George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war/sci-fi novel shines in a new 4K restoration from Arrow Video
Arrow Heads — UK-based Arrow Films has quickly become one of the most exciting and dependable names in home video curation and distribution, creating gorgeous Blu-ray releases with high quality artwork and packaging, and bursting with supplemental content, often of their own creation. From the cult and genre fare of Arrow Video to the artful cinema of Arrow Academy, this column is devoted to their weird and wonderful output.
Any art form is one that deserves progress via experimentation — books and films alike. As such, I’m a sucker for films that tackle books or other material considered “unfilmable.” There’s an inherent dare to experiment, to explore, if the original authors are game — and if the whole thing falls short, it’s still applaudable that someone tried rather than let things live in a state of perpetual “what would have been.”
Slaughterhouse-Five, based on Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel, could not have been adapted at a better time. The original novel was published amid a wave of controversy as an anti-war novel at the height of Vietnam. The film adaptation, directed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s George Roy Hill, came towards the tail end of that failing war, as well as during the rise of New Hollywood — a period where experimental, cerebral films could flourish and find an audience.
The book and film follow Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist turned WWII draftee who is captured by the Germans, caught in the Dresden firebombing, raises a family in the US, and eventually spends time on the planet Tralfamador. That’s the linear version — but to Billy, unstuck in time, these moments occur all at once, experiencing and re-living the moments of his life in a simultaneous haze. As such, Billy is spectator and participant for his whole lifespan, past and future influencing each other to paint a portrait for whom living in the now remains a frustrating — and exhilarating — constant.
The film version of Slaughterhouse-Five is a fascinating adaption of Vonnegut’s source material, as Hill refuses to treat Billy’s perception of time as something fantastic or effects-ridden as other directors would expectedly do. Rather, Hill treats Billy’s temporal malady as something rather normal, blending and match-cutting sound and visuals as his hero would ostensibly perceive them. Others’ incredulity at this becomes a running point of humor throughout — and paints their more linear point of view as both frustratingly naive and understandably human. Billy himself also doesn’t become nearly as passive as one would expect — caught up in a whirlwind of wartime frenzy and torrentially mundane family life at the same time, both experiences have debilitating effects on him during each time period.
Despite its success among film critics and its warm reception at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival (where it won the Jury Prize), Slaughterhouse-Five was a box-office failure upon release. It did, however, find a revival among colleges where Vonnegut’s book was required reading, and Hill’s film adaptation has only grown in stature in the decades since. Arrow Video has now given Slaughterhouse-Five a brand new 4K restoration on Blu-ray and DVD, complete with a wealth of bonus features that go in-depth into the film’s adaptation, production, and historical context.
Arrow presents Slaughterhouse-Five in a brand new 4K restoration by Arrow Video from the original camera negative, accompanied by restored 1.0 mono audio and English SDH subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The technical presentation is rich and clear of visual degradation while retaining a healthy amount of film grain that preserves the film’s early ‘70s aesthetic. For a mono track, Slaughterhouse-Five’s sound design is dynamic and textured, particularly in Hill’s transitions between time and space, layering aural match cuts on top of each other to quite hallucinatory ends.
- New audio commentary by author and critic Troy Howarth: The noted Giallo film critic turns his attention towards Slaughterhouse-Five’s storied production history, the deeper meanings behind the film’s cross-cutting style and storytelling choices, and the film’s place among the careers of its cast and crew.
- New video appreciation with author and critic Kim Newman: The film critic discusses the rare elements that caused a film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five to finally come together. Focus is mainly on George Roy Hill’s film career leading up to Slaughterhouse-Five as well as the deeper themes of both the novel and film as reflected in similar time-travel cinema.
- Pilgrim’s Progress — Playing Slaughterhouse-Five: A new video interview with actor Perry King, who plays Billy Pilgrim’s son in the film. King goes into his upbringing as a Yale drama actor, seeing Butch Cassidy in a preview screening with Hill in attendance, and tackling a role that plays as out of time and context as its protagonist.
- Only on Earth — Presenting Slaughterhouse-Five: A new video interview with Rocky Lang, son of executive producer Jennings Lang, about the film’s distribution. Lang goes in-depth about his father’s career at Universal, a continued collaboration with George Roy Hill, and his father’s influence on his own career as a director.
- Unstuck in Time — Documenting Slaughterhouse-Five: A new video interview with behind-the-scenes filmmaker/producer Robert Crawford, Jr. Crawford discusses his career alongside Hill through the 1960s and 1970s, and being hired to do behind-the-scenes material for both Slaughterhouse-Five and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Brief glimpses are given of Crawford’s behind-the-scenes footage — I would have loved to see this as its own special feature, if materials allowed.
- Eternally Connected — Composing Slaughterhouse-Five: A new video interview with film music historian Daniel Schweiger. Schweiger delves into the various ends to which Hill, a classical music historian and enthusiast himself, employed Bach’s compositions throughout Slaughterhouse-Five — pieces brought to life via famed modern piano player Glenn Gould.
- Theatrical trailer
- The World According to Billy Pilgrim: An essay by film critic Peter Tonguette on Slaughterhouse-Five’s conception per Vonnegut, the technical aspects of the film’s treatment of time, and how both worked hand-in-hand to enhance the film’s faithfulness to its original work.
- Reversible sleeve: Featuring Slaughterhouse-Five’s original theatrical poster and newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley.
Slaughterhouse-Five is now available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Arrow Video.