With his 1984 oral history of World War II, The Good War, Studs Terkel articulated the sad fact that there were no good wars, even a conflict most clearly justified and necessary as our engagement in WW II. But years before Terkel had found the right language for the thought, and even before the country’s embroilment in open conflict in Vietnam escalated to the point of national tragedy, there had been a major re-think going on in post-WW II popular culture about how we thought of and pictured a clash of arms.
The end of the greatest conflict in history may have solved the problems of terrifying Axis global domination but brought little in the way of peace. There was the Cold War, nuclear threats, proxy wars, Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the often violent dissolution of colonial empires. In that light, a certain amount of disillusionment with the simplistic idea of the Good Guys valiantly triumphing over the Bad Guys was inevitable, and it wasn’t helped by the moral ambiguity clouding so many post-1945 conflicts. There’s a line in Richard Brooks’ The Professionals (1966) where a disillusioned Mexican Revolution soldier turned mercenary catches some of the feelings of the time:
“Maybe there’s only one revolution, and that’s in the beginning when it’s the good guys against the bad guys. The question is, who’re the good guys?”
Oh, there were still a lot of very patriotic, very thrilling back-patting war movies like The Flying Leathernecks (1951) and The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and exhilarating actioners like The Guns of Navarone (1961), but just as often postwar screens were treated to a more grimly realistic picture of what Eisenhower had dubbed “The Great Crusade,” i.e. 12 O’Clock High (1949), Battleground (1949), Attack! (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957);a portrait which grew even darker and more morally ambivalent with the Korean War and the likes of The Bridges at Toko Ri (1954), Men in War (1957), and Pork Chop Hill (1959). The idea of “no good war”, especially in the Cold War era of moral fogginess, began to extend beyond any specific conflict to the very idea of war, and the plight of the often young, often unenthusiastic men upon whom fell the responsibility of fighting and dying i.e. Zulu (1964), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
Showing the grim, violent reality of combat was one approach. But in the rule-breaking 1960s, a few daring filmmakers found that the way to puncture the balloon of glory on the battlefield wasn’t necessarily (or solely) to display war in all its brutality, but to depict its insanity and absurdity in an insanely absurd way.
That’s what Stanley Kubrick was up to with his dark Cold War comedy, Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Kubrick had initially planned to make Dr. Strangelove a straight-ahead thriller, like Fail-Safe (1964), but re-calibrated when he thought of the ridiculousness of a mindset that thought in terms of winnable nuclear war. The only sane way to address that insanity, he calculated, was to address the nuclear holocaust and the strategizing around it as a big, dark joke; the bitterest of bitter comedies, granted, but no less one that was as funny as it was frightening.
Joseph Heller, William Eastlake, and Kurt Vonnegut took a similar acidic skewering approach in their respective antiwar novels: Catch-22 (first published in 1961), Castle Keep (1965), and Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969).
Even though all three were published over a stretch of eight years, they had a remarkable amount in common. All three authors were WW II combat veterans, and events they each had experienced during the war underpinned their respective novels. And, while their styles were markedly different, they all took the same tack, sharing an incredibly synchronous morbid comic sensibility. None of the writers intended their novels to be an oblique commentary on Vietnam but rather a more universal observation about the various crazinesses of war and a skewering of the mythology of glory in combat. Still, their bestselling popularity no doubt reflected the college age audience’s making the connection between the authors’ universal views, and the specific conflict confronting young Americans sweating out the draft for a war whose purpose and very meaning were becoming less discernable by the day.
And it was also probably the growing tragedy of Vietnam which was responsible for all three novels being adapted into major feature films within a remarkably narrow window: Castle Keep in 1969, Catch-22 in 1970, and Slaughterhouse-Five in 1972.
But why indict Vietnam through a movie set in WW II? Because at the time, with one glaring exception, nobody was making movies about Vietnam because nobody knew how.
A torrent of WW II combat movies had been made during WW II. That was Hollywood supporting the war effort and certainly WW II was an easy war to present; not a lot of moral ambiguity between the Allies and the Axis. According to noted New Jersey film critic Stephen Whitty:
“…once World War II began…Hollywood (often working directly with the War Department) turned out dozens of pro-America, hooray-for-our-Allies, crush-the-Axis features and documentaries.
“As a genre, war films faded a bit after the peace…and while military pictures came back to life a bit with Korea, the conflict was too brief to really have a lasting effect.”
