I Saw A Film!

Typically, when you watch a film of a book you’ve devoted to, you’re going to be upset by all the triage on some of your favorite characters, scenes, and dialog. It’s true of Catch-22 as well. There is so much in the book, much of it a kind of sadistic slap-stick, that you eventually get poisoned. Heller indoctrinates you into the mess of human misapplied intentions. He goes several steps further, of course, some of the characters, especially the higher up officers, are so deadly in their confused, stupid carelessness that they could only be the truest enemy. After all Catch-22 is a World War II tale that dutifully avoids showing you Nazis. Our protagonist’s enemies are his commanding officers and their plans at winning awards through mission completion, as well as a blind and meaningless bureaucracy.

It does us well to remember that soldiers are most often kids. Kids without much experience, are the people we love to send into deadly conflict. Here they are flying the fruit crates, the B-25 Mitchells out of a base in Italy. The state-of-the-art of the day was still a remarkably shabby and uncomfortable aircraft mission of endless fear and likely death. As our young heroes have just learned the Colonel has just raised their required mission number to fifty from twenty-five. Yossarian, played brilliantly by Alan Arkin. Arkin’s genius is his ability to draw us into Yossarian without doing much more than moan and stare. Arkin is one of my all time favorite actors able to do so much with just a little. He’s joined here by a cast of amazing baby-faced mega-stars. Martin Sheen looking like his own sons in the 80s. Bob Balaban almost unrecognizable as the plane-ditching, survival-practicing Captain Orr, planning his escape to Switzerland by inflatable. We get Art Garfunkle and Charles Grodin, and Bob Newhart (Captain Major, promoted to Major Major). We get Martin Balsam and Buck Henry (who adapted the book to script). We get Tony Perkins as an inept ignored chaplain, and Richard Benjamin as a C.O. having to kow-tow to the depths of a general played by Orson Wells who doesn’t understand why he’s not allowed to shoot his underlings. There’s also Norman Fell, endlessly stalwart, a staff sergeant, following the book.

The film is masterfully directed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate, The Birdcage), and from the first scene of a bomber coming in dirty, and crashing, without either of the officers-in-charge even looking up from their frivolous discussion, you know what sort of tale we’ve got going on. Institutional carelessness at its leaning kilter best.

Catch-22 is a horror-comedy, a war story devoted to the terrifying machinations of industrial level, institutionalized war in which people show up to work, drop bombs, and try to figure out ways to not have to fly the next mission. Heller turned the bombing campaign in Italy (which he experienced) into a kind of wholesale joke, in an era of John Wayne hero films. His book followed the format of a much older World War I novel by William March called Company-K right down to the chapter headings being character names. These were extraordinary antiwar tales, and this film does a remarkable job stabbing into the mythos and affection for high tech, mindless, murder as we follow the lives of a group of the flyers and their humanity, and lack thereof. The inhumanity is most often brought home when our flyers visit the Italian ladies. They wearily point out their poverty. That they were bombed by the Germans, and now the Americans. Yossarian’s favorite angelic girlfriend, forced into prostitution for survival, was horribly injured on her neck by American shrapnel. She now easily loves an American bombardier.

The film, like the book, returns again and again to the death of a nearly unknown gunner-boy Yossarian tries to assist, imagining the wounds much less costly, he bandages the leg, not understanding that the real wounds were far more extensive and horrible. When he reaches for morphine he instead gets an IOU from John Voigt’s Milo Minderbinder, who has been steadily using all the mission supplies from parachutes to medical in an exaggerated capitalism game, trading away for statues and fresh fruit. The real purpose of war, the lucrative markets.

I found this on free on Prime (USA). And it is still powerful and relevant, in part, due to the masterful handling by Nichols and Arkin’s blown-away portrayal of Yossarian, but mostly because the story is a kind of timeless anti-authoritarian masterpiece.

One thought on “Catch-22 (1970)

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