War Movie Mondays: ‘Catch-22’

Catch-22 (1970) is one of those films which falls into several genres. It’s a war film, it’s dramatic, and is considered by many to be a “black comedy.” Mike Nichols directed this screen adaption, which was written by long time collaborator Buck Henry and on the Joseph Heller novel about a group of U.S. Army pilots stationed on a tiny island west of Italy during the tail end of World War II.

Legendary comedic actor Alan Arkin stars as Captain John Yossarian, a veteran bombardier with the fictional 256th Bomber Squadron who are forced to fly countless missions by their commander, Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam). Yossarian has flown over twice the required missions allowed by bomber crews before they are eligible to rotate back home for non active duty.

Yossarian feels that the more times he climbs into the nose of his bomber, the more chances he has at dying. Trying to fake insanity in order to be grounded, invokes the policy known in the army as “Catch-22” meaning that if a pilot tries to get out of flying missions, he isn’t really crazy and therefore can’t be grounded under the basis of instability.

Yossarian confides in Dr. “Doc” Daneeka (Jack Gilford) to try and have him committed for the duration of the war, yet Doc doesn’t want to rock the boat and feel the pressures of not only Col. Cathcart, but his even tougher adjutant, Lt. colonel Korn (Buck Henry).

The film has an impressive cast which include future directors Richard Benjamin (Major Danby, flight operations officer), and Bob Balaban (Captain Orr), who has crashed several planes in order to practice sea landings in the event of being able to paddle to neutral Sweden. 1960’s folk icon Art Garfunkel (Captain Nately), Bob Newhart (Major Major), Anthony Perkins (Chaplain Capt. Tappman), Martin Sheen (1st Lt. Dobbs), Jon Voight (1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder), Charles Grodin (Capt. “Aarfy” Aardvark), and Orson Welles (Brigadier General Dreedle) round out this screwball cast of characters.

When the film was first released, following the commercial successes of such films like M*A*S*H, Kelly’s Heroes, or even Patton, it was not well received by most critics, with the exception of Vincent Canby who wrote for the New York Times review and appreciated the film and acquainted Nichols’ directing style to that of Stanley Kubrick. Other critics claimed that Buck Henry’s adaptation didn’t do the novel much justice. The excessive use of jump cutting and flashbacks was seen as too confusing to most viewers (e.g. Yossarian trying to save the life of waist gunner Snowden).

On the contrary, the film does a decent job of editing, and the characters are very much like their literary counterparts. With failure to win any support on the American home-front, Catch-22 went on to win a BAFTA (British Film Academy) award for best cinematography, and also saved the life of the B-25 Mitchell which was the bomber used for the production. By 1970, the bomber was incredibly obsolete, and demand for them was starting to fade for war movie productions. Eighteen bombers were rescued for the film and many went on to have roles in other film and television productions throughout the 1970s. One of the planes was even saved to be put on exhibit, and still hangs to this day at the Smithsonian Air & Space museum in Washington D.C.

Catch-22 shows us the total absurdity of war and also that there is a very fine line between insanity and sanity. Yossarian is almost the sanest member of a cast which have been forever changed by the war and that the only sense in an insane war is to dessert before one is killed. Buck Henry brilliantly depicts the character of Lt. Minderbinder (Voight) as a black market profiteer who creates his own syndicate which takes on a life of its own by film’s end.  Eventually everyone from General Dreedle (Welles) and Col. Cathcart (Balsam) are working for M&M Enterprises.

I first watched Catch-22 in my film school days, during a Mike Nichols retrospective which included The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? I liked the movie immensely, and still do to this day.  Nichols and Henry are comedic geniuses and Catch-22 is a film that forty years later, has a large cult following and is considered to be an American classic, despite its failure to make money at the box office. What did critics say about Citizen Kane in 1941?

Catch-22 is a film that is too brilliant to be understood by many and that is the problem with most films. Some need an I.Q. test in order to appreciate certain films, and Catch-22 falls into that bracket of a film.

Catch-22 is available to own on DVD through Paramount Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

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