What’s notable here is that from the time American combat troops landed in Vietnam in 1965 until the fall of Saigon a decade later, the major studios of Hollywood shied away from the war despite its dominating daily newspaper front pages and the nightly news and, even at the time, obviously defining the era.
By the late 1960s, it was clear the country was turning against the war, but that came with caveats. Older Americans with a more traditional sense of patriotism and whose perception of their nation at war had been shaped by WW II may not have agreed with the war but were uncomfortable with the way the younger generation was protesting it; kind of a “My country right or wrong” attitude. The younger generation felt no such obligation or restraint.
So, the dilemma for the movie industry was this: make a move reflecting the disenchantment with the war that was in tune with the college age audience which was so important to the box office even then, and they risked alienating the larger, older audience as well as the government whose agencies regulated media. But make a more pro-war leaning movie, and you risked losing that young audience.
Hollywood’s solution was to shut up.
During the height of the war – 1968 – only one major studio – Warner Bros. – released a movie about Vietnam: the John Wayne vehicle The Green Berets. Although it was a box office winner ($32 million against a budget of $7 million), even at the time its simplistic, jingoistic take on a complex war (as well as its sometimes surprisingly shabby execution) was considered laughable.
But to take on the war by taking on the very topic of war and doing it within the safe boundaries of the supposed “good war,” well, maybe that was the sugar which could help a rather bitter pill go down. And that brings us back to Castle Keep, Catch-22, and Slaughterhouse-Five.
d. Sydney Pollack
w. Daniel Taradash and David Rayfiel
Of the three, Castle Keep is my personal favorite, although I must frankly admit it’s the most flawed of the bunch. But then, I’m not sure anything more than a flawed adaptation of Eastlake’s novel was possible.
A group of American soldiers, all having been wounded – some more than once – in previous combat, are assigned to a castle in the Belgian Ardennes forest. They’re a motley group, and a bit addled by their combat experience. The first two-thirds of the book are episodic, each chapter almost a stand-alone piece told in a revolving first-person point of view in a narrative round robin. The chapters range from the absurdly comic (one soldier falls in love with a Volkswagen, feeling it might be the only survivor if the war goes on), to the tragicomic (another soldier, a musician, bonds with a hiding German who is also a musician, only to have their exchange cut short when another American kills the German: “It’s what we do for a living…” the shooter explains).
Hovering in the background is the threat of a German attack, a plot line that weaves in and out through those early chapters until the German breakthrough kicking off the Battle of the Bulge. The last third of the novel coheres around the stand the Americans make trying to slow the German advance first in the nearby town, and then in an apocalyptic last stand at the castle.
The dramatic heart of the book is the complicated relationship between the American commander – the one-eyed Major Falconer – the Comte de Maldorais whose family has resided in the castle for generations, his young wife Therese, and Captain Beckman, an art historian, enraptured by the castle and its collection of valuable artwork, as well as by the Comtesse.
Falconer – “That is something about which I understand nothing” he says of Beckman’s concern for the castle’s art treasures – is a pragmatist. With the German advance coming, he has no compunction about getting into a fight that will destroy the castle and its treasures which Beckman views as a kind of blasphemy (“If it’s all destroyed, what’s it all been for?”). But Falconer is not an all-war-and-no-heart soldier; he’s openly having a tender affair with the comte’s wife (so young she’s initially mistaken as his daughter) which the comte fosters since he’s impotent and sees this as a practical way to continue the family line. The moral tug of war between Falconer and Beckman over destroying/saving the castle and Falconer’s love for the comtesse are the recurring drivers in Eastlake’s loose construction.
Veteran screenwriter Daniel Taradash and director Sydney Pollack’s go-to scribe, David Rayfiel tried to wrestle Eastlake’s rambling structure, which works on the page, into something that works on the screen. They abandoned the rotating first-person narration, replacing it with a voiceover narration by a single soldier, aspiring writer Alistair P. Benjamin (Al Freeman, Jr.), giving the movie some semblance of a connecting thread between the early disparate episodes. Some of the episodes from the novel were dropped as was one of the American characters, but that still left Taradash and Rayfiel an ensemble of eight which was, evidently too many, and some of the characters really don’t have much character to them. Nor could they lick the episodic structure of the novel until the film’s third act which, like the novel, evolves into a laser-like focus on the fight for the castle.
