B Roll is a weekly column that digs into the deeper cuts and lesser-known films from legendary directors–the good, the bad, and the awesome. This week, Our Nathanael Hood is not impressed with Mike Nichols’ 1970 adaptation of Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel CATCH-22.
Perhaps no other scene best summarizes the problems with Mike Nichols’ 1970 adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a classic anti-war novel about an American bomber squadron stationed on a Mediterranean island during World War Two, than the death of Captain J.S. McWatt. After accidentally shredding the top half of a fellow soldier with the propellor of his plane, McWatt (Peter Bonerz) commits suicide by flying into the side of a mountain. A group of onlookers watch in stunned amazement until one of them mentions that Group Flight Surgeon Dr. “Doc” Daneeka (Jack Gilford) was also scheduled to be on that plane.
As the men all quietly beg Doc Daneeka to jump before it’s too late, one of the onlookers quietly mumbles, “I’m Doc Daneeka.” But everybody ignores him. And after the plane crashes, the good doctor is officially declared KIA.
In the book, Doc Daneeka’s “death” is handled much differently.
First, nobody realizes that he was supposed to be on the plane until after the crash. Second, he gets officially declared KIA because of bureaucratic mismanagement and the unwillingness of senior officers to pay any attention to his case. Doc Daneeka is essentially “murdered” by an incompetent and uncaring military bureaucracy that values minutiae over efficiency, thereby contributing to the novel’s overall focus on paradoxical logic, nihilism, and the dehumanization of individual soldiers by military officers who see them as chess pieces in their own personal quests for career advancement. But by having characters literally treat Doc Daneeka as dead while standing right next to him in the film, it transforms the entire sequence into one of general absurdism.
There was a surgical precision to Heller’s novel: everything—even the most outrageous and inexplicable nonsense—happened for a specific reason that made sense when viewed as part of the larger picture of the military as a faceless, depersonalized machine. In Nichols’ Catch-22 there is practically no bureaucracy at all. Bizarre things happen because of individual eccentricities: Mess Officer Mile Minderbinder (Jon Voight) becomes an international cartel leader not because he’s a physical manifestation of the capitalistic impulses that largely cause and profit off warfare, but because he’s a greedy bastard; Major Major Major Major (Bob Newhart) is an incompetent recluse not because he has a long history of being persecuted, insulted, and exploited by his peers and parents, but because he’s suddenly given a promotion for a job he isn’t qualified for by an officer who couldn’t care less about him; the beleaguered protagonist Bombardier Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) tries to get himself declared insane and taken off combat duty not because he’s tired of being trapped in a potentially fatal existential quagmire, but because he was traumatized by the death of a fellow soldier during a mission (although in all fairness the death is a significant part of Yossarian’s character development in the novel).
Alterations to the source material can only be expected when trying to adapt a novel as long as Catch-22 into a feature-length film. But the changes by Nichols’ and screenwriter Buck Henry alter the fundamental fabric and themes of the story. The result is a cheapening of one of the greatest dark comedies of the twentieth century into a paint-by-numbers, if somewhat surrealistic, anti-war drama. This would not necessarily be so egregious in and of itself if the resulting film was produced competently enough to make up for its shortcomings. But Nichols abstracts Heller’s epic by further convoluting the already non-chronological storyline by not properly introducing and establishing characters and locations. Individuals pop in and out without warning for a scene or two to say a few lines and then vanish.
The aforementioned Major Major Major Major, one of the most fascinating and tragic characters in the novel, is not given any introduction other than an easily missed line of dialogue where he states, “I’m just a laundry officer…” After getting a couple of brief scenes he disappears entirely from the film, making him not just underused but irrelevant. The revelation of Captain “Aarfy Aardvark” (Charles Grodin) as a sociopathic, homicidal rapist is ruined by the fact that until the big reveal he is just another generic face in a uniform who occasionally bugs Yossarian in the cockpit of their B-25 bomber.
I was lucky enough to have actually finished reading Heller’s novel a day or two before first watching Catch-22. I fervently believe that without prior knowledge of the novel causal viewers would be lost and confused by Nichols’ film. Not so much a cohesive story as a string of only tangentially related vignettes stripped of their original context, Catch-22 fumbles as an adaptation and as a war film in its own right.