Taylor Downing reviews a classic war movie
When Joseph Heller’s legendary novel Catch-22 was published in 1961, it received a mixed reception. Many critics thought it was a hilarious take on war. Others thought it was monotonous and offensive to American values. Over the years, it acquired cult status, picking up a reputation as a classic piece of 20th-century American literature – a masterly satire on the craziness of war.
The book follows a collection of absurd characters who are part of the US 256th Bomber Squadron, based on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa (off the west coast of Italy) in the latter part of the Second World War.
Heller had himself flown 60 missions from the island of Corsica during 1944, as a bombardier in B-25 Mitchell bombers; the book is a fantasy inspired by his own wartime experiences. With the average death rate at 5% per mission, the mathematical probability was that a B-25 crew member would not survive 20 missions. Having flown 60 sorties, Heller later claimed that he had survived ‘three lives’ during the war.
The novel has no clear chronology, but it follows a sequence of events from different characters’ points of view. Some of the book is wildly funny. Other sections are dark and play on the brutal horrors of war.
When the book was published, America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam had barely begun. As the 1960s passed, US involvement rapidly escalated. By the end of the decade, half a million Americans were fighting an impossible war against an unconventional enemy who could simply disappear into the jungle when confronted by America’s overwhelming military might.
To many Americans, the war had become utterly insane – particularly when the military began to release press statements with claims like, ‘In order to protect the village [from the communist Vietcong], we had to destroy it.’
As the Vietnam War increasingly went off the rails, director Mike Nichols became fascinated by Heller’s novel, and he eventually encouraged Buck Henry to produce a screenplay. Nichols had directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and The Graduate (1967), starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.
Both were spectacularly successful. For two years, Henry struggled to transfer Heller’s disjointed storyline into a working script. Eventually, he came up with a format that reflected the style of the original novel by going back and forth, repeating several scenes, to reveal a little more of the story in each repetition. Some of the storylines in the book are ignored. Others are transposed from one character to another. Nevertheless, Heller announced his approval of Henry’s script.
The film works so well because the extraordinary characters created by Heller really come alive on screen when played by a galaxy of stars. The central character is a B-25 bombardier, Captain Yossarian, memorably played by Alan Arkin.
Although in the book Yossarian was supposedly an Assyrian, Arkin brings a rich vein of Jewish self-doubt and humour to the part. Yossarian is utterly convinced that everyone is out to kill him, because everywhere he goes people are firing at him or forcing him to fly more missions. When his fellow officers argue that it is not personal, that the enemy is firing at everyone, Yossarian refuses to accept this and insists they are all trying to kill him. The other officers in his squadron conclude that he is crazy.
The backdrop to both book and film is that the commander, Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam), and his obsequious executive officer Colonel Korn (played by scriptwriter Buck Henry) are constantly increasing the number of missions a man has to fly before he can return home. The usual number was 25. But Cathcart raises this to 40, then 55, then 70, in an attempt to make his squadron the most famous in the US Air Force. But every time he does this, he narrows the chances of anyone surviving their tour of duty.
Yossarian grows terrified as his chances of survival decline, so he asks to be grounded. In an early scene, he comes up against the double bind that is at the heart of the film. Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford) tells him that a man can only be grounded if he is crazy and therefore unable to fly. However, as it is clearly crazy to carry on flying against such suicidal odds, a man has to be sane to want to stop flying further missions. In that case, he cannot be grounded, as he is sane and not crazy. This is the paradox known as ‘catch-22’.
Catch-22 creates a world of logic that appears unassailable but is utterly absurd. For instance, the man named Major Major (played with wonderful craziness by Bob Newhart) is a captain. Colonel Cathcart decides this does not look right on the manifest, so promotes him to the rank of major and makes him the squadron commander – despite the fact that he has never flown a plane.
The troubled Major Major announces to his flight sergeant (Norman Fell) that his job is ‘tough enough without people wanting things from me’ and that he will refuse to see anyone in his office. ‘When can they come to see you, sir?’ asks the Sergeant. ‘When I’m not here,’ replies Major Major. Anyone can be allowed in when he is not there, but no one is to come in, including the sergeant, when he is there. As Major Major climbs out of the window, he tells the sergeant to admit a waiting visitor to an empty room.
SURREAL AND ABSURD
Operations officer Major Danby (Richard Benjamin) gives crazily jaunty pre-flight briefings. One day, General Dreedle (Orson Welles) comes to visit. The officers in the briefing ogle and moan at the general’s female assistant (Susanne Benton) as she sits in front of them, repeatedly crossing her legs.
General Dreedle announces that the moaning must stop and that the next man to moan will be shot. The officers go silent, but when Major Danby realises no one has been listening to him he moans out load. General Dreedle immediately announces that Danby is to be taken outside and shot. A flurry of activity follows, and Danby faints in panic. Lieutenant Colonel Moodus (Austin Pendleton – Dreedle’s son-in-law, who accompanies the general everywhere – points out that it is against regulations to have Major Danby shot, to the evident disappointment of the general.
On another occasion, the squadron drop their bombs into the sea to prevent them from falling on innocent civilians. To cover this up, Cathcart decides everyone should be given a medal. General Dreedle flies in to present the awards; the men line up and come forward to receive their citation.
When Yossarian steps forward, he is naked. The general asks ‘Why is this man naked?’, and the question is repeated from one officer to another, down the line. The flight sergeant eventually explains that Yossarian was on a mission over Avignon when a man in his plane bled over him. His uniform has not yet come back from the laundry. ‘Rest assured, this man will be severely reprimanded,’ officers Colonel Cathcart. The general replies, ‘What do I care?’.