While a common complaint about screen adaptations of popular novels is that the screen version strays too far from the book, another problem with Castle Keep is that it sticks too close to its literary source. Eastlake’s off-the-wall dialogue, which plays so comically well on the page, often sounds overstuffed coming out of a live actor’s mouth.
And then as much as I’ve always respected Pollack’s work, and enjoyed most of his films, there are parts of Castle Keep where he plainly fumbles the ball.
The project was an odd choice for Pollack. Go to his IMDB page and Castle Keep stands out as his only venture into this kind of black, absurdist, often surreal comedy. All of his other films – including the three features he’d directed before Castle… — are grounded solidly in the real world, and while a lot of the film works (for me, anyway), the scenes that take place at the local whorehouse – the Red Queen’s – are handled in a painfully dated hippy-dippy pseudo-cool kind of late ’60s psychedelia.
And yet, as I said, of the three films, this is the one I like best.
Sydney Pollack had turned from acting to directing in the early 1960s and spent several years learning his craft on TV series like Ben Casey, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Kraft Suspense Theater, finally making the jump to theatricals with The Slender Thread (1965). By 1969, he’d directed three features (plus uncredited work on The Swimmer ), but despite gaining critical respect, he had yet to score a hit. Castle Keep offered the possibility of a breakthrough.
He was working with a novel off The New York Times bestseller list by a respected author adapted by two strong screenwriters, he had a big star – Burt Lancaster, letter-perfect as Falconer – with whom he’d worked before (on another of his respected fizzles, The Scalphunters , as well as The Swimmer), and had his biggest budget yet to work with: $8 million (in today’s dollars, somewhere between $60-70 million) to shoot in Yugoslavia to give the movie an authentic feel of Belgium, December 1944 (Eastlake had been a platoon leader in Europe in WW II and wounded during the Bulge fighting). It was even enough money to construct a full exterior of the castle.
Taradash and Rayfiel may have delivered a this-is-as-good-as-it’s-gonna-get script, but despite the Red Queen sequences, Pollack manages the tricky blend of dark humor and tragedy deftly. I remember an interview with Steven Spielberg sometime after Saving Private Ryan (1998), and him citing Castle Keep as showing how you could blend bitter comedy with combat (during the fighting in the town: “Is that how you want the day’s communique to read? ‘The whorehouse is ours’?”). The battle sequences in the film – particularly during the final stages of the castle siege – are physically and emotionally intense and appropriately Doomsdayish with no small thanks to the escalating franticness of Malcolm Cooke’s editing (side note: the fake castle accidentally caught fire; Pollack grabbed a camera and captured as much of the real-life destruction on film as he could).
Always an actor’s director, Pollack gets fine work from his cast, even if the script doesn’t give some of them much to do. But Lancaster is perfect as frighteningly clear-thinking, bluntly and brutally practical Falconer, and Patrick O’Neal, as the melancholy Beckman, poignantly captures the heartbreak of a man in love with beauty and who cannot abide the reason for its destruction.
Pollack, working with cinematographer Henri Decae, also manages moments of great and sometimes ethereal beauty. There’s a sequence in the opening scene of the film as Falconer and his men first approach the castle; they spy the comtesse through the woods on horseback, a bright yellow cape flowing out behind her in slow motion; something between a fantasy and a dream.
Then there’s one of my favorite moments from the novel:
Three of the American soldiers are dying in a rose garden during the defense of the castle. In Eastlake’s novel, one of the soldiers narrates the episode but describes it in a way suggesting they escape into the castle. But this is the delusion of a dying man. The film gives that narration to Freeman’s character, the writer Benjamin. The camera slowly pulls back from the shallow hole in which the dying/dead men lay. It’s now night, they are surrounded by flames and bullet strikes as the charging Germans surge around them. The sounds of battle drop out, there is only the sound of Benjamin’s voiceover of Eastlake’s poetic language taken directly from the book:
They both got up in the forest of dead roses and moved toward the stricken castle. They walked in staggered fine formation to the moat. The water was cool and clear, blue. They entered the castle and marched up the wide marble stairs clear to the high alone turret on top where they could see all the way home.
Then a smash cut to Benjamin reporting to Falconer that the three men are dead.
There’s also Michel Legrand’s score, a blend of late ’60’s pop and soaring medieval majesty, an underappreciated score, I think, and one of his best.
But I think what I especially like about the movie is something some reviewers knocked it for. Vincent Canby of The New York Times: “…accomplishes the dubious feat of being both anti and pro war at the same time.”
