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Slaughterhouse Five Versus Apocalypse Now: Comparative Analysis

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To be considered classic literature, a text must be of outstanding quality in the time it was written and be first of its class, of lasting worth or have timeless qualities. Although writing style is forever evolving, a classic can always be appreciated for its construction and artistic qualities. The very best of classics form the literary canon, a group of literary works considered to be the most important of a time period or place. When a work is canonised, it becomes part of a group of widely respected and studied literary works. The canon deserves a place in the school curricula today, as children of the future deserve access to the best classic literature available. Slaughterhouse Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut and Apocalypse Now (1979) by Francis Ford Coppola are two classics which undoubtedly deserve to be a part of the canon and curriculum. Both Vonnegut and Coppola have made deliberate stylistic choices to effectively and uniquely convey the anti-war message. These engaging classics have the potential to shape the attitudes of future generations towards war.

The context in which Slaughterhouse Five and Apocalypse Now were written explains their anti-war agendas. Kurt Vonnegut entered the Second Word War as a private in the US army. He was taken prisoner by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and his first-hand experiences during the firebombing of Dresden form the factual basis for Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five during the Vietnam War, a war that was never declared by Congress. He viewed the conflict as an unnecessary use of U.S. power, as did many other citizens. This widespread public opinion meant that after many years of battle, soldiers returned home and were not congratulated for their service. This, combined with the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, form the political backdrop of Slaughterhouse Five. Therefore, Vonnegut’s novel should be interpreted as a lesson on the horrors of war at any time, not only World War II. At a similar time to Slaughterhouse Five, Apocalypse Now emerged from the Vietnam War era and took more than ten years and $30 million to make. By the end of production, Coppola was brought to the point of contemplating suicide, as the numerous delays had clearly afflicted him. The film is based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s 1898 novella, Heart of Darkness, the story of a captain’s journey up the Congo River in Africa. In 1969, the same year Slaughterhouse Five was published, Coppola founded his film company – American Zoetrope, to produce Apocalypse Now. At the time, the American antiwar movement was gaining momentum, as citizens became increasingly resentful about towards the United States’ role in the war. Millions participated in protests and riots. The movement was driven by public confusion, increasing draft numbers and the 1969 My Lai Massacre, in which the United States army needlessly slaughtered five hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians. By 1973, 58 000 young soldiers had died and 300 000 were wounded. Three years later, filming finally began in the Philippines. Coppola tried his hardest to accurately re-create the atmosphere and action of the war. In a news conference at the Cannes Film Festival, he proclaimed, “My film is not a movie. It is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Upon its highly anticipated release in 1979, the film received mostly excellent reviews. To support their anti-war messages, both Slaughterhouse Five and Apocalypse Now Both Slaughterhouse Five and Apocalypse Now share the common theme of the destructiveness of war.

To the untrained eye, Slaughterhouse Five may appear as a sci-fi novel about a crazy old man, because of the strange way its anti-war message is conveyed. The fourth wall is broken from the first line when Vonnegut writes, “All this happened, more or less.” (pg 1) Throughout the first chapter, Vonnegut tells the reader that he is planning to tell a story about his experiences in Dresden. He briefly mentions how the story will start and finish, before it even begins.

“This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this:


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Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

It ends like this:

Poo-tee-weet?” (pg 11)

The catastrophic firebombing of Dresden during World War II explains this and the other apparently random events throughout the novel. From his swimming lessons at the YMCA to his Lions Club speeches to his captivity on Tralfamadore, Billy Pilgrim lapses in and out of Dresden, where he survives asphyxiation and incineration against all odds. Apart from the clearly obvious portrayals of Billy fighting in the war, its destructiveness is often portrayed in a subtle way. For instance, Billy is quite successful post-war from a materialistic point of view – he is president of the Lions Club, a wealthy optometrist and a father of two children. These successes are by how the outside world views him, but under the surface, Billy is so war-torn he de-familiarises himself with the world. He is only employed because of his father-in-law. At one point in the novel, Billy initiates a conversation with his so, only to realise that they aren’t on talking terms. Vonnegut also includes science fiction elements, through the Tralfamadorians, to demonstrate how greatly war has disturbed Billy’s life. Billy hallucinates his experiences on Tralfamadore to escape a world destroyed by conflict – a world he cannot or simply refuses to comprehend. The Tralfamadorian theory of the fourth dimension serves as a way for Billy to rationalise the profound death he has been confronted with face to face. Thus, mentally, Billy remains a traumatised boy. This is substantiated by his name – Billy, a nickname for William, which depicts him as an immature boy, rather than a man. These subtle matter-of-fact descriptions of Billy’s life are effective in showing the reader that the impacts of war reach far deeper than deaths alone.

Apocalypse Now is slightly less subtle in its criticism of western imperialism. The film continually highlights the ironies of the Vietnam War, intending to reveal the atrocities caused by U.S. wars fought in the name of democracy and freedom. During the air strikes, sampan and bridge scenes, Coppola clearly demonstrates the utter death and destruction caused directly by U.S. involvement. Rather than saving civilians, American troops slaughter them in a panicked and thoughtless frenzy. Meanwhile, the film uses Captain Willard’s assignment as the penultimate example of hypocrisy. The U.S. military wastes countless resources and lives on assassinating one of their most successful military officials, Kurtz. Colonel Kurtz is clearly a man who has seen the great horrors of and has been forced into helpless acquiescence. He has forsaken morality for a life of great distaste. Indoctrinated into the methods of the U.S. army, Kurtz was the perfect soldier, until he killed two Vietnamese intelligence agents, at which point he was condemned. Bitter at the hypocrisy of the United States, Kurt formed his own army of loyal followers to which he acts as a God-like figure. While Kurtz is most likely insane, it’s questionable that killing him is a priority while U.S. troops and Vietnamese civilians are rapidly dying. Plus, since the military is actively engaging in assassination itself, why demonise Kurtz for dealing with two traitors to the United States? By regularly highlighting these hypocrisies, the righteousness of war is brought into question. In addition, Coppola highlights the pure madness resultant of war. As Willard’s crew continues upriver, they become increasingly agitated and separated from reality. Each character has a mental breakdown at some stage during the journey. When Chief enters the jungle and when almost killed by a tiger, he is never the same again. Indulging in drugs, his temper is shortened. Lance also withdraws into drugs. Meanwhile, Willard becomes overly obsessed with his target. What was once a mysterious and exciting voyage transforms into a hellish succession of rash and poor decision making. Their impending madness is represented through the fog and the darkness, creating an increasingly hallucinatory atmosphere. These themes are used to support Apocalypse Now’s anti-war agenda.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola both deserve to be a part of the canon and the curriculum. This is because both texts have the potential to successfully engage future audiences, due to their unique and captivating nature. By informing future generations of the atrocities of war, perhaps needless slaughter can be partially avoided.

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Slaughterhouse Five Versus Apocalypse Now: Comparative Analysis. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from
“Slaughterhouse Five Versus Apocalypse Now: Comparative Analysis.” Edubirdie, 14 Jul. 2022,
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