Catch-22 is a 1970 American satirical black comedy war film adapted from the 1961 novel of the same name by Joseph Heller. In creating a black comedy revolving around the “lunatic characters” of Heller’s satirical anti-war novel set at a fictional Mediterranean base during World War II, director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry (also in the cast) worked on the film script for two years, converting Heller’s complex novel to the medium of film.
Refer to the 2019 TV Series of the same name.
Captain John Yossarian, a US Army Air Force B-25 bombardier, is stationed on the Mediterranean base on Pianosa during World War II. Along with his squadron members, Yossarian is committed to flying dangerous missions, but after watching friends die, he seeks a means of escape.
While most crews are rotated out after twenty-five missions, his commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the minimum number of missions for this base before anyone can reach it, eventually to an unobtainable eighty missions; a figure resulting from Cathcart’s craving for publicity, primarily a mention in the nationally syndicated Saturday Evening Post magazine.
Futilely appealing to Cathcart, Yossarian learns that even a mental breakdown is no release when Doc Daneeka explains the “Catch-22” the Army Air Force employs: An airman would have to be crazy to fly more missions, and if he were crazy, he would be unfit to fly. Yet, if an airman were to refuse to fly more missions, this would indicate that he is sane, which would mean that he would be fit to fly the missions, basically an impossible “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
Yossarian is haunted, in several recurring flashbacks during the film, by the bloody death of Snowden, the young turret gunner on his B-25. After Snowden’s death, Yossarian temporarily refuses to wear his uniform, which Snowden bled on. He shows up at a medal ceremony naked, and later morosely sits naked in a tree, where he is visited by Lt. Milo Minderbinder, who rapidly progresses from squadron supply officer to a capitalistic tycoon involved in black-market money-making schemes. The bomber squadron is populated by many additional comically strange characters. Major Major Major, the squadron’s operations officer, is promoted to a squadron commander without ever having flown in a plane, and refuses to see anyone in his office while he is in, instructing Sergeant Towser that people can see him when he’s out. The person had to wait in the waiting room until Major Major Major was gone, then the visitor could go right in.
Trapped by this convoluted logic, Yossarian watches as individuals in the squadron resort to unusual means to cope; Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder concocts elaborate black market schemes while crazed Captain “Aarfy” Aardvark commits murder to silence a girl he raped. Lieutenant Nately falls for a prostitute, Major Danby delivers goofy pep talks before every bomb run and Captain Orr keeps crashing at sea. Meanwhile, Nurse Duckett occasionally beds Yossarian.
Nately dies as a result of an agreement between Milo and the Germans, trading surplus cotton in exchange for the squadron bombing its own base. While on a pass, Yossarian shares this news with Captain Nately’s Whore, who then tries to kill him.
Because of Yossarian’s constant complaints, Cathcart and Lieutenant Colonel Korn eventually agree to send him home, promising him a promotion to major and awarding him a medal for the fictitious saving of Cathcart’s life; the only requirement being that Yossarian agrees to “like” the Colonels and praise them when he gets home.
Immediately after agreeing to Cathcart’s and Korn’s plan, Yossarian survives an attempt on his life when stabbed by Nately’s Whore, who had disguised herself as a janitor. Once recovered, Yossarian learns from the chaplain and Major Danby that Captain Orr’s supposed death was a hoax and that Orr’s repeated “crash” landings had been a subterfuge for practicing and planning his own escape from the madness. Yossarian is informed that Orr ditched the plane and paddled a rescue raft all the way to Sweden on his last run.
Yossarian decides to ditch the deal with Cathcart, leaps out of the hospital window, takes a raft from a damaged plane and, while a marching band practices for the ceremony to award Yossarian the promotion and medal, he hops into the sea, climbs into the raft and starts paddling.
- Alan Arkin as Captain John Yossarian (Bombardier).
- Bob Balaban as Captain Orr (Bomber Pilot).
- Martin Balsam as Colonel Chuck Cathcart (Group Commander, 256th Bomb Group).
- Richard Benjamin as Major Danby (Group Operations Officer).
- Susanne Benton as Dreedle’s WAC.
- Marcel Dalio as Old Man in Whorehouse.
