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Paramount Home Video
1970 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 120m.
Starring Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles, Bob Balaban, Susanne Benton, Norman Fell, Charles Grodin, Austin Pendleton, Peter Bonerz, Jon Korkes, John Brent, Collin Wilcox Paxton, Philip Roth
Cinematography David Watkin
Production Designer Richard Sylbert
Film Editor Sam O'Steen
Writing credits Buck Henry from the novel by Joseph Heller
Produced by John Calley, Martin Ransohoff
Directed by Mike Nichols

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Kicking off what many remember as a glorious decade of artistic expression in the movies, Mike Nichols came up with an adaptation of Catch-22, a fascinating black comedy that nevertheless can't begin to make movie sense of Joseph Heller's wicked satire about war. Sporadically funny, it's actually more successful as a creepy horror film. The show's gore effects and other unpleasantries repelled mainstream audiences, that fled back to the relative security of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H. Altman's gross-out gore was less upsetting, and its brand of crazoid humor less challenging.


Unrepentant slacker Yossarian (Alan Arkin) desperately tries to avoid combat duty in air raids over Italy and Sicily, yet finds that no matter how crazy he behaves, the Army Air Corps is crazier. His superiors and peers are all buffoons and maniacs, yet are perfectly content to function under irrational orders. Indeed, the insanity of the war only seems to feed their personal aberrations, especially those of Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), a wheeler-dealer who soon has the entire war effort working for his personal profit. Even Yossarian's close buddies argue with him over his insistence that pacifistic cowardice is the only sane reaction to the slaughter and the waste. Eventually Yossarian is psychologically isolated with his personal Catch-22: Everyone knows the war is crazy, and only crazy men can be relieved of duty. But if you're sane enough to do crazy things to get out of fighting, it only shows that you know the war is crazy, and therefore you must be sane, which means that you must keep fighting!

Even if Pearl Harbor is a dog, it will have done its duty by encouraging DVD companies to release this Spring's bounty of war movies. Catch-22 is nobody's favorite film, but it's still an impressive show -- funny, bizarre, and remote at the same time. Its all-star casting was a major deal in 1970, and every hot actor wanted a crack at one of Heller's dozens of weird characters.

Every scene has a fascination for the serious film fan, the kind of kick that might not translate to a regular audience. It plays like a shifting series of wild standup routines, that start with black comedy and become ever more strange. All these familiar faces and interesting characters behave like madmen. It's as if the clown comedians in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World entertained us by shooting innocent bystanders, or dying in gory car crashes. The dialogue is brilliant but cryptic; there's always the sense that we are going to be victimized for trying to care about what happens to these reluctant bomber pilots.

Alan Arkin refuses to make a sentimental guy out of Yossarian, and Nicols and writer/actor Buck Henry consistently keep audience identification at least two arm's lengths away. In this nightmare war, part Twelve O'Clock High, part "Dante's Inferno," there's nobody to latch onto. It's a constant barrage of insanity: crazy characters in a crazy setting. As the jokes get sicker they begin to resemble tortures, as when nurses swap the IV and urine bottles on a man in a full body cast. When traumatic scenes pay off with gore as graphic as a Herschel Gordon Lewis film, well, theaters everywhere were emptied. Even Paula Prentiss' full-frontal dream-sequence nude scene has a disturbing quality. 2

Joseph Heller purists were no more pleased, as important book characters were dropped to cut the story down to size. Hungry Joe appears, only to be vaporized a few seconds later in a truly gut-wrenching encounter with an airplane propeller.  1   If you're a follower of great talent, there's a lot of good playing here, from the underused Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles, to newcomers Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Art Garfunkle and Austin Pendleton in some of their earliest work.

The movie is mounted on a giant scale, with at least a dozen B-25 airplanes enlisted to provide an appropriately grandiose bombing campaign. Much of the film is shot in long takes with complicated airplane maneuvers in the background; the flyers complained that Nichols, an un-technical director, burned up their air-cooled engines by making them wait in place on the hot Mexican runways. This is the film where helicopter cameraman John Jordan, who had already sacrificed a foot shooting You Only Live Twice, lost his life in yet another aerial filming accident. David Watkin's camerawork is breathtaking, capturing the feel of the bright sunlight without making us squint to see faces, and lighting some night scenes with only the illumination of the special effects explosions.

As Milo Minderbinder's influence turns both the airfield and the local town into a horror show of vice and corruption, the movie becomes a grotesque Satyricon, whose overall point gets lost in the excess. It explains the madness behind Yossarian's Catch-22: Only sane men may be excused from combat, but because war is insane, any man rational enough to want to avoid fighting must be sane, and therefore must fight. But the film understandably alienates most of the audience with what seems a horror version of a service comedy like Operation Mad Ball. In today's regulated industry, it's exhilarating to think that once upon a time, filmmakers were entrusted with so many millions to make such totally abstract movies.

Paramount's DVD of Catch-22 captures David Watkin's photography in all its brilliance, and the remixed 5.1 audio is exceptionally clear. There's a trailer and a photo gallery, but the E-ticket here is Mike Nichols' illuminating commentary. Steven Soderbergh prompts the director, and drops hints that he was involved with the film-to-tape transfer. Nichols explains the details of his show quite well for someone who at the time didn't always understand the techniques he was using. Impressive front projection put fliers and entire airplanes into the aerial scenes. Best of all, Nichols has interesting things to say about his cast, including an intimidating Orson Welles, and some deep and self-critical thoughts about the film as a whole. A lot of the frustration of watching this movie comes from not understanding what the heck whole scenes are about, and this specific commentary addresses these concerns shot-by shot. Nichols comes off as an intelligent and reflective director with no illusions about this grandiosely bizarre chapter in his distinctive career.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Catch-22 rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, Commentary with Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 23, 2001


1. Savant might have been just too impressionable at the time to remember correctly, but in Catch-22's original run, he remembers seeing an extra shot in the horrifying scene where Hungry Joe is bisected by the airplane while standing on a swimming raft. After the wide shot of the impact, the picture cut to a medium shot of the legs just standing there, with a fountain of blood splashing up, for a long moment. Then the legs folded up and the image cut to the long shot, as on this DVD. Seeing the movie in a secondary run, the closer angle was gone. I was emotionally so blown away by the scene (I was eighteen) it's possible that this is a memory warped by consequent bad dreams. Catch-22 was for Savant a very traumatic horror film.

2. 1970 audiences were really fickle when it came to 'shocking' content. While everyone was congratulating themselves on their mature appreciation of Midnight Cowboy and M*A*S*H, they soundly rejected Catch-22 as sick, along with the great spy movie The Kremlin Letter, which nonchalantly presented homosexuality, ruthless killing, drug use and sexual kinkiness as active elements of its plot.

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson

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