By 1970 the United States government were looking for a way out of a snakebit, calamitous intervention in South East Asia. Troop numbers in Vietnam had been reduced from the high of two years earlier but evening news bulletins still relayed death & atrocity into American homes. The Vietnam War was not only unpopular it was becoming to be perceived as unwinnable. Since 1945 Hollywood’s war movies had confirmed that History is written by the winners. Many Brits, including my father, were not impressed by Errol Flynn’s key role in the 1944 invasion of Burma. (“Objective Burma !”- liberating cinema from the truth). In 1970 war films got to change, got to reform. They were all going to be about Vietnam now. The audiences throwing ice cream at screenings of John Wayne’s propaganda “The Green Berets” (1968) were ahead of their time
Hey, the film of the book… OK. Literature has been a constant & fructuous provider of raw material for Hollywood. A great book becomes a greater film ? That is not going to happen. You think so ? You’re wrong. “Catch 22” is rightfully included in the pantheon of American literature of the late 20th century. Joseph Heller’s World War II novel, where the most sensible reaction to an insane world is don’t get even, go mad, is placed in the company of all the greats, Shakespeare, Kafka, Bilko, Tom & Jerry. It’s a rambunctious, intrepid work, non-linear & multi-charactered. Readers in the millions had their own ideas about how this book should look. The odds on pleasing all of them ? That’s one of the big numbers to 1.
Mike Nichols, a relatively new kid in Tinseltown, already an Oscar winning director with “The Graduate”, took the job. He hired Buck Henry, a fellow dry, erudite humourist (not comedian…OK) to write the screenplay & pitched the film somewhere between those other ensemble pieces of the decade, “The Longest Day”(1962) & “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963). Two hours of film could never match 450 pages of print. The patient enveloped in bandages has 2 bottles attached to him by IV.When one is full & the other empty they are simply swapped around. This simple silliness still makes me laugh now. Onscreen you blink & you miss it but I would have been peeved if it had been left out. “Catch-22” is a spirited, assured venture & by no means a failure. It’s just that man, that’s a good book.
The film, more than many, benefits from repeated viewings. Alan Arkin is Yossarian, paranoid & rightly so, his life is in the hands of a crazy gang who, if not unbalanced, are dangerously incompetent. The casting & performances of this bizarre band of brothers bring you back to this movie. It’s a long, illustrious list & here’s some highlights. Let’s see…Jon Voight, perhaps a little young to play capitalism incarnate Milo Minderbinder, lugubrious Bob Newhart as Major Major. The classy Charles Grodin is Capt. Aardvark & of course General Dreedle is only Orson flipping Welles. There’s a bunch of them…everywhere…someone & something different every time. Yup, “that’s some catch, that Catch-22,”. Oh Paula Prentiss is there too, not nearly enough.
The hit anti-war drama/comedy of 1970 was “M.A.S.H”, the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Robert Altman’s film, the counter-culture comes to Korea, cost $3.5 million & grossed over $80 mill, 3 times the take of “Catch-22”.There are many similarities between the 2 films. War is stupid, people are stupid…we’re all singing from the same song sheet here. There is plenty of gore but “M.A.S.H” is a buddy movie with the “pros from Dover”, Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland, a new star about to steal “Kelly’s Heroes”, another war movie, off of Clint & Kojak) & Trapper (Elliot Gould) work hard & play hard while those around them are dying from enemy fire & bureaucratic incompetence. They are a fine team, 1970’s Butch & Sundance.
“M.A.S.H” is an ensemble movie too. Altman’s was not only free of any literary limitations, his skill in directing large casts was part of a new American cinema. Nichols made a trio of modern movies, “The Graduate”, “Catch-22” & “Carnal Knowledge” while Altman was pushing it along & innovating. The film was successful because of an anarchic energy & humour not because of its message. Robert Duvall as Major Frank Burns is great support, Radar O’Reilly became a national treasure when a spin-off TV series became very successful. Oh yeah, Major Margaret “Hotlips” Houlihan is played by Sally Kellerman. That is all
Now “Patton” was the product of an entirely different infinite number of monkeys. General George S Patton’s tour of Europe & North Africa in World War II established his reputation as a crackerjack live act & as a winner. His notable speech to the Third Army just before D-Day 1944 opens the film. It portrays a straight-talking charismatic leader. I don’t know if the backdrop was an outsized Stars & Stripes though I am sure that the chestful of medals on display is not historically accurate. If all you know of Patton is from this movie then it is not the full story.
“Patton” is a good film. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director & Best Actor. I, unlike many British men of the 20th century, have never been asked to fight in a war. I have been afforded the luxury of being a pacifist & of expressing my opposition to such aggression. I can appreciate the qualities of this film, admire the powerful central performance by George C Scott, but “Patton”, still, seems to me to be an exercise in myth-making & the creation of an American hero.
This validation of rugged individualism…how the war was won…The American military was in a crisis of leadership, a small communist country was kicking their butt & in late 1969 the news broke about Charlie Company’s actions in My Lai where up to 500 unarmed civilians were murdered. Little wonder then that the United States needed, in Gil Scott-Heron’s words, to go ” back to those inglorious days when heroes weren’t zeros. Before fair was square. When the cavalry came straight away”. Look, I was so much older then…you get me. I am able to see more than two sides to most stories now but “Patton” was Richard Nixon’s favourite movie & that will not stand. The idea that we can only defeat the evil sons of bitches with those of our own…well, fuck that noise. This film was not made for people like me.
George C Scott had declined an Oscar nomination for “The Hustler” in 1962. He did the same for “Patton” but won the award anyway. Scott refused to accept & was quoted as saying , “The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don’t want any part of it.” A different world indeed.