Slaughterhouse-Five  (1972)

from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and CK Roach


Scoop's comments in white:

Listen: Johnny Web has come unstuck in time.

He begins this review stuck in 1972, when he first watched this film in a theater. He did not watch it again or even think about it much for 32 years, until he saw it in DVD format in 2004. When Johnny Web first watched Slaughterhouse Five, his first son had just been born, personal computers were unknown, and the internet was not yet a gleam in Al Gore's eye. When he finally got around to watching it again, he did so on a computer screen, in order to publish a review on a web page which he co-wrote with that same son. Between the two viewings came his son's entire life. As a result, Johnny Web was not only watching the film with the failing eyes of an ancient, but also remembering how he once watched it without glasses, remembering how he reacted to it so long ago, recalling the words he spoke about it then to his first wife, who was a fellow Kurt Vonnegut fan.

Back three more years in time.

In 1969, when Vonnegut's book came out, the military records of the firebombing of Dresden were still sealed, but the seal was about to expire. Anti-government people hissed maliciously of what the Allies had done to Dresden. The fourteen-hour attack nearly erased a city which had been one of the great treasures of European civilization, and the city seemed to have no strategic military purpose. It all happened at the end of a war which Germany had already lost, although its leaders had not yet formally acknowledged that defeat. Some people said that the number of people who died in Dresden was greater than the number of people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Yet Hiroshima and Nagasaki were common knowledge in 1969, and were duly reported in all American history books. Dresden was then still a deep, dark secret. Johnny Web was 20, a University senior, when Vonnegut's novel was published. He and his friends wondered if Vonnegut had not imagined the entire incident because, well, how could such a monumental thing have happened if they had never heard about it or read about it, despite their excellent and expensive educations and their extensive outside reading?

How indeed?

Back another twenty four years to 1945, four years before Johnny Web was born.

The allies were not proud of this incident, and hushed it up to the extent it was possible to hide an occasion of mass death. The allied planes unleashed nearly three quarters of a million incendiary bombs that night, as well as other explosives. The bombs created a hellish microclimate. Tornado-force winds uprooted huge trees. People fled from fiery cellars and were tossed by those winds, cast like leaves of paper into the flames. The corpses of the citizens of Dresden withered and shrank, caught in an inferno approaching 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. At least 25,000 people died that night1, maybe far more. It's not really possible to obtain an accurate count. Many bodies were torn apart or fused together. People underground literally melted from the intense heat. Accurate measurement could not even be done by the process of elimination because nobody had a good estimate of the number of people in Dresden at that time. That city served as the in-and-out hospital city for the German Wehrmacht, as well as a temporary haven for displaced civilians camping in its streets, fleeing from Russia's feared Red Army, which was then only 60 miles to the East.

Kurt Vonnegut was actually there, in Dresden, during the firebombing. He survived to tell the tale because his assignment left him far underground in a meat locker. His survival was miraculous. Somehow the flames and heat never penetrated to that depth, and somehow the air in that foul place stayed breathable, although firestorms were sucking away the city's oxygen.

Go forward 27 years to 1972 again.

In 1972, when this movie was released to theaters, the information so long hidden by the allies was becoming part of the public's common knowledge about World War Two. General anti-war and anti-establishment sentiment was at its peak in 1972, the year of McGovern's quixotic run for the Presidency, and counter-cultural people looked to Vonnegut's movie for a definitive anti-war statement, as well as an eloquent summary of the case for anti-Americanism. They were disappointed.

Vonnegut's novel and the derivative screenplay certainly reflect the horror of war and the meaningless of those 25,000 deaths, but Vonnegut did everything in his own way, with wistful humor, and pathos, all in the context of an absurd and sometimes downright silly science-fiction story. The angriest anti-war people of that time wanted more anger from their idol Vonnegut, but the chain-smoking author offered mostly sadness, and deep sorrow at the failings of the human race. He was not at all unpatriotic or anti-American. He was simply pro-humanity, willing to state only the unvarnished truth that Americans, like any other people, were capable of horrific mistakes.

So it goes.

Move forward another twenty three years to February of 1995.

Johnny Web has been to Dresden himself since he first saw this film. He visited there in the early 90s when he was first studying the feasibility of building modern convenience stores in the former East Germany. Some historic buildings had still not been rebuilt since the attack of February 13, 1945, which had happened almost exactly fifty years earlier than the day of Johnny Web's visit. In and about the famed Frauenkirche, the bricks from the walls still lay in piles of rubble, a monument both to the finality of the devastation wrought two generations earlier, and to the ongoing fecklessness of the East German government.2

Can Johnny Web say that re-watching the film in 2004 brought back memories of the visit to Dresden in February of 1995? Perhaps it did, in a way, evoke some feelings about the 1995 visit as well as about his 1972 viewing of the film. Unfortunately, those feelings remained in fuzzy focus, since the film was actually shot in Prague! No American film crews could film in East Germany in 1972. The filmmakers did a good job on the substitution, however. Web remembered his first look at the Dresden skyline, how odd it looked, both Baroque and neo-Baroque, yet with unexpected onion towers and minarets showing various non-European influences. The film managed to show a part of Prague which conveyed the same exotic impression.

Move back again to 1972.