I think Canby missed the point. As tragic and wasteful as war is, it doesn’t mean there are not moments of ascendancy: valor, self-sacrifice, brotherhood. My feeling is that it’s that very blend of the worst and best in human nature which gives the movie its power, its ability to affect, which keeps it from the total cynicism of Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five.
And while some felt the symbolism that was rife in the novel and kept – sometimes awkwardly, I admit – in the film was sometimes too obvious, I found it all of a piece in what is, essentially, a fairy tale (albeit a grim one, no Brothers Grimm pun intended) about war.
Maybe the film’s unique concoction of the fairy talesque and desperate combat was either too awkward or too unpalatable, even in the turbulent late 1960s, and that’s why the movie flopped, grossing a measly $1.8 million. From its opening scene with its mud-splattered and weary soldiers seeing the comtesse gliding through the woods, and, in front of them, draped in snow, a very fairy tale-type castle, audiences may have felt in unrecognizable territory, a mindset of WTF is this?. Even today, though in some circles Castle Keep is considered something of a cult flick, on Rotten Tomatoes the critics’ and audience ratings are still pretty uninspiring.
Still, it’s the one I enjoy the most. I respond to the fact that the beauty finally saved in that burning castle, preserved in the prose of Alistair P. Benjamin whom Captain Beckman once advised to “…write well about this castle and how we kept it,” is the willingness of some to fight for something that may only have meaning to themselves…and to fight that fight even when knowing they can’t win.
The movie evidently meant something special to Pollack as well. Before she became a respected author, Ellen Akins, fresh out of her undergrad years, landed a job with Pollack. When he learned she’d never seen Castle Keep, he planted her in a private screening room to watch it. When I asked her about that, she told me,
“I don’t really know why he had such a strong feeling about it, but he did love it. I think he was a deeply romantic filmmaker warring with his also extreme commercial imperative. The movies he seemed especially proud of were Castle Keep and Jeremiah Johnson (1972) which both have that dreamy, almost folktale quality…”
Maybe it was because no one knows more about fighting for lost causes than a filmmaker.
d. Mike Nichols
w. Buck Henry
Although Catch-22 was not an instant bestseller, and – surprisingly from this perch – initial reviews ranged from the glowing to the hostile, it did immediately find a receptive audience among the young. As early as 1962, there were “Yossarian Lives!” stickers (being the name of the central character) popping up here and there. By the end of the decade, as Vietnam came to be seen by the young, draftable generation as endless, ever more brutal, and pointless beyond the point of simply not losing, the novel and its catchphrase title had become ubiquitous in pop culture. I was in high school in the early 1970s and Catch-22 was one of our assigned readings in an English class (interestingly, other sections were reading Slaughterhouse-Five – gives you some idea of the zeitgeist of the time). With its sharklike sense of blood (meaning money) in the water, Hollywood couldn’t help but see such a popular property as movie material.
When Paramount took on the project, they committed a then whopping $17 million to the project (somewhere around $130 million in today’s dollars). An entire period airfield was built in Mexico (beautifully detailed by legendary production designer Richard Sylbert to look slapped together from scavenged odds and ends), a collection of eighteen flyable WW II-vintage B-25 bombers was assembled along with a once-in-a-lifetime cast of big names and top-grade Familiar Face supporting players. Doing the adaptation was Buck Henry, who’d been nominated for an Oscar for his adapted screenplay of The Graduate (1967), and presiding over the whole shebang was Mike Nichols, coming off two back-to-back hits which showed his affinity for the darkly humorous with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate, the latter copping him an Oscar for Best Director.
I remember a Playboy interview with Joseph Heller in the mid-1970s where he was asked what he thought of the film version of his novel. He said he imagined Buck Henry going through the book and constantly saying, “There’s no plot here!”
And he was right.
Catch-22 is even more episodic and disjointed than Castle Keep, the chapters for most of the novel are almost able to work as stand-alone short stories. The novel constantly digresses, wandering off in its bouncy, lighthearted, and often absurdist way, to tell the stories behind characters who are actually quite minor players like the lieutenant who considers nailing his troops’ hands to their legs to make a more perfect marching formation. This may sound like a lot of random stuff, but it’s more like organized chaos, a chapter-by-chapter building of a universe of military insanity populated by a dizzying variety of crazies, nearly all of it comically extreme versions of what Heller experienced during his WW II Air Corps service.
