Catch-22 (1971) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's comments in white: 

Catch-22 was the movie that everyone anticipated that year. 

It was based upon the original cult anti-establishment novel, which was written years before it was fashionable for a mainstream American to be against the establishment. Remember that the hippie movement essentially began in the summer of 1967, and Joseph Heller's novel was written in 1961. By the time the film was made, however, it was 1971, after Kent State, after the Kennedy and King assassinations, long after the march on the Pentagon and the Chicago convention. By that time, the counter-culture was becoming co-opted by the mainstream culture, it was fashionable to be against the war and the "man", and the world stood ready to applaud the anarchy of Catch-22. If you are in my generation, it was probably your second-favorite book at the time, after Catcher in the Rye, and you couldn't wait to see what they would do with the film.

The anointed director seemed to be the ideal choice. Although he is much older than the boomers, Mike Nichols had already emerged as a man who could articulate the concerns of the generation with "The Graduate". Within a year, he  would also direct the film which gave a voice to the forgotten war baby generation, "Carnal Knowledge". Catch-22 was the movie that he directed in between those acknowledged masterpieces. His helmsmanship further whetted our appetite for the film.

As it turned out, the film bombed El Grande. In a sense, it was the Battlefield Earth of its time, the butt of every comedian's jokes about ill-conceived, grandiose, and over-blown filmmaking.

It is hard for you to understand it now, because the context is lost, but this film turned out to be the exact opposite of what the Zeitgeist demanded. The mood of the times required a film which was honest, uncomplicated, without any contrived slickness, perhaps even without any polish. To those of us who saw it then, this film was obviously made by the people that Catch-22 made fun of, and the people we opposed. It was filled with Hollywood stars, a big-budget look, and the dreaded artificiality that earmarked the "establishment". It was like a Las Vegas revue making fun of war.

Several other factors conspired to doom the film:

1. The book was virtually inadaptable. The whole book is wordplay, concentrating on the absurdity of life, of which war was an important, but not the only, part. Books which derive almost all of their value from wordplay are, by their very nature, much more difficult to translate to other media than books which rely on plot or characterization. In addition, the book has about a zillion characters. Screenwriter Buck Henry eliminated some of them of in the interest of comprehension, but not enough. Perhaps when I first saw this film, the book was fresh in my mind and I knew who everyone was, but not now. Now I haven't read the book in thirty years, and I don't know who half of the characters are. For example, they could easily have written out the Buck Henry part, the Charles Grodin part, the Martin Sheen part, the Anthony Perkins part, Hungry Joe, and the Peter Bonerz part, just for starters, and all sub-plots related to them. They provided no extra value to the story, and no additional humor, and  simply added confusion. Some of the minor parts, like Major Danby and Major Major, were worth retaining for the humor and relevance to the main story (Yossarian's), but the ones I mentioned were not or could have lent some characteristics to consolidated characters. On the other hand, Henry eliminated one of the better characters, PFC Wintergreen, the guy who actually ran the war, although he took thematic elements of Wintergreen's sorry and incorporated them into Milo's story.

2. The film came out right after M.A.S.H. MASH was already the movie we hoped Catch-22 would be. MASH was everything that Catch-22 was not: improvisational, natural, freeform and heartfelt. The style and tone of MASH captured the Zeitgeist perfectly. It talked like a hippie in uniform, and it walked like a hippie in uniform. It had an honest, sincere feel to it, and featured no big mainstream Hollywood stars. Catch-22, on the other hand, walked and talked like Jerry Lewis or Alan King. It was the mainstream's interpretation of what an anti-mainstream attitude should be. Altman's MASH was genuinely anti-mainstream. MASH was made by guys who smoked dope. Catch-22 was made by guys who drank booze. MASH was made by guys who let their hair go natural and/or long. Catch-22 was made by guys who combed their short hair, and maybe even added a little dab o' Brylcreem. MASH was made by guys who played and hung out together when they weren't on camera. Catch-22 was made by guys who had their own trailers. MASH was made by guys who read The Village Voice. Catch-22 was made by guys who read Playboy. If you were there, you know exactly what I mean. If you weren't, I hope I'm recreating at least a bit of the attitudes from that time, so you can get a feel for it.

3. It was mis-marketed. Like a Kafka concept, Catch-22 is absurd, but not necessarily funny. It was essentially a serious book about how life is absurd, told in a way which exaggerates the absurdity to comic proportions. The film was billed and marketed as a comedy, but wasn't funny in any traditional sense. It has plenty of humor, and intelligent humor at that, but it's the kind of humor than gets you to think about it and appreciate it, not the kind that makes you laugh out loud. Because of the marketing, audiences were left waiting for the chuckles.


"So, what, Scoop? Is it a good movie?"

