The most eagerly awaited movie of 1970, and maybe ever, was Catch-22. Joseph Heller’s book was so beloved by so many that the idea it would be made into a movie with a big-budget and an all-star cast was thrilling.
Wunderkind Mike Nichols, fresh off the triumphs of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “The Graduate”, was tapped to direct and Buck Henry, the writer of “The Graduate”, would do the screenplay. Everyone who was anyone in movies was in the cast – even the great Orson Welles had a memorable part.
We just couldn’t wait to see it on the big screen. And then the big day came, and there was near-universal disappointment with the result. What went wrong?
Well first, when expectations run as high as they did in this case, the only possible outcome is negative. Second, not everybody was completely disappointed. Vincent Canby, the film critic of the New York Times, said it was “quite simply, the best American film I’ve seen this year”.
One criticism that almost everyone agreed on, even Canby, was that the movie would be incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t read the book. Nichols clouds the issue with lots of flashbacks, hallucinations, and other ambiguities that confuse the audience further.
The book was a huge feast of characters and situations and no one could imagine how it could all be successfully boiled down to a two hour film, and of course, they were right. The right answer would have been to make a longer movie or just not do it.
Roger Ebert, then only three years on the job at the Chicago Sun-Times, placed all the blame on Nichols:
The movie 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. Pushovers. In the first half of the movie, he tells us officers are dumb and war doesn’t make sense. In the second half, he tells us war is evil and causes human suffering. We already knew all that; we knew it from every other war movie ever made.
And that’s the problem: Nichols has gone and made another war movie, the last thing he should have made from ‘Catch-22.’ Nichols has been at pains to put himself on the fashionable side and make a juicy humanist statement against war, not realizing that for Heller World War II was symbolic of a much larger disease: life.
I saw the excellent “Dunkirk” the other day and it got me thinking about some aspects of WWII, particularly the air war. I got a few books from the library and re-watched a couple of other flicks, including “Twelve O’Clock High” with Gregory Peck, and Catch-22, which I hadn’t seen in 47 years. I was thinking maybe it would age well, particularly as memory of the book faded and expectations were zero.
Nope. It still sucks.
Ebert, Canby, and apparently everyone else, are missing the real problem: Buck Henry’s screenplay. Henry’s idea seems to have been to lift some of the memorable funny and absurd bits of dialog from the book and build his screenplay around these set pieces. Major Major explaining he’ll only see people when he’s not there, General Dreedle giving the order to “shoot this man”, Doc Daneeka explaining the Catch that keeps him from grounding Yossarian, Nately getting a lecture from an old Italian man about the advantages of losing the war, etc. etc.
Henry roughs in some connective tissue around these comic SNL-like sketches and, Voila! As Delroy Lindo said in “Get Shorty”, you just put in some commas and shit and you’re done.
Remember the glaring weakness that the beloved TV show M*A*S*H had? It was the cartoonish portrayal of Frank Burns (Larry Linville). He was way past being a buffoon – he just wasn’t believable on any level, and it detracted from the whole. Well, virtually every depiction in Catch-22 has way too much of Frank Burns – so many over-the-top and silly characters, and Henry himself sets the tone as Lt. Colonel Korn. Watch what he does playing this character to understand the problem with the whole.
Buck Henry may be a good writer, but he really screwed this thing up. His screenplay is why Catch-22 is not a good movie.