Kurt Vonnegut

The Gold Standard: How the movies -- past and present -- changed our lives

“The message of the film is that war makes people crazy and they behave in bizarre ways,” Vonnegut says of “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” He connects with David Lean’s 1957 Oscar winner for two very personal reasons.

“It’s set only a year earlier than ‘Slaughterhouse-Five,’ ” the novelist says of his own antiwar classic. “Seeing ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ was nostalgic in that I was a prisoner of war with the Brits in Germany during World War II, and I was quite familiar with their bravely singing and other ways of maintaining self-respect. I got to like the Brits a lot in Germany.”

Taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut found himself locked in a Dresden prison, which had formerly been used as a slaughterhouse. Under the Geneva Convention, captured privates could be forced to work for their keep, and when he and his fellow Allies were marched to work every morning, German guards would yell: “A hundred pigs used to live here. Now you do.” Those experiences, along with the firebombing of Dresden, became the inspiration for his World War II novel “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Even without the personal associations, however, Vonnegut says “The Bridge on the River Kwai” would top his list of war movies.

“The movie is a work of art and not the message,” he says. “I was as impressed with ‘The Bridge on River Kwai’ as I was with ‘All About Eve,’ which isn’t about war or me at all. Movies are so important; they are so effective. They take charge of you entirely.”

Vonnegut is very fond of director George Roy Hill’s screen adaptation of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” released in 1972. “It’s better than the book,” says the novelist. “There are two people who should be eternally grateful to Hollywood: me and Margaret Mitchell.”

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