Catch-22 is a 1970 American 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.
The cast included Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Italian actress Olimpia Carlisi, French comedian Marcel Dalio, Art Garfunkel (his acting debut), Jack Gilford, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Austin Pendleton, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, and Orson Welles.
Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. 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.
Futilely appealing to his commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart, who continually increases the number of missions required to rotate home before anyone can reach it, Yossarian learns that even a mental breakdown is no release when Doc Daneeka explains the "Catch-22" the Army Air Corps employs.
While most crews are rotated out after twenty-five, the minimum number of missions for this base is eventually raised to an unobtainable eighty missions; a figure resulting from Colonel Cathcart's craving for publicity, primarily a mention in the nationally syndicated Saturday Evening Post magazine. Catch-22, as explained by Doc Daneeka, the squadron flight surgeon: 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 would 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; Lt. 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, Colonel Cathcart and Lt. 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 an airman. 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.
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.
In a long, continuous shot, in the scene where Captain Major accepts his rank as major, becoming Major Major Major Major, the portrait in his office inexplicably changes from President Roosevelt, to Prime Minister Churchill, then to Premier Stalin.
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.[Note 1]
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.
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.
The film had premieres on June 24, 1970 in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Toronto.
Catch-22 was re-released to DVD by Paramount Home Video on May 21, 2013; a previous version was released on May 11, 2001.
Catch-22 was not regarded as a great success with the contemporary public or critics, earning less money and critical acclaim than the film version of MASH, another war-themed black comedy released earlier the same year. In addition, 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 MASH and Patton. By January 1971, Catch-22 had earned $9.25 million in box office rentals from the United States and Canada; in comparison, MASH earned $22 million. 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 characterized it as deeply flawed, noting that Henry's screenplay was disjointed and that the only redeeming features were the limited aerial sequences.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times praised the film as "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." He felt the film was "complete and consistent", and commended its balance of comedy and seriousness as well as the ensemble cast. In a cover story about Mike Nichols, Time wrote "It is the book's cold rage that he has nurtured. In the jokes that matter, the film is as hard as a diamond, cold to the touch and brilliant to the eye. To Nichols, Catch-22 is 'about dying'; to Arkin, it is 'about selfishness'; to audiences, it will be a memorable horror comedy of war, with the accent on horror." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times dismissed the film as "a disappointment, and not simply because it fails to do justice to the Heller novel." He noted that the film "recites speeches and passages from the novel, but doesn't explain them or make them part of its style. No, Nichols avoids those hard things altogether, and tries to distract us with razzle-dazzle while he sneaks in a couple of easy messages instead."
Similarly, Gene Siskel for the Chicago Tribune gave the film 2+1⁄2 stars out of four arguing the film "spends too much time accommodating a huge cast", and instead the film should have properly focused on "Yossarian's combat, with the catch into his head where it belongs". Nevertheless, he wrote "The film's technical credits, photography, and special effects are uniformly outstanding. Of the huge supporting cast, Dick Benjamin, Bob Newhart, and Jack Gilford are the best." Charles Champlin, reviewing for the Los Angeles Times, felt "The movie is never again quite so fine. Catch-22 is awfully good, and also a disappointment: Chilly brilliant at its best but flawed at last by its detachment and by its failure to catch fire and give off heat. Its fury is cold and intellectual and cannot reach us or involve us at gut level."
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 79% approval rating based on 28 reviews. The site's consensus reads: "Catch-22 takes entertainingly chaotic aim at the insanity of armed combat, supported by a terrific cast and smart, funny work from Buck Henry and Mike Nichols".
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.
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.