Catch-22 lobby card set image courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries
Director Mike Nichols and Paramount Pictures delivered the offbeat WW II comedy Catch-22 to movie theaters in 1970. Alan Arkin stars as the mad bombardier, with Richard Benjamin, Martin Balsam and Art Garfunkel along for the turbulent ride into the wild blue.
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 Novel
Catch-22 is based on the 1961 novel of the same name by American writer Joseph Heller (1923-1999). In 1941, Heller joined the United States Army Air Corps, where he eventually logged 60 combat missions as a bombardier with the U.S. 12th Air Force during World War II.
While working as a copywriter for a small advertising agency in the early 1950s, Heller began writing Catch-22. “I wrote the first chapter in longhand one morning in 1953, hunched over my desk at the advertising agency – from ideas and words that had leaped into my mind only the night before,” Heller recalled in an interview.
Heller’s first chapter appeared under the title Catch-18 in the quarterly New World Writing #7 in 1955, earning him $25. Heller eventually expanded his WW II story into a full-length novel, now retitled Catch-22 in order to distinguish it from Leon Uris’ Mila 18, which was published by Simon & Schuster on November 10, 1961.
Numbering 443 pages and priced at $5.95, Catch-22 garnered mixed reviews. Giving the book a big thumbs-up was Nelson Algren in The Nation (11/4/61), who reported: “Below its hilarity, so wild that it hurts, Catch-22 is the strongest repudiation of our civilization, in fiction, to come out of World War II…”
Mike Nichols Directs Catch-22
John Calley and Martin Ransohoff produced Catch-22 for Filmways Productions. Buck Henry wrote the screenplay and Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge) directed, with the latter earning $1 million for his services.
Alan Arkin (Capt. John Yossarian), Richard Benjamin (Maj. Danby) and Martin Balsam (Col. Cathcart) head the strong cast. Other players include Art Garfunkel (Capt. Nately), Jack Gilford (Doc Daneeka), Buck Henry (Lt. Col. Korn), Bob Newhart (Maj. Major), Anthony Perkins (Capt. A.T. Tappman), Paula Prentiss (Nurse Duckett), Martin Sheen (Lt. Dobbs), Jon Voight (Lt. Milo Minderbinder), Orson Welles (Gen. Dreedle), Bob Balaban (Capt. Orr), Susanne Benton (Dreedle’s Buxom WAC), Norman Fell (Sgt. Towser), Charles Grodin (Capt. Aarfy Aardvark) and Peter Bonerz (Capt. J.S. McWatt).
Catch-22 Filmed in Mexico and Italy
Budgeted at $18 million, Catch-22 was filmed from January to August 1969. Shooting in Guaymas and San Carlos, Mexico, consumed six months, as cinematographer David Watkin could only film a few hours in the afternoon in order to capture the same, even lighting. The production company also traveled to Rome, Italy, in order to lend the movie some on-location authenticity.
The picture’s principal props were 18 B-25 Mitchell bombers, of which 17 were flyable. The one vintage aircraft that was not was employed in the crash-landing scene, where it was burned and destroyed by the special effects team.
Catch-22 suffered one fatality during filming when second unit director John Jordan, who had always refused to wear a safety harness, was sucked out of an airplane’s open doorway on May 16, 1969. The 44-year-old Jordan plummeted to his death 2,000 feet below into the Gulf of Mexico.
Catch-22: World War II Movie Comedy
Catch-22 opens on the island of Pianosa off the Italian coast. A first-light mission is underway, with a small fleet of B-25 Mitchells embarking from the island base. Watching the mission unfold is Captain John Yossarian, who, after discarding his bombardier wings, is stabbed by a shadowy figure.
Yossarian is seen in earlier days, engaging in nonsensical conversation with his fellow officers in the mess hall. Yossarian later pays a visit to the flight surgeon, informing him that he no longer wishes to fly because “it’s dangerous.” Doc Daneeka replies that he can’t certify Yossarian crazy because of an illogical, unwritten rule known as “Catch-22.”
An array of characters parade through the proceedings, including Lt. Milo Minderbinder, the head of M&M Enterprises who is heavily invested in the black market; Captain A.T. Tappman, the ineffective base chaplain of the Anabaptist faith; the callous Colonel Cathcart, who keeps increasing the number of combat missions needed to go home; would-be assassin Lt. Dobbs, who attempts to eliminate the hated Cathcart; and the pompous General Dreedle, who awards medals following a mission where 20 tons of ordnance was harmlessly dropped into the Mediterranean.
The height of insanity comes when Yossarian confronts Captain Aardvark, who murdered an Italian prostitute and dumped her body out of a window. The MPs arrive, but instead of arresting Aardvark they haul away Yossarian for being AWOL.
Catch-22 Opens in New York City
Catch-22 opened at New York City’s Paramount and Sutton Theaters on June 24, 1970.
“Catch-22…is, quite simply, the best American film I’ve seen this year. It looks and sounds like a big-budget, commercial service comedy, but it comes as close as being an epic human comedy as Hollywood has ever made…” reported Vincent Canby of The New York Times (6/25/70).
“Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 is a disappointment, and not simply because it fails to do justice to the Heller novel…The movie divides in the middle; the first half is funny, the second is not,” offered Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Catch-22 Box Office, Trivia, DVD
- Catch-22 grossed $12.250 million, earning the #10 slot on the list of the top moneymaking films of 1970.
- Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was not an immediate success. But following praise from comic writer S.J. Perelman, sales of the novel began to take off.
- Understanding Catch-22: The “22″ refers to the number of combat missions needed to go home, with the “catch” being that the top brass can increase the magic number at any time.
- George C. Scott was offered the role of Colonel Cathcart but turned it down, declaring that he had already played a similar character, the wacky General “Buck” Turgidson, in Dr. Strangelove (1964).
- Second unit director John Jordan (1925-1969), killed while filming Catch-22, had to have his leg amputated following an airborne mishap with a helicopter rotor blade while filming You Only Live Twice (1967).
- Milo Minderbinder tries to corner the market in Egyptian cotton.
- Yossarian is lead bombardier for the 256th Squadron.
- TV remake and unsold pilot: Catch-22, telecast over ABC on May 21, 1973, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Dana Elcar.
- On DVD: Catch-22 (Paramount, 2001).
“Let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy and I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy any more and I have to keep flying,” Yossarian asks Doc Daneeka.
Right, that’s Catch-22, or thereabouts…