Ya know what? Looking back on it now, without the expectations generated by the book or the marketing, and without the generational antagonism of the times, Catch-22 does look like a pretty good movie. Of course, it really does have too many characters, and an overly complicated structure, so it is genuinely hard to follow. It could be done better, but the DVD release has a lot of plusses. 

  • Seen in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, it is visually magnificent. It is one of the best-photographed movies of its era, and still looks great by today's standards. It is both artistically and technically excellent. Thank heaven for DVD, which gave us our first widescreen look at the film since it was in theaters. Although most of it is straightforward and unfiltered, I was interested to see that certain scenes had the exact same look and feel as The Three Kings. That bleached look was caused in Catch-22 by deliberate over-exposure in the daylight scenes. Three Kings did it in post-production, with technology, but the effect is similar. Everything old is new again.
  • It is fascinating to watch such a cross-section of actors. It seems that everyone in Hollywood was in this. Orson Welles was the senior statesman, a symbol of Hollywood's past, but there were plenty of young kids who would be prominent in the future of show business. Art Garfunkel, Bob Newhart, Charles Grodin, Martin Sheen, and Jon Voight are all in this, all looking like they don't need to shave yet. It was interesting for me to see them all together, all so young.
  • The DVD has a commentary by Mike Nichols, who directed it, and Steven Soderbergh, who had nothing to do with the movie, but knows a thing or two about directing. After Soderbergh finishes with Ocean's 11, I vote for him to remake Catch-22 and Semi-Tough. Not that he'll ever read this, or care about my vote.
  • The slickness of the production, which seemed as inappropriate and unhip in 1971 as a tube of Brylcreem, seems like professionalism when viewed retrospectively.
  • Is there anyone my age who has forgotten the sight of Paula Prentiss doing full-frontal nudity in this movie? This may seem unimportant today, but it was a really big deal in 1971, believe me. (Read Tuna's comments below for more details)

I enjoyed watching it, even though I didn't always know WTF was going on. Does that mean I'll like Battlefield Earth in 30 years?

Tuna's comments in yellow:

1970 was a banner year for war movies, including Tora Tora Tora, Patton and M*A*S*H. Catch-22 was the weakest of the 4, and didn't get a single Oscar nomination.

Scoop's note - it didn't even get nominated for cinematography, which is unjust. Cinematographers always get punished when the script doesn't work, just as much  now as then. Where is the Oscar for The Patriot, for example? 

David Watkin, who photographed Catch-22, deserved a bunch of Oscars in his career, and he finally did get one in 1986 for "Out of Africa". He was nominated by BAFTA (The British Academy) seven times, but "Africa" was his only Oscar nomination. Among others, he photographed "Help!", and "Chariots of Fire". He wasn't even Oscar-nominated for "Chariots", even though it won best picture, and the two strengths of that movie were the photography and the music!


Alan Arkin was seen naked from behind when he received a medal from the brass.

Olympia Carlisi showed her breasts in an après-sex scene with Arkin.

Paula Prentiss did a distant but completely visible and identifiable full-frontal scene

It is based on Joseph Heller's autobiographical novel about a bomber squadron in WW-II Italy. We will forgo the complaint that the film isn't as good as the novel -- they never are. In all fairness, there is entirely too much material in the novel to fit into a feature length film. The title refers to what has become an American idiom. Anyone who is crazy is not allowed to fly in combat. They must make a request to the doctor. That is where Catch-22 comes in. Anyone who does not want to fly combat missions is obviously not crazy.

Scoop's note - yup, and catch-22 can now be found in most Yank dictionaries. 

Webster's says -  (1) a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem (2) a self-contradictory rule. "You can't get a job without an agent. No agent will represent you unless you have experience."

In the story, Catch-22 represents more than just the flying rule. Virtually every human situation gets caught in a catch-22. Let me paraphrase an example.

Yossarian: Marry me

Whore: I can't

Yossarian: Why not?

Whore: Because you're crazy

Yossarian: How do you know that?

Whore: Because you asked to marry a whore.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • Full-length director commentary, abetted by comments from Steven Soderbergh

The cast looks like a who's who of Hollywood: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss,  Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, Norman Fell,  Charles Grodin, Liam Dunn and Alan Alda. The photography was top notch, and the audio and special effects were also excellent. The problem is with the script itself. The story is kind of surreal, with flashbacks, dream sequences, etc, and is hard to follow. It also drags in parts. There are, however, some truly funny moments. 

The film is especially important to us, as it features full frontal nudity from Paula Prentiss, the first such exposure in a post Hays Act mainstream Hollywood production. The first mainstream full frontal would, of course, be Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy (1932) 

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 2/4

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.9 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Tuna agrees, saying "it fits easily into two genres, comedy, and anti-war, and is rated higher than usual for a comedy. Based on this description, the film is a C+"

Return to the Movie House home page