CATCH 22 (1970)
At the beginning of the 1970s as war in Vietman raged, consuming thousands of American soldiers on its misguided bonfire, revolt against the unjustified military waste of lives wasn’t just protested on the streets. Film-makers with a conscience took up arms too, another reason why this period is so resonant for me to focus on in my blog. Robert Altman targeted the insanity of US foreign policy and the senseless slaughter of the young by disguising it under the retro banner of setting the brilliant M*A*S*H during the earlier Korean War.
With CATCH 22, the equally revered theatre and film director Mike ‘THE GRADUATE’ Nichols and celebrated writer Buck Henry took Joseph Heller’s WWII novel, published in 1961 and used its past setting to comment with even darker satire on the then current war in South-East Asia. It’s a madcap and twisted collection of insane characters that all live in their own crazy reality on a fictional Mediterranean army base. They orbit around Bombardier Capt. Yossarian (a career high for Alan Arkin), a tightly-wound ball of tense paranoia on the constant verge of cracking up. His symptoms actually mark him out as being possibly the only sane person on the base. Everyone else seems to have developed bizarre idiosyncratic ways of coping with their situation which he cannot agree with. Sadly, that’s the problem - his relatively healthy mind-set means he cannot claim to be crazy enough to get out of the ever-rising number of bombing missions set by the brusquely plebeian Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam). He tries to get the marvellous Jack Gilford (as Doc Daneeka) to sign him off the lusicrously dangerous runs, but Daneeka’s hands are tied. He invokes ‘Catch 22’ – which he explains as “Anyone who wants to get out of combat isn’t really crazy – so I can’t ground them”. There’s the rub; “That’s some catch, that Catch 22” exclaims Yossarian. Daneeka is similarly admiring of its infuriatingly water-tight logic: “It’s the best there is”.
Including Balsam and Gilford, CATCH 22 has one of the biggest gatherings of top American talent in one film, no doubt helped by Nichols being in charge. It is especially impressive for its character actors. Richard Benjamin’s Major Danby is a gently crackers officer who announces missions in a sing-song bedtime story narration that clearly nails him as seriously out of touch with the grave consequences of his work. Charles Grodin is Capt. Aardvark, a pipe man whose calm exterior conceals a later alarming homicidal tendency. Bob Balaban’s Captain Orr is a rare chance to see him relaxed rather than the nervy nebbish he later plays so much – in fact he’s disconcertingly so, waiting patiently in his superior’s waiting room whilst dripping wet from being fished out of the sea for the umpteenth time. Anthony Perkins is a splendidly brittle and self-conscious Chaplain Tappman. Bob Newhart makes a hilarious Major Major, a paranoid over-promoted officer who dodges any interaction by always being out of the office, as he instructs the bemused Norman Fell.
Amongst the bigger leading names we have Martin Sheen’s Lt Dobbs, who first, unwittingly, introduces us to the circular logic in an argument with Yossarian that has our man at least making it work for him:
DOBBS: “Just suppose everyone thought the way you do”
YOSSARIAN: “Then I’d be a damn fool to think any different”.
Further into the plot, Dobbs decides to kill his commanding officer and goes missing to be heard about at the end.
John Voight is a winningly loopy Lt. Milo Minderbinder, whose entrepreneurial bent has him turning the base into a giant syndicate that trades all of its raw materials including parachute silk, morphine and military hardware in return for other goods to make a profit. Share certificates are given out but prove small consolation to dead men. Art Garfunkel is a blissfully serene Nately, who is glad of the increasing missions as he intends to never go home, instead shacking up with the love of his life whom he doesn’t understand is a professional prostitute using him.
Probably the most vivid character cameo of all is the terrifying General Dreedle - who else but the towering presence of Orson Welles? He roars into the base, intimidating all and sundry and generating at least some vestige of normalcy in his men via their tortured moans over his lusciously pneumatic girlfriend. Dreedle doesn’t suffer fools gladly, even within his intimate relations. “Get back in the car, you smirking slut”, he orders her, savouring such outrageous gem lines as these. His son-in-law, the great Austin Pendleton, gets similarly short shrift as his nincompoop son-in-law who continually reminds him of the perils of nepotism: “Don’t pay any attention to Dad”. Later, when Dreedle has to give a medal to the stragetically naked on parade Yossarian, he eyes the Bombardier with ill-disguised contempt: “You’re a very weird person, Yossarian”.
For much of the film, there is a recurring dreamlike series of vignettes featuring dazzling white backgrounds suggesting Heaven. We are gradually bled in scenes of Yossarian struggling with a dying crewman on board his plane, Snowden in surreal sequences that are peculiarly calming amongst the madness, until Snowden fatally bleeds out his entrails in gruesome detail.
As the film gets into its third act, the tone becomes progressively darker. Yossarian ventures into Rome, befriending an old cunning Italian man in his home who later disappears, we see male prostitutes and a farmer shipping his dead carthorse in a back street and the chilling discovery of Aardvark having casually raped and then killed a hooker. Hungry Joe, one of the crewmen, is cut in half by a bi-plane piloted by a colleague. McWatt, who was jealous over Yossarian’s romance with an American beauty. Daneeka is at their side watching the plane crash into a cliff-face, assuring the group that he is not on board, but he was all along and is a spectral presence.
Yossarian laments the waste of his life and the war, summing up the sum total of his former friendships around him: “Nately was blown to bits. McWatt killed himself. Hungry Joe’s chopped in two. Dobbs disappeared. Aardvark’s a murderer. Doc Daneeka’s a zombie. The only friend I had is Snowden – and I didn’t know him”.
The film ends though in upbeat, abandoned fashion as Yossarian finds out that Dobbs survived and got away. On hearing this, he tears off his uniform in delirious joy and dashes into the sea, paddling a dinghy as the camera pulls back to render him a speck on the ocean. It’s a gloriously futile way to go but what other option is there for a man trapped in insanity?
CATCH 22 is a fantastic, surreal, complex, dark and deranged satire that arguably makes sense of the climate of greater madness in serving someone else’s war machine. Like M*A*S *H, it’s a film whose themes will never date as the supposedly civilised western world’s governments and military continually find new reasons and agendas to throw men and women callously to their deaths...