There is a very loose, connecting thread – rather than a driving plot – holding the novel together and that’s the efforts of the main character, Yossarian, a bombardier with an air group stationed on a small Mediterranean island (Heller held such a post), to get himself grounded from combat. Yossarian is no coward, but a pragmatist. He realizes if he flies enough, his odds of survival go down, and every time he comes close to fulfilling his quota of missions, the publicity-hungry group commander ups the quota (Heller managed to survive sixty missions).
The title of the book comes from Yossarian’s efforts to be grounded for insanity; if you’re crazy, say the regulations, you can’t fly. It goes like this: you won’t be grounded for being crazy unless you ask to be grounded, but if you ask to be grounded, that’s proof you’re not crazy because only a crazy person wants to fly combat. That’s Catch-22.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian remarks to the base doctor.
“It’s the best there is.”
Along with Yossarian’s wish to be grounded are regular references to “the dead man in Yossarian’s tent” — Snowden, a new gunner assigned to Yossarian’s plane killed on his only mission. Since he was killed before he could be officially added to the group’s roster, he technically doesn’t exist so his belongings can’t be removed from Yossarian’s tent . Snowden’s death, graphically described during the emotional climax of the novel, seems to be the pivot point for Yossarian’s rabid drive to be grounded.
And he’s not wrong, because over the course of the novel, nearly all of Yossarian’s friends are either killed or disappear for one reason or another. In the last chapters, the novel takes a dark turn, almost despairing, and in the final chapter, Yossarian realizes – and here’s where the cynicism comes in – the system is unbeatable and the only way to survive is to desert…which he does.
Buck Henry, working with Mike Nichols, spent two years trying to hammer Heller’s organized chaos into something more cohesive that would work on the screen. The novel is so full of material that tons of side stories and characters had to be cut just to come up with a practical screenplay. In some instances, this turned out to be a problem. For instance:
There’s one episode where one character – Hungry Joe — is accidentally killed by a jealous pilot trying to scare him, and then the pilot commits suicide-by-air-crash as a consequence. But the scene is Hungry Joe’s only (nonspeaking) scene, and the episode has to be explained with awkward exposition since none of this has appeared before. What the book did so easily with Heller’s slip-sliding storytelling doesn’t lend itself well – in some cases at all – to film.
Paradoxically, the movie is beautifully done. The large cast, headed by Alan Arkin as Yossarian, and including the likes of Jack Gilford, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Paula Prentiss, Bob Balaban, Jon Voight, Orson Welles (!!!) – to name just a few — are all perfect in their roles. Cinematographer David Watkin delivers some dazzling imagery (a mass take-off early in the film is visually stunning), and taken individually, the various episodes capture both the humor and the horror of Heller’s book (overall, Heller approved of the movie).
But that’s just how the movie plays: as a collection of episodes, and, at the time of its release, reviewers had a hard time with that. It may have been as simple as there was no way for the movie to compete with the book, and reviewers of the day weren’t able to judge the movie on its own merits.
Although it’s often referred to as a flop, that’s not quite accurate. The movie grossed almost $25 million, which would’ve put it in the $190 million range today. But with the rule of thumb that a movie has to gross at least twice its cost to hit breakeven, because of Paramount’s heavy investment, the movie’s box office score has to be judged as something of a disappointment.
In terms of how the movie is viewed today, its stock has certainly performed better than that of Castle Keep. Castle Keep has a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 38% with reviewers and a 49% audience score against Cacth-22’s 80%/76% (a 2019 miniseries remake is also rated quite highly).
Maybe we’ve been through enough questionable conflicts that the organized chaos and absurd extremes of Catch-22 seem an even more perfect reflection of the world today than they did a half-century ago.
d. George Roy Hill
w. Stephen Geller
Unlike Catch-22, the novel Slaughterhouse-Five was an instant hit, quickly taken up by the antiwar generation providing Kurt Vonnegut with his first bestseller. If you read Vonnegut’s works chronologically, you can see him working toward Slaughterhouse, starting with the more straightforward prose of his 1950s works, and then with Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, moving toward the playful comic style which easily blended oddball science fiction with a mordant view of humanity. The simple, bouncing language of his Slaughterhouse prose provides a striking counterpoint to the novel’s often grand tragedies, like the firebombing of Dresden in WW II (Vonnegut lived through the bombing as an American POW), which make up much of the novel.
