CATCH-22—“Weather conditions have improved tremendously over the mainland, so you won’t have any trouble at all seeing the target. Of course, we mustn’t forget, that means that they won’t have any trouble at all seeing you.”
When the long-delayed, much-anticipated movie version of Joseph Heller’s WW2-set satire finally touched ground in 1970, piloted by Mike Nichols, it drew a barrage of flak over tone (so fashionably cynical it went beyond anti-war to often seeming anti-human), excess (cost, gore for shock’s sake, some gratuitous nudity) and essentially for not managing to do sufficient justice in 121 minutes to the labyrinthine novel, 544 pages that took Joseph Heller eight years from typing the first words to publishing in 1961. Those not unduly invested in source fidelity also felt like it was an intermittently funny, occasionally spectacular, ultimately jarring bummer, a sum-of-parts pastiche rather than a coherent statement of much beyond bludgeoning that organized chaos equals collective farce.
Based on a small island off the Italian coast, personnel of a US Army Air Force unit fly combat missions whose total always increases. Bombardier officer ‘Yossarian’ (Alan Arkin) has had enough and tries in vain to somehow get out of the escalating madness, its insanity further played out in the attitudes and reactions of his crewmates and commanders.
OLD MAN: “You see, Italy is a very poor, weak country and that is what makes us so strong, strong enough to survive this war and still be in existence, long after your country has been destroyed.” NATELY: “What are you talking about? America is not going to be destroyed.” OLD MAN: “Never?” NATELY: “Well…” OLD MAN: “Rome was destroyed. Greece was destroyed. Persia was destroyed. Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you think your country will last? Forever?”
Nichols, riding the sky-high praise and success of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, spent two years prepping and many months shooting in Mexico and Italy, with Buck Henry tackling the script, David Watkin as cinematographer. Watkins came out better than Nichols and Henry, providing the memorable opening sequence and many effective images during the erratic course of the elusive, evanescent plotline; author Heller zinging the “vain attempt to establish a ‘story line’—something the novel didn’t have to begin with.” That said, he did think the movie was “OK”.
YOSSARIAN: “You made a deal with the Germans to bomb our own base?” COL. CATHCART: “A contract is a contract! That’s what we’re fighting for!”
Though the whole is a husk, the savory pieces are numerous and commendable. Arkin’s okay (maybe too “inside”—Nichols originally wanted Al Pacino, who may have been keener expressing confusion and alarm along with the absurdity). Better are the supporting lineup, with good conduct medals going to Martin Balsam’s bantam bastard/pushover ‘Col. Cathcart’; Anthony Perkins chirpy naif ‘Chaplain Tappman’; Richard Benjamin’s enabling elf ‘Maj. Danby’ (his crushed uttering of “obliterate!” is a silent scream); Charles Grodin’s calmly content creep ‘Aarfy’; Bob Balaban’s beaming ‘Orr’ (who gets the biggest chuckle when beholding the general’s WAC); Orson Welles get-on-with-it ogre ‘Gen. Dreedle’; Austin Pendleton’s hilarious dope ‘Moodus’; Jon Voight’s blissfully happy capitalist ‘Milo Minderbinder’ a lieutenant who sees deprivation and devastation as dollar denominators.
Nichols fleet of 17 reconditioned B-25 bombers (vivid power coached in frail packages) only figure a few times—it’s a war movie with just a trace of combat—but to great effect in that stunning opener and later in an abortive bomb run that plasters a lot of civilian fish. The German air raid sequence is a pyro eyeful, as is Paula Prentiss in a full frontal nude scene (unnecessary but the troops can deal with it, a “Holy war effort!” situation). Paula also gets a great “please, no!” bit doing a ‘plasma’ container exchange. The final reveal of ‘Snowden’ is hard to forget.
Mis-marked as a flop, it was actually #10 in 1970, but the $37,900,000 gross was measured against the $18,000,000 cost and that did little to please Paramount, gushing a river of money that year into The Molly McGuires, The Adventurers and Darling Lili (with Waterloo on the horizon). The low-cost, high-calorie MASH stole comic wind and review raves and the conventional battle bruisers Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora! out-grossed it as well, with sardonic Kelly’s Heroes not far behind. Catch-22 was redone in 2019 as a six-episode miniseries.
With Art Garfunkle (debut), Bob Newhart, Buck Henry (aggressively taxing ‘Col. Korn’), Martin Sheen (obnoxious here), Olimpia Carlisi, Jack Gilford, Marcel Dalio (the ‘Old Man’), Norman Fell, Peter Bonerz, Susanne Benton (‘Dreedle’s WAC’, amply present and fully aware), Elizabeth Wilson, Felice Orlandi, Richard Libertini, Liam Dunn.
* The Man Who Caught the Catch—-Joseph Heller, 1923-1999, had been stationed in Corsica and flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier. Initial hardback sales of “Catch-22” only came to 30,000, but then it caught on, and fueled by revulsion over Vietnam’s “light at the end of the tunnel” paperback purchases eventually reached 10,000,000.
Heller: “I actually hoped I would get into combat. I was just nineteen and there were a great many movies being made about the war; it all seemed so dramatic and heroic…I felt like I was going to Hollywood.” On his 37th mission, one of his gunners was wounded (‘Snowden’ in book and film), bleeding torrents. “War was like a movie to me (until then). I suddenly realized ‘Good God! They’re trying to kill me too. War wasn’t much fun after that.” As to the book he said “I wrote in during the Korean War and aimed it for the one after that….the Cold War is what I was truly talking about, not the World War.” On the response to the film he offered “had been foreign, in black and white, without stars and based on an unknown novel, it would have been a major critical success. This is not a comment on the quality of the film but on the consistency of film reviewers.” On target that time.