal’s TV department to producing films. Slaughterhouse-Five was his favorite film to produce. He says Universal bungled the release so that even though it won a major prize at Cannes, the studio didn’t get behind it for the Oscars. His father went on to make the blockbuster disaster epic Earthquake and Play Misty For Me.

Unstuck in Time: Documenting Slaughterhouse-Five (14:38) meets up with behind-the-scenes filmmaker/producer Robert Crawford, Jr. He had acted in a TV movie with George Roy Hill and turned into be a fly on the wall for the production of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The piece won an Emmy and he brought back Crawford to make another one. George liked the book, but had no idea how to make it a film. So they brought him the screenplay by Stephen Geller and he saw how it could be done. There are clips from the behind the scenes footage.

Eternally Connected: Composing Slaughterhouse-Five (11:36) interviews film music historian Daniel Schweiger. He speaks of the musical selections and Glenn Gould’s work used in the film.

Theatrical trailer (4:32) really gives you a sense of the film.

Arrow Video presents Slaughterhouse-Five. Directed by: George Roy Hill. Screenplay by: Stephen Geller. Starring: Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, Eugene Roche, Sharon Gans, Valerie Perrine & Perry King. Rated: R. Running Time: 104. Released: December 3, 2019.

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