WILL CLOONEY’S “CATCH – 22” BE A BOMB? 1
Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch -22 has sold 10 million copies since 1961. It appears on almost every “best of” literary list. I’ve read it five times. Late in Heller’s career he tired of answering why he had never written anything to surpass it. He’d reply, “Who has?”
Having flown 60 missions as a bombardier in WWII Heller wrote from deep experience. It was, however, America’s involvement in the Korean Conflict and its Cold War policies which provided his anger and angst to produce this iconic work.
Now comes the unnerving news that actor George Clooney has helped produce a six episode version of Catch – 22 which will air in May. This is not the first attempt at transferring Heller’s brilliant portrait of military absurdity from the page to screen.
In June of 1970 director Mike Nichols released his film version of Catch – 22. The results were mixed and many critics found the movie too confusing. One exception was the view of New York Times film maven Vincent Canby who declared that Catch – 22 was
“The most moving, the most intelligent, the most humane..oh, to hell with it!..it’s the best American film I’ve seen this year.”
As a fan of the book and as a Specialist 5th Class in the Army when the movie was released I approached it with wariness . I left the theatre conflicted, perhaps the only response possible to any iteration of this complex novel. The ensemble cast was amazing. I can now only picture Alan Arkin as Captain Yossarian. Arkin has the perfect furtive swarthiness to play the paranoid man trapped in the unending cycle of bombing missions demanded by Catch – 22.
Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles, Richard Benjamin, Jon Voit, Buck Henry and Bob Newhart were brilliant choices to play the menagerie of oddball characters created in Heller’s fertile imagination. Jack Gilford’s portrayal of the hangdog Doc Daneeka is a small, precious jewel. His explanation of Catch – 22’s provisions to Yossarian as they amble between roaring B-25’s taxiing on a dirt runway is a masterpiece in dialogue.
The book’s non-sequential, time warping scenes made the transition to screen difficult and Nichols only partly succeeded. Without a deep knowledge of the book, a viewer could be forgiven their confusion as time flits back and forth in a haphazard fashion.
Nichols main blunder was his elevation in importance of the black market profiteering escapades of Milo Minerbender. Too much time spent on Milo’s purloined grapes, cotton and parachutes caused the movie to almost lose its focus on the message of the insanity of war. Still Nichols managed to paint enough dark disturbing scenes of death, corruption and despair to avoid it becoming a comic take on war.
Press releases and trailers of Clooney’s adaptation hint at some changes. The purposeful chronological jumble of flash back scenes which propels the novel have been re-written to provide a more linear story line in Clooney’s effort. The video clips released also shows an emphasis on blood and gore. While true that many of Yossarian’s squad members perish, most of their deaths in the book are presented in an oblique manner.
Perhaps having six one hour episodes will allow a fuller rendition than the two hours of the 1970 version.
I was serving my own two year stint of duty at Fort Richards in Alaska when the film was released. I had already read the book twice. Therefore this reluctant soldier had to stifle a Yossarian like smirk when as part of my initial orientation, a one on one meeting with our young Captain he began thusly….
“Raftus, do you know why we are here?”
I thought silence the best answer, so he continued…
“If the big balloon goes up (military speak for a nuclear attack) the Russkies have an infantry battalion in Siberia ready to cross the Bering Strait. We are here to stop them.”
That sounded crazy, but arguing with him would only go against Catch -22.
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