What did he talk about in 1972 when he saw the film, besides the anti-war issues which dominated those times? He wondered about the unknown playing Billy Pilgrim. The 23 year old actor seemed to bring Billy to life quite well, even did a decent job of playing Billy as an old man, but was he just playing himself? Would he ever have another such major role?

Forward to the present.

Looking at the same questions from the 2004 direction, Web thinks, "Say, whatever did happen to that guy?" Michael Sacks took on a few more roles, never had anything else resembling a success, and disappeared from show business without a trace in 1984, his acting career over at age 36, when Web's own career was just beginning to skyrocket. Having once considered an actor's life and being almost exactly the same age as Michael Sacks, Johnny Web suddenly found himself grateful to have chosen the conventional corporate life. Sacks ended up in that life himself, eventually applying his Ivy League degrees to become a successful infotech specialist with IBM, Morgan Stanley and Salomon Brothers.

In 1972, Johnny Web was perfectly well stuck in a specific time and didn't think Slaughterhouse Five was a great film. With a young man's arrogance, he thought the film trivialized an important subject. But then again, he was 23 and had yet to realize that people really do come unstuck in time. While watching the film in 2004, at the same time he also watched his younger self watching the film in 1972. He drifted back to that day in 1972, seeing both the past and the future from that vantage. He saw his trip to Dresden in 1995; he saw 1969, and he thought about 1945.

Then he saw what Vonnegut was driving at, how any life is a simultaneous compilation of all its moments. That is the unique power and complexity of the human mind. Vonnegut was always there, in Dresden. He was there every day of his life. He is undoubtedly still there, thirty five years after he wrote the book.

Dresden was a tragedy, but Vonnegut's book and this film were never the hand-wringing melodramas that some people expected them to be. Yet it is a very good film. Very, very good. Compassionate and insightful. Funny and sad.

It took Mr. Web 32 years to figure that out.

Johnny Web has finally come unstuck in time.

Historical footnotes:


In February 1965, Theo Miller, a member of the Dresden clearing staff, wrote about the clearance work after the attack. He said that by mid-March 1945, when their task was almost complete, they had uncovered 30,000 corpses.

Two authentic wartime documents - the ‘Final Report’ of the Dresden police dated 15 March 1945 and Report 1404 of the Berlin chief of police dated 22 March 1945 - both stated that the current death roll was 18,375; the second predicted a final death roll of 25,000.

A faked document, known as TB-47, stated that 202,040 people died.  In 1977, Götz Bergander discovered and published details of the ‘real’ TB 47, which set out the true figures. The number of dead was put at 20,204; the expected final count at 25,000 and the figure for cremations at 6,865. The fake document had simply multiplied all the numbers by exactly ten.

Adrian Weale wrote: "The actual figure for deaths in the Dresden bombing is somewhere between 20 and 50 thousand.  Quibbling about so many thousands of dead may seem pointless but Dresden is often cited by neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers to claim a moral equivalency between the Nazis and the Allies.  Typically, these people will accept that a few hundred thousand Jews and others died of starvation and disease in the concentration camps but that the figure is about the same as the number of civilians killed at Dresden, therefore the Nazis were no worse than the Allies.  In fact, the civil defense commissioner for Dresden did a detailed study in February-March 1945 based on surviving records, like the numbers of civilians claiming food rations etc, and his conclusion was that 27,000 had died. This was probably a low estimate because refugees from the east were arriving all the time, but it is of the correct order of magnitude.  For a good discussion of how the mortality figures for Dresden have been ramped over the years, see Professor Richard Evans’s ‘Lying About Hitler’. One other thing about Vonnegut’s book.  The figure of the American traitor who appears, trying to recruit POWs for the SS is actually based on a unit of British SS soldiers who were based in Dresden at the time of the bombing and were touring around POW camps and work parties."  Adrian wrote a book about them.



The distinct church known as Frauenkirche has now been almost completely restored.


CK Roach's comments in yellow:

"Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and came out another one in 1941. He has gone back though this door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he pays random visits to all the events in between"

So starts the outstanding novel by Kurt Vonnegut. This novel was adapted to the screen in 1972. The movie stars Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim and Valerie Perrine as a skin flick star, Montana Wildhack.


Perrine appears topless in a skin flick watched at the drive-in by Billy and his family. Her buns are also seen. She also appears topless in the dome after being abducted to Tralfamadore.

The fictional story is mixed with true events experienced by Kurt Vonnegut as a prisoner of war, imprisoned in a slaughterhouse (Schlachthof funf) in Dresden. The author really did live through the firebombing of Dresden. The fictional overlay adds a science fiction twist complete with time travel and alien abduction. In the movie Pilgrim moves randomly from time to time. A sociopath, who blames him for the death of a fellow prisoner, always pursues him. He meets up with beings from the planet Tralfamadore. These creatures see time all at once as opposed to our seeing only the current moment. When they look at a person they see his whole life at once. Billy ends up in their zoo (a furnished dome) living with another abductee, Miss Wildhack.

DVD info from Amazon

  • The DVD transfer quality is finally adequate. It has been re-issued and the new DVD has a satisfactory widescreen anamorphic transfer.

  • (No other features)

The universe is destroyed in a scientific accident. No matter how many times the Tralfamadorians live it over and over again, that won't change.

The movie is an outstanding adaptation of a difficult story to follow. The movie remains very faithful to the novel. It was so well done, one can actually come away from the movie, read the novel, and understand the film better.

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

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