After an opening chapter in which Vonnegut explains how he came to write the book, the opening of the story proper immediately lays out the dynamic of the novel; a mix of fanciful sci fi, life-sized tragedy, and a comic matter-of-fact remove which treats all events, good and bad and absurd, with the same light touch delivered in deceptively, artfully simple prose:
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 come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.
Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.
While the feel of the novel is comic, Billy Pilgrim’s life plays as a catalog of misfortunes and disappointments: a stultifying marriage, a near-fatal plane crash, his wife dying in an automobile accident on the way to see him in the hospital, a son who goes from juvenile delinquent to Green Beret ready to fight in Vietnam, and – the biggie – being taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge and living through the total destruction of Dresden, then seeing a friend of his executed by the Germans in the aftermath. And, since he can time-travel the entire length of his life, he also gets to experience his death, assassinated by another former POW who has held a grudge against him for decades.
Billy gains some perspective on these events when he’s abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore to be put on display in their zoo. The Talfamadorians are capable of seeing past, present and future all at once. As Billy explains in a letter he writes to his local newspaper:
All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance…they can look at any moment that interests them…
The Tralfamadorians abduct porn star Montana Wildhack hoping the two will breed. Billy and Montana come to love each other, have a child, and then Billy is returned to Earth, although because he is unstuck in time, he gets to keep going back to happy times with Montana.
Like Castle Keep and Catch-22, much of the novel is episodic, yet it is more cohesive than those other novels because there is a definite chronology at work; it’s just that Vonnegut has scrambled it as Billy bounces back and forth through the timeline of his life. This allows Vonnegut to save emotional peaks which occurred to Billy when he was young (his WW II experiences) to a later part of the novel where they can have a more climactic punch. It also gives Vonnegut the maneuvering room to give Billy pleasant times with Montana at the end of the novel rather than dwelling on the losses or his own death. So, rather than moving along like a conventional plot, Vonnegut himself once described the novel’s structure as “…essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips.
The major knock on the novel was its cynicism taken from the Tralfamadorian view that all moments are as they are; a view best illustrated when the Tralfamadorians try to explain to Billy that one of their test pilots will be responsible for the destruction of the universe.
“If you know this,” said Billy, “isn’t there some way you can prevent it? Can’t you keep the pilot from pressing the button?”
“He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”
That there’s nothing to be done to change known future events is behind the novel’s signature phrase, “So it goes,” which follows most of the major (and usually tragic) events of the novel. It’s sort of a more lyrical way of saying, “Shit happens,” and it’s that sense of grim resignation for which some reviewers dinged the novel. Still, in 1969, it’s a view which easily resonated with a generation which despite their protests, burnings of draft cards, desertions to Canada, and trading blows with flag-waving hard hat types in the streets, watched the war in Vietnam grind on and on and on for no apparent purpose to no foreseeable end. So it goes.
George Roy Hill’s decade-long ascension to the director’s chair was steady but impressive. He’d started out as an actor in the early 1950s, appearing in the live TV dramas for which the era would best be remembered, then he began writing for those same shows, then directing, and finally took the step to directing a big screen feature with an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Period of Adjustment (1962). A critical and commercial success, Hill would go on to turn out a mix of commercial and/or critical winners including the big-budget historical, Hawaii (1966) and the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). By then he’d established himself as a director of high-caliber commercial cinema and a fine director of actors. He would vault to the top of the A-list in 1969 with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The movie would grab seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and for Hill as director, and not only be the biggest hit of the year, but one of the five biggest earners of the decade. From there, armed with a budget of $3.2 million (around $23 million today – a high end indie, say), Hill moved to tackle Slaughterhouse-Five.
Adapting the novel was Stephen Geller whose only prior produced screenplay was nifty little thriller, Pretty Poison (1968).
Despite the novel’s episodic structure, the underlying coherent chronology, though scrambled, gives the movie, as it did the novel, a greater coherence than Castle Keep or Catch-22 (sort of similar to what was pulled off in (500) Days of Summer ). Still, Geller was faced with the same storytelling issue as the other two novels in that the free-roaming nature of the book allowed Vonnegut to wander easily through an enormous amount of material. It fell to Geller to figure out what to keep and what to cut.