- Norman Fell as First Sergeant Towser (Major Major’s Desk Clerk, later Acting Squadron Commander).
- Art Garfunkel (billed Arthur Garfunkel) as Lieutenant Edward J. Nately III (Pilot).
- Jack Gilford as Dr. “Doc” Daneeka (Group Flight Surgeon).
- Charles Grodin as Captain “Aarfy” Aardvark (Navigator).
- Buck Henry as Lieutenant Colonel Korn (Group XO / Roman policeman).
- Bob Newhart as Captain/Major Major (Laundry Officer, later Squadron Commander).
- Austin Pendleton as Lieutenant Colonel Moodus.
- Anthony Perkins as Captain Fr. Albert Taylor “A. T.” Tappman (Chaplain).
- Paula Prentiss as Nurse Duckett (Army Medical Nurse Corps).
- Martin Sheen as 1st Lieutenant Dobbs (Pilot).
- Jon Voight as 1st Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder (Mess Officer).
- Orson Welles as Brigadier General Dreedle (Wing Commander).
The adaptation changed the book’s plot. Several story arcs are left out, and many characters in the movie speak dialogue and experience events of other characters in the book. Despite the changes in the screenplay, Heller approved of the film, according to a commentary by Nichols and Steven Soderbergh included on a DVD release. According to Nichols, Heller was particularly impressed with a few scenes and bits of dialogue Henry created for the film, and said he wished he could have included them in the novel.
The pacing of the novel Catch-22 is frenetic, its tenor intellectual, and its tone largely absurdist, interspersed with brief moments of gritty, almost horrific, realism. The novel did not follow a normal chronological progression; rather, it was told as a series of different and often (seemingly, until later) unrelated events, most from the point of view of the central character Yossarian. The film simplified the plot.
Paramount assigned a $17 million budget to the production and planned to film key flying scenes for six weeks, but the aerial sequences required six months of camera work, resulting in the bombers flying about 1,500 hours. They appear on screen for approximately 10 minutes.
Catch-22 is renowned for its role in saving the B-25 Mitchell aircraft from possible extinction. The film’s budget accommodated 17 flyable B-25 Mitchells, and one hulk was acquired in Mexico, and flown with landing gear down to the Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico filming location. The aircraft was burned and destroyed in the crash landing scene. The wreck was then buried in the ground by the runway, where it remains.
For the film, prop upper turrets were installed, and to represent different models, several aircraft had turrets installed behind the wings representing early (B-25C/D type) aircraft. Initially, the camera ships also had mock turrets installed, but problems with buffeting necessitated their removal.
Many of the “Tallmantz Air Force fleet” went on to careers in films and television, before being sold as surplus. Fifteen of the 18 bombers remain intact, including one displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
Death on the Set
Second unit director John Jordan refused to wear a harness during a bomber scene and fell out of the open tail turret 4,000 ft (1,200 m) to his death.
A half-hour preview of the film was held at the San Francisco International Film Festival on 31 October 1969.
The film had premieres on 24 June 1970, in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Toronto.
Upon the initial release, Catch-22 earned US$24.9 million out of the budget of US$18 million. It was director Mike Nichols’ third film, after the acclaimed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. It was not regarded as a comparable success, earning less money and critical acclaim than the film version of M*A*S*H, another war-themed black comedy released earlier the same year. In addition, some critics believed that the film appeared as Americans were becoming more resentful of the bitter and ugly experience of the Vietnam War, leading to a general decline in the interest of war pictures, with the notable exceptions of M*A*S*H and Patton (1970). Critic Lucia Bozzola wrote “Paramount spent a great deal of money on Catch-22, but it wound up getting trumped by another 1970 antiwar farce: Robert Altman’s MASH.” Film historians and reviewers Jack Harwick and Ed Schnepf characterised it as deeply flawed, noting that Henry’s screenplay was disjointed and that the only redeeming features were the limited aerial sequences.
Catch-22 was re-released to DVD by Paramount Home Video on 21 May 2013; a previous version was released on 11 May 2001. The DVD contains commentary by director Mike Nichols moderated by Steven Soderbergh.
Adaptations in other Media
A pilot episode for a Catch-22 television series was aired on ABC in 1973, with Richard Dreyfuss in the Captain Yossarian role.
