Adapted from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1970 Off-Broadway hit by Vonnegut himself, this eccentric black comedy-drama sharply divided critical and audience opinion when it was released in December 1971.
Arrogant and macho adventurer and big game hunter Harold Ryan (Rod Steiger) – a contemporary Ulysses – is believed dead but returns unexpectedly from being lost for eight years in the jungle after surviving an air crash.
Back at his home in New York, he finds that he has become obsolete and that his fourth wife, Penelope (Susannah York) – a former burger stand carhop – has become college educated and developed into a woman of sense and sensibility during his absence.
She also now has two boyfriends – a bow-tied vacuum cleaner salesman (Don Murray) and an effeminate violin-paying doctor who lives next door (George Grizzard) and believes in peaceful coexistence, flashing everyone the peace sign when he enters or exits.
Ryan’s son, Paul (13-year-old Steven Paul) idolises his father as a hero but discovers that, with all his show of toughness and talk of killing, he is really no more than a vainglorious clown.
There are several scenes set in heaven where all the dead – good and bad together (including Jesus Christ, Walt Disney, Jack the Ripper, Mozart, Hitler and Albert Einstein) – play shuffleboard and swill beer all day.
We are guided on a tour of the celestial world by a little girl named Wanda June (Pamelyn Ferdin) – who was run down and killed by an ice cream truck on her birthday – and a Nazi major (Louis Turenne) known as “The Beast of Yugoslavia” – who Harold Ryan had strangled with his bare hands during WWII and who likes to talk about the atrocities he committed during the war.
Harold’s former third wife (Pamela Saunders) is also in heaven after being driven to drink by her husband and his “premature ejaculations”.
William Hickey, held over from the stage cast, gives a bizarre performance as Ryan’s fellow jungle survivor, Looseleaf Harper – a punch-drunk pilot and former Air Force colonel whose claim to fame was dropping the A-bomb on Nagasaki.
The film is really little more than a cinematic representation of the play. The sets are minimal and stagey – the “action” takes place almost exclusively in Ryan’s trophy-cluttered Manhattan penthouse apartment – and the (extremely proficient) cast self-consciously concentrates more on reading their lines than acting out what the lines actually represent.
As a result, the characters don’t really interact – they just say their lines and wait for the next person to do the same in turn. And actions and reactions are overplayed for dramatic effect.
But it’s an entertaining and bold – if not very subtle – comment on war, death, religion and the changing values of American society at the time.
Dr Norbert Woodley
Major Siegfried von Koningswald