The most extreme case of absurdity is the syndicate established by mess officer Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight). With support from Cathcart, Minderbinder begins trading in produce all around the Mediterranean, starting with eggs bought in Malta. Then it spreads to fruit, tomatoes, pecans, and eventually to anything that anyone might possibly want. Everyone is a member of the syndicate, so everyone (seemingly) benefits.
Minderbinder trades US supplies in return for mountains of produce. He officers 4,000 yards of silk. Then, when Yossarian tries to get into his silk parachute during a mission, he discovers it is missing. And what he finds in its place is a share certificate for the syndicate.
Huge stores of supplies build up. Minderbender even asks the chaplain (Anthony Perkins) if he would like a few crates of religious relics.
Minderbender next buys up the entire Egyptian cotton crop, and then a stash of Roman antiquities. The syndicate becomes known as ‘M&M’ (Milos and Minderbinder), and the Mess Officer explains that ‘When M&M prospers, everyone prospers’ – a reference to the head of General Motors who, in the 1950s, told a congressional committee that ‘When General Motors prospers, the whole of America prospers.’
The airmen are constantly fantasising about women. Yossarian falls in love with every attractive female he sees, and at one point he imagines an American nurse throwing off her clothes and standing naked in front of him. Lieutenant Nately (Art Garfunkel in his first ever screen role) is only 19 years old, but has fallen in love with a buxom whore from Rome, whom he plans to take back to America after the war.
Yossarian, on leave in Rome, sees a beautiful and shapely Italian woman named Luciana (Olimpia Carlisi). He follows her, eventually picking her up and bedding her. ‘I want to marry you,’ he says to her. ‘You must be crazy to want to marry me,’ she replies, ‘I’m not a virgin.’ ‘I am crazy,’ Yossarian responds. ‘So am I,’ says Luciana.
As the film enters its final phases, it grows much darker. Throughout, there have been clips from a mission that flew into heavy anti-aircraft fire over Avignon. In profile against a white, cloud-like background, Yossarian is told ‘help him’ over his intercom.
‘Help who?’ he asks. ‘Help the bombardier,’ the voice says. ‘I’m the bombardier. I’m OK,’ he replies. ‘Well help him,’ he is instructed.
Yossarian climbs back through the aircraft to find the new gunner, who is wounded in the leg and bleeding badly. Yossarian tries to give him morphine, but the drug has been removed and all that is in the medical box is another M&M share certificate.
‘I’m cold,’ whispers the wounded gunner. It is his first mission, and there is confusion about his name. As it turns it, his name is Snowden. Yossarian tries to reassure the young man that all is well and that they will soon be back at base, where his leg will be patched up. As the film progresses, we return to this scene over and over again. In the final sequence, Yossarian realises that Snowden is not just wounded in the leg, he has a serious chest wound as well. As Yossarian reaches over, the poor man’s intestines spill out of his body.
Back on Pianosa, at Snowden’s funeral, the chaplain asks if any of the officers want to say a few words. Again, there is confusion over the name of the man being buried. Watching from a nearby tree is Yossarian, stark naked, sitting on a branch.
Lieutenant Nately is killed in a bizarre bombing raid over Pianosa by American bombers, organised by Minderbinder as part of a new contract. Yossarian heads off to Rome to tell Nately’s whore that he is dead. But he finds all the prostitutes have been rounded up and now work for the M&M syndicate. Even Luciana is working for them.
As he stumbles through the rundown back-streets of the city, he comes across the body of a young woman lying in the street. Captain ‘Arfy’ Aardvark (Charles Grodin) has raped her, and, to prevent her from reporting him, he has thrown her from an upstairs window.
‘You cannot kill another human being, it’s wrong,’ screams Yossarian – an officer in a squadron that has killed hundreds of civilians. The military police come running up the stairs. But they do not arrest Arfy for murder. They arrest Yossarian for not having the correct papers.
The film returns to the opening sequence, in which – as the squadron takes off on another mission – Yossarian is seen in the derelict building that acts as Cathcart’s headquarters. As he leaves, he is stabbed by a workman on the base. At the end of the film, in the same scene, we understand that he is being offered a deal by Cathcart and Korn – he can return to America, but only if he agrees to tell everyone what wonderful work they are doing. Yossarian agrees and is stabbed as he walks away.
In the last scenes, we see that Yossarian has been to hospital and recovered from his injury. He decides not to accept the deal offered by Cathcart and Korn. All his friends are dead. There is no hope. But then he hears that his comrade Captain Orr, thought to have been shot down over the Mediterranean, has miraculously survived – somehow, Orr managed to row to freedom in Sweden. Yossarian decides that there is hope after all.
He jumps out of the hospital window, runs across the runway (where a parade is being held), inflates a tiny dingy, jumps into the sea, and madly paddles off into the distance, heading for Sweden and freedom.
Catch-22 was not a success at the box office. Over time, it recouped its investment by Paramount, but it never proved a money-spinner. In the same year it was released, Robert Altman’s anti-war comedy M*A*S*H proved to be a greater box-office hit.
Catch-22 the movie is more about Vietnam than the Second World War. The book has a timeless appeal, but the film is very much of its moment. In the 1960s and ’70s, women were frequently depicted as sex objects desired by men – even if, in this case, that is part of the black comedy.
THE FOLLY OF WAR
A strong anti-war theme comes out of the film’s depiction of the utter craziness of US operations in Vietnam. A Kafkaesque logic ensures that everything is the opposite of what it seems. Everything crazy is sane and all that is sane is crazy. This cannot be challenged by anyone.
The film is memorable for powerful performances that capture the madness of armed conflict, as well as for its many colourfully absurd scenes, created by a director at the peak of his art. Many of these scenes live on as images of the folly of war.
This article was published in the April 2017 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.