Andy's Anachronisms
Time Travel Film Reviews

Slaughterhouse Five (1972)

Directed by Roy Hill


Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time, involuntarily travelling between various periods in his life - past, present and future.


Based on Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s book by the same name, Slaughterhouse Five has been described by many as one of the best anti-war novels of the 20th Century.

In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim finds unstuck in time jumping between several periods of his life. From his experience as a prisoner of war in World War II to his suburban family life in the 1950s and 1960s, and his experience as a human specimen in an alien zoo on a distant planet, Billy seemingly has no control over these transitions, many seemingly coming without warning, others may be provoked by events at hand.

As disconcerting as the non-linear format may seem to some viewers, the nature of Billy's jump in time are not nearly as random as they appear. Each of the three intertwined story lines, proceed in a linear fashion with the events from one segment leading into the next segment from the same period.

As we watch Billy's life unfold through these series of glimpses into his world, a picture begins to emerge of a man whose traumatic experience during World War II has greatly influenced the rest of his existence. The horrors of war have given Billy a unique perspective on human nature and he doesn't like what he sees.

While the question of whether Billy is insane or is truly unstuck in time becomes the focal point of the movie to some extent, it is left to the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

I personally believe Billy's random sequence of events to be his own coping mechanism for dealing with the traumatic events that shaped his life. Unable to deal with the horrors of his POW experience, he suppresses them only dealing with them at a later date. In fact there are many scenes from his World War II experience that parallel his present day life. One scene that comes to mind is Billy walking up a flight of stairs in his home after coming home from the hospital. The scene cuts back to Billy's climb out of the bomb shelter in Dresden. This is almost a sense of déjà vu for Billy with his past and present reflecting each other. Not just the climbing of the stairs, but the realization that at both junctures in his life he is climbing into an unknown future.

At one point Billy speaks of having even seen his own death during one of these jumps. He admits that he has come to terms with his inevitable death and has taken comfort in knowing when the end will come. It is almost as if that Billy in order to come to terms with the inexplicable death all around him that he has rationalized his own demise in attempt to give himself some peace of mind about his own future.

It does raise the question though, if you could know the moment of your own death, would it comfort you? Could you come to terms with it?

Directed by Roy Hill, perhaps best known for his work on The Sting (1973), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance (1969), Slapshot (1977), the dream-like transitions between past, present and future are often stunning and work well to establish the rhythm of Billy's jumps in time. Surprisingly, with the exception of the futuristic "bubble" on the alien world, the film holds up very well visually after nearly 30 years.

As with any film adapted from a novel there is the inevitable question of how faithful can the adaptation be. With all Vonnegut's novels there are a lot of stylistic elements that do not easily translate well to film. Many of Vonnegut's works include considerable personal commentary on life from Vonnegut himself acting as sort of a narrator and Slaughterhouse Five (the novel) is no different. Vonnegut's humour comes across more strongly in the novel that it does here in the movie. While the movie does have its moments of dark humour, they are always lurking below the surface. A final note on the source material, Vonnegut notes that the book was largely written as therapy for his own World War II experiences as a POW and that he found the only way to tell the story was in this disjointed manner. If you are looking for a review of the book, please check out my review here -- Slaughterhouse Five -- Book Review.

As much as this film is about the nature of war and death it is also very much about the nature of time and memory. A compelling movie both visually and emotionally, Slaughterhouse Five is well worth looking up after all these years.

Note: For those students out there studying Vonnegut and his work, I urge you to check out Chris Huber's The Vonnegut Web which is the likely the most comprehensive site you will find on the subject. The site contains reviews, essays, criticism, a FAQ, links, etc. If it's related to Vonnegut, then it's likely to be there somewhere.

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