Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) composes a letter on his typewriter detailing his unusual condition: he has become unstuck in time. This means he can travel from his present to his past to his future without any warning and while his present is largely uneventful, his past contains horrifying memories of being a prisoner of the Nazis during World War Two and his future sees him kidnapped by impassive aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and kept in a large clear dome for observation. But its his war experiences which haunt him more than any, as he was separated from his unit behind enemy lines and met up with fellow, equally lost American soldiers who believed him to be a spy until they were all captured by the Germans shortly after.
You have to admire, however grudgingly, filmmakers who attempt to film unfilmable novels, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr's "Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children's Crusade" was one of those novels, an anti-war meditation on the nature of life and death in the twentieth century. This reflective effort was scripted by Stephen Geller, and kept the book's device of throwing its protagonist around his lifetime at seeming random, although actually every part of his story is presented in linear fashion, they're simply edited together (by Dede Allen) to create a mishmash of experiences. Sacks, in his screen debut, convinces as a man with no real personality, a nobody who events happen to rather than making them happen himself.
When Billy is being marched towards the train carriages that will take him to the prisoner of war camp, he is so overwhelmed by his circumstances that he keeps treading on the infected feet of the soldier in front of him. This makes for him a lifelong enemy in the shape of the dying man's friend, Paul Lazzaro (an abrasive Ron Leibman), and when the train reaches its destination and the man has passed away, the aggressively crazed Lazzaro promises to kill Pilgrim one day. However, it's not all bad as Pilgrim, after fainting into his soup and carried to bed, makes a good friend of his own, Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche, possibly the film's most humane performance) who becomes his a father figure in many ways and protects Pilgrim as best he can.
The point the film makes is that the most vivid experiences of your life might as well have happened yesterday because they will stay with you for as long as you live, but goes one further and says the most important times in your future make you what you are as well, even if, unlike Billy, you haven't gone through them yet. During the fifties and sixties, Pilgrim finds work as a optometrist, a suitably nondescript occupation, and marries the plump, mediocre but loving Valencia (Sharon Gans) with whom he has a son (Perry King) and a daughter (Holly Near), although you get the impression he really loves his loyal dog Spot the most.
However, it's the terrifying bombing of Dresden, where Pilgrim was being held, that commands his memories. Time heals all wounds, the cliché goes, but this film disagrees, saying although you may accept the most harrowing of personal ordeals they won't drift away from your life. The war scenes are the most successfully realised, both grimy and desperate in their persuasiveness, with senseless violence never far away. The present is approached with wry humour, but the future, with its themes of coming to terms, seems artificial, which was probably unavoidable as it features Pilgrim and movie starlet Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine) prompted to "mate" by the aliens in a fishtank environment. If anything, the film is as hazily formed as Pilgrim's character, but as an experimental one-off it has merit and the fatalistic inevitability of the deaths, both peaceful and otherwise, are well portrayed. The music is Bach performed by Glenn Gould.
American director, more at home with character than story, with a wide range of subjects under his belt. He started in television and theatre, and his first films were stage adaptations, but with The World of Henry Orient he appeared to find his voice in film. Other nineteen-sixties work included the epic Hawaii and musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, but he enjoyed a monster hit with light hearted western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.