The tactical problem for Hill was that there was no cinematic counterpart for Vonnegut’s comically understated style. What he came up with was to approach the material with a dignified restraint, approaching all incidents – from the off-the-wall Tralfamadore scenes to the tragedies around and including the Dresden bombing – in a kind of matter-of-fact so-it-goes manner (curiously, the novel’s signature phrase never shows up in the movie).
It must’ve worked: at the Cannes Film Festival, Slaughterhouse-Five was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won the Jury Prize, and Geller was awarded a special jury prize for his adaptation. The Writer’s Guild would also nominate Geller’s script, the Director’s Guild nominated Hill, and the science fiction community showed their love with Hugo and Saturn Awards as well as a Golden Scroll from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. Reviewers praised the film (critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes is still 82%) and Vonnegut himself lauded the final product.
Unfortunately, the love stopped at the box office. Commercially, the movie was a dud.
And therewith another commonality among the three films.
Three major releases all hitting screens within a few years of each other, all based on critically-praised bestsellers, all plugging into the antiwar sentiment of the time, and each helmed by a serious, respected filmmaker, and the box office score? Two flops and an underperformer.
Trying to figure out the “why” behind that dismal performance a half-century after the last of these three films debuted on the big screen is pure guesswork. The directors can’t offer an opinion: Sydney Pollack died in 2008, Mike Nichols in 2014, George Roy Hill in 2002.
Surely the bad reviews for Castle Keep and the mixed reception for Catch-22 couldn’t have helped those two, and maybe Slaughterhouse-Five suffered from a lack of star power (it was the first film for Michael Sacks who played Billy Pilgrim).
Stephen Whitty offers a possibility:
“Some war films continued to be big hits during the Vietnam era. But they were singular exceptions, like The Dirty Dozen (1967 – which is really an action picture) and Patton (1970 – which is really a biopic) and M*A*S*H (1970 – which is really a comedy, with Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland as the most anachronistic Korean War soldiers you ever saw, and the last act turning into a kind of college football farce). Many more straightforward films flopped, however. And that’s because, while the anti-establishment (and downbeat and sometimes despairing) feelings that Vietnam engendered started influencing all sorts of genres – from horror films (Night of the Living Dead ) to Westerns (Little Big Man ), when that mood came into war films, even if they were ostensibly about WW II, it made them a little too real.
“And audiences weren’t ready for it.
“The war was still going on. Their sons and brothers were still fighting. And those who were sitting at home saw more than enough of failed battles and catastrophic counteroffensives and dead G.I.s on the evening news. They didn’t need to go to theaters for that. Movies like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five which talked about the absurdity, or inhumanity of war were not something they were going to flock to.”
I want to posit another possibility: these were three novels that really didn’t want to be movies.
When I was an undergraduate, my screenwriting as well as creative writing instructor was William Price Fox, a southern writer of some repute who’d also spent some time in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Fox once made the point to my screenwriting class that it was easier to make a good movie from a bad book than from a good book.
I wouldn’t call that axiomatic, I’m sure there’s plenty of exceptions to both sides of that equation, but if you’ve ever read the novels for Jaws, The Godfather, Touch of Evil – all works without much literary merit – you could see his point. And on the other side, well there’s the limp 1958 screen adaptation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and how after four tries (five if you count a 2000 TV movie), no one has yet turned out a particularly memorable The Great Gatsby for the screen.
There’s a reason. Stephen Whitty:
“…that light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby may stand for innocence, for nature, for that ‘fresh green breast of the new world’ – but once a director makes that allusion literal, it begins to get obvious and lose some of its poetry.”
Great books are not always about great plots with great characters. Sometimes they’re also about great writing; the actual storytelling. The author’s tone, or voice, or style – call it what you will – can be an integral part of why a particular piece of writing works. Stephen Whitty again:
“…(Sometimes) style is content…The more a great work depends on purely literary style, the less likely it’s going to be suitable for perfect cinematic reinvention…If…(a novel) relies more strongly on…imagery, metaphor, literary style – I think that becomes more problematic (for adaptation).
“The reason that novelists like Faulkner and Joyce are so tough to film is that nobody ever read those writers for their plotting; you read them for the words, for the ideas, and if you only concentrate on the storytelling, as movies tend to do, you lose a great deal of what makes them work.”
Author (and Guggenheim fellow) Sam Lipsyte put it more succinctly in a talk to writing students I was lucky enough to attend: “Sometimes the language of the story is the story.”
