Released at the same time as M*A*S*H in 1970, Catch-22 suffered in comparison with Robert Altman’s radical war satire, which heralded a new and uncompromising method of film-making. According to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), even the director, Mike Nichols admitted as such: “We were waylaid by M*A*S*H, which was much fresher and more alive, improvisational, and funnier than Catch-22…It just cut us off at the knees”. Following trumping his rival at the box office, Robert Altman put up a sign in his office saying: “Caught-22”.
I’m not going to argue with the box office (and I haven’t seen M*A*S*H, so I can’t comment), but Catch-22 doesn’t have the hallmarks of a flop. It’s a sharp, smart, jet black comedy pillorying the absurdity of war. The central conundrum of Catch-22 roughly equates to the following:
if you’re mad, you’re automatically grounded, but in order to be certified mad, you have to request to be grounded. If you request to be grounded, you’re obviously not mad because no one in their right minds would want to be flying.
This gives the generals free reign to keep upping the number of missions, going well beyond anyone’s levels of tolerance, and, ultimately, sanity. The fissures are there from the outset, from Alan Arkin’s cynical Bombadier, Yossarian, to Jon Voight’s entrepreneurial mess officer and Bob Balaban’s serial plane crasher. Major Danby reads out mission briefings like it’s a weather forecast, and the doctor comes to terms with his own mortality as he’s wiped from the records after being reported killed. It’s every man for himself and no one has a clue what the hell’s going on. The bureaucratical fatcats, led by Martin Balsam and Orson Welles, respond to the crises by promoting people because of their name (Captain Major henceforth known as Major Major), and dispensing medals to cover up a monumental cock-up over Italy.
Amongst all this insanity, there’s a recurring dream-like sequence of the Bombardier going to the aid of a rear plane-gunner who’s so new he doesn’t even know his name. It’s a rare quiet period amidst the chaos, the scene gradually extending each time we see it, until the final, horrific, revelation. By this time, it’s all gone to pot. The small group of friends has been fractured beyond repair, with the one ray of hope lying with the crazy Balaban, whose propensity at ditching his plane in the ocean hides a cunning and thoroughly rational plan.
I love the Theatre of the Absurd and I reckon Catch-22 is the closest you’ll get to it in film terms. The characters are cogs in the machine, representations and exaggerations of human traits, rather than rounded characters in their own right. Jon Voight’s Milo is the epitome of the cash-grabbing capitalist whose economic structure takes precedence over the lives of the men he’s supposed to be supporting. It’s a world view that’s as bleak as 1984, but retains a small spark of individuality and hope as Yossarian strikes out for freedom. It’s cleverly written, very funny, and forty years on, deserves to be appreciated as a film in its own right.