A six-part Catch 22 miniseries, produced by Hulu and Sky Italia, premiered worldwide in 2019.
There have been other films with “Catch-22” in their names, including the documentary Catch-22 (2007) and the short films Catch 22: The New Contract (2009) and Catch22 (2010), but they have been unrelated to either the book or film adaptation.
In Popular Culture
The anti-war song “Survivor Guilt” by punk rock band Rise Against features samples of dialog from the movie, specifically the discussion between Nately and the old man about the fall of great countries and potential fall of the US, and their argument about the phrase “It’s better to live on your feet than die on your knees.” The same excerpts from the film previously were used by lead singer Tim McIlrath, in the song “Burden”, recorded by his former band, Baxter.
- Second unit director John Jordan refused to wear a harness during a bomber scene.
- While giving a hand signal to another airplane from the tail gunner position in the camera plane, he lost his grip and fell 4,000 feet to his death.
- Orson Welles tried to acquire the rights to the novel so that he could film it.
- He had to be content with playing the part of General Dreedle.
- George C. Scott turned down the role of Colonel Cathcart, saying he had effectively played the same part in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).”
- While on a tirade in his office, Major Major (Bob Newhart) walks past a framed photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
- In a continuous shot, he paces around his office, and when he passes the picture again, it is of Winston Churchill, as he makes one more round of his office and grabs the fake moustache out of his filing cabinet, the photo has changed to that of Joseph Stalin.
- The film has one of the longest, most complex uninterrupted scenes ever made.
- In the scene, where two actors talking against a background, sixteen of the seventeen planes, four groups of four aircraft, took off at the same time.
- As the scene progresses, the actors entered a building and the same planes were seen through the window, climbing into formation.
- The problem was, for every take, the production manager had to call the planes back and made to take off again for every take of the particular scene.
- This was done four times.
- The island of Pianosa actually exists eight miles south of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea, but is very small, and could not possibly have supported the military installation depicted.
- This is pointed out by Joseph Heller as a foreword in the novel.
Production & Filming Details
- Mike Nichols.
- John Calley … producer.
- Martin Ransohoff … producer.
- Clive Reed … associate producer.
- Joseph Heller … (based on the novel by).
- Buck Henry … (screenplay by).
- David Watkin … director of photography.
- Sam O’Steen.
- Paramount Pictures (presents).
- Filmways Productions.
- Paramount Pictures (1970) (USA) (theatrical).
- Paramount British Pictures (1970) (UK) (theatrical).
- Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1970) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1970) (Norway) (theatrical).
- Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1971) (Argentina) (theatrical).
- Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (1971) (Finland) (theatrical).
- Paramount Films of India (1972) (India) (theatrical).
- American Broadcasting Company (ABC) (1976) (USA) (TV) (pan/scan).
- CIC Video (West Germany) (VHS).
- Paramount Films of India (1982) (India) (theatrical) (re-release).
- TV3 (1988) (Finland) (TV).
- Paramount Home Video (1996) (USA) (VHS).
- Nelonen (1999) (Finland) (TV).
- Finnkino (2001) (Finland) (DVD).
- Paramount Home Video (2001) (USA) (DVD).
- Paramount Home Entertainment (2002) (Brazil) (DVD).
- Paramount Home Entertainment (2002) (Germany) (DVD).
- Paramount Home Entertainment (2002) (UK) (DVD).
- Paramount Home Entertainment (2002) (Sweden) (DVD).
- Paramount Home Entertainment (2004) (Sweden) (DVD).
- Paramount Home Entertainment (2003) (Netherlands) (DVD).
- Paramount Home Entertainment (2004) (Netherlands) (DVD) (Paramount Golden Classics).
- Yleisradio (YLE) (2021) (Finland) (TV).
- CIC Vídeo (Brazil) (VHS).
- CIC-Taft Home Video (Australia) (VHS).
- Esselte Video (Finland) (VHS).
- Paramount Home Entertainment (Netherlands) (VHS).
- Paramount Home Video (USA) (video) (laserdisc).
- RCA (II) (USA) (video).
- Release Date: 24 June 1970 (US).
- Running Time: 122 minutes.
- Rating: X.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.