Some years ago, as an academic exercise, I wrote a paper on the possibility of adapting Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to film. I contacted my old film professor, Dr. Benjamin “Bernie” Dunlap, an award-winning scholar and author, host of the old PBS series Cinematic Eye which examined European filmmakers, and maybe the most brilliant guy I know, about the difficulties there’d be in taking Proust’s stream-of-conscious prose to the screen:
“Proust is as verbal as great art can be…it’s his language in those long ruminative passages that is the most distinctive aspect of his greatness, the ways in which I’m inclined to argue, words and words alone can capture and convey the full awareness of a living mind…his magic resides unforgettably in the words…”
Film deals in the visually concrete. The written word can go into a space where film can’t; an abstract, interior world of feelings, ideas, a sense – rather than a depiction – of the world. Bernie used to use, as an example of how inflexible film could be in this regard, the Robert Burns poem, “A Red, Red Rose”
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune…
Obvously Burns doesn’t literally mean his love is a rose or a sweet melody; he’s trying to elicit an emotional feeling, something that is not concrete, that is not a solid visual.
Back in 1990, HBO produced an anthology film – Women and Men: Stories of Seduction – consisting of adaptations of three classic short stories, one of them Hemingway’s literary anthology favorite, “Hills Like White Elephants.” The story has a man and woman at a Spanish railway station between trains with the man trying to coax the woman into a procedure which is never specified but has always generally been assumed to be an abortion. Typical of Hemingway, the prose is lean and sparse, most of the story carried by dialogue. It’s intentionally vague, the reader having to divine characters’ intentions, meanings, reactions.
In the handsomely done film version, which is nearly a line-for-line adaptation, all the engaging ambiguity of the story is gone because we can see the characters, how the dialogue plays on them. It is a story written to be read, not seen.
And that’s why all three movie adaptations were nice tries but were never going to work, at least not completely, and maybe along with Stephen Whitty’s assessment, and the weak critical reception for some, and the lack of marquee value stars in another, all three failed.
Vonnegut’s trademark “So it goes” doesn’t appear in the movie because it can’t, it has no visual counterpart, isn’t even useful as a line of dialogue. Vonnegut brings it back after every tragedy Billy Pilgrim suffers gradually building up in the mind of the reader that Tralfamadorian view of existence; a life philosophy. It is the connecting thematic thread holding the novel’s episodes together whereas in the movie, despite the coherent chronology, they can seem random, pointless.
There’s Heller’s recurring reference to “the dead man in Yossarian’s tent.” Obviously, there is no real dead man in Yossarian’s tent; it’s a reference to the belongings of the gunner who died in Yossarian’s plane. The comically absurd phrasing – and its repetition – hammers home the bureaucratic insanity which refuses to acknowledge the man ever existed so that his belongings cannot be removed. It’s the darkly comic idea Heller’s phrasing gets across and for which there is no cinematic equivalent.
And then there’s my favorite scene in both Eastlake’s novel and Pollack’s film; the scene in the rose garden…but they are a world apart in how they work.
In the novel, that chapter is told mostly through dialogue. We sense the soldiers are in a bad way, but there’s nothing definitive. Then as the scene draws to a close, Eastlake’s language soars in poetic ambiguity as the chapter’s narrator describes them making their way into the castle and “…to the high alone turret on top where they could see all the way home.”
Maybe the reader guesses this is a reference to dying, maybe not, but brutal clarity comes with a turn of the page and the opening sentence of the next chapter reporting the three soldiers are dead in the rose garden.
In the film, that kind of ambiguity isn’t possible. We see that they’re dying, and then that they’re dead. The shock value we get from that turn of the page isn’t there because we’ve seen what we’ve seen. It’s a beautifully done sequence (in my view), but it can’t do what Eastlake accomplished on the page.
Maybe the three movies failed because fans of the novels were going to have to forgive a lot…and they couldn’t.
Or maybe another factor, Whitty posits, may have been bad timing:
“Once the war was finally done, America could begin to clear its head and think about what it all meant. And that’s when you started seeing hits like The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) and, later, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). It took years, of course. It still does. We still haven’t seen many movies about Afghanistan, or even the Gulf War, that went on to become popular success, and it may be another decade before we do.
“But given enough time, American moviegoers are usually ready to think about what the cost of war really is – and who really pays the price.”
If Whitty is right, maybe if Castle Keep, Catch-22, and Slaughterhouse-Five had been made ten years later… Well, who knows? Maybe they work better today than they ever could have in their time.
So it goes.