There were many films I loved in the 70s that now cause me embarrassment when I admit that love. This film was on the opposite path of time’s winged chariot – a film I didn’t like very much in 1972 that I now understand much more clearly.
(Note: Johnny Web was an alter ego I used back in the 90s.)
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?
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 night, 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 sixty 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 approached the subject in his typical voice, 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.
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, 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.
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.