MIKE NICHOLS, CATCH-22 (1970) 1HR 56



Born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin 1931. Parents migrated to the USA to escape Nazis. Later MN took 3rd wife's name. Educated at the University of Chicago 1950-53 during Korean War. Worked in the theatre in Chicago and New York, inlcuding "Barefoot in the Park" (1963). Directed plays written by such notable playwrights as Neil Simon, Lilian Hellman, Tom Stoppard. Gained a reputation as a gifted director of actors. Transferred to film direction. Often took comedies which dissect aspects of American life, where the central characters exist in a state of isolation and who either manufacture illusions in order to shield themselves against unpleasant reality, or attempt to flee what they consider to be a neurotic or hostile society.


  • "Who's afraid of Virginia Wolf" (1966)
  • "The Graduate" (1967)
  • "Carnal Knowledge" (1971)
  • "Catch 22" (1970)
  • "Silkwood" (1983)
  • "Biloxi Blues" (1988) autobiographical play by Neil Simon of WW2 boot camp
  • "Working Girl" (1988)
  • "Regarding Henry" (1991)
  • "Wolf" (1994).
  • "Primary Colors" (1998)


The Novel

Based on a novel by Joseph Heller, Catch 22 (1961). JH born of immigrant Jewish parents in Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY in 1927. In 1941 he graduates from high school and the following year enlists in the Army Air Corps. In 1944 serves as a bombardier based in Corsica and flies some 60 missions. In the late 1940s studies English at NYU and Columbia. In 1953 (Korean War 1950-53) begins writing Catch 22 while working in the competitive environment of a NY advertising agency in the prosperous 1950s. Catch 22 published 1961 and became bestseller. Other novels: Something Happened (1974), Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984).


Meaning of the Title

Joseph Heller and "the best catch there is" - Catch-22. In Joseph Heller's autobiographical novel of a bombardier in the US Army Air Corps in WW2, Catch-22 (1961) Doc Daneeka explains to Yossarian the fearful beauty of the catch:

"Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicty of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed. (Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (London: Transworld, 1964) p. 54)


  • Alan Arkin - Capt Yossarian
  • Martin Balsam - Col. Cathcart
  • Richard Benjamin - Maj. Danby
  • Art Garfunkle - Capt. Nately
  • Jack Gilford - Doc Daneeka
  • Bob Newhart - Maj. Major
  • Anthony Perkins - Chaplain Tappman
  • Paula Prentiss - Nurse Duckett
  • Martin Sheen - Lt. Dobbs
  • Jon Voigt - Milo Minderbinder
  • Orsen Welles - Gen. Dreedle
  • Marcel Dalio - Old Man
  • Buck Henry - Lt. Col. Korn (and screenwriter)

Film made in 1970 during the Vietnam War about US Army bomber pilots stationed in the Mediterranean in WW2 circa 1944. Central character is Yossarian (played by Alan Arkin) who rebels against the dangerous and insane, bureaucratically structured war by trying to escape. His commander, Col. Cathcart makes this impossible by constantly raising the number of missions the men have to fly before they get leave, in order to boost his own prestige within the army. His personal ambition overrides any conern for the men under his command. The title "Catch 22" refers to the logical contradictions which occur in bureaucratic structures (such as the army, but also large corporations and, dare I say it, universities). In this case, "Catch 22" for Y is that the number of missions he must fly is always raised before he reaches the limit. As Doc Daneeka explains to him, he can only be grounded if he is crazy, but if he asks to be let out of the army or if he acts crazily, then he is obviously not crazy. This would be the sane act of a man who wants to get out of an insane situation.

Structure of the film is confusing at first viewing as there are flashbacks within flashbacks, and MN uses the effect of whiteout to deliberately alienate the viewer (a Brechtian effect). Also inaudible conversations (as in beginning of film and similar to Altman's "MASH"), partially revealed incidents (such as Snowden's death and stabbing of Y by prostitute) which are gradually revealed in increasing detail as film progresses.

Expensive all-star cast which flopped at the box office - possibly because of Nichols' style, grim and unrelenting nature of the black humour.

Towards the end of Heller's novel Catch-22 Yossarian learns Snowden's "grim secret":

Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden's flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden's insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out...Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes...

"I'm cold," Snowden wimpered. "I'm cold."

"There, there," Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard. "There, there."

Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.

"I'm cold," Snowden said. "I'm cold."

"There, there," said Yossarian. "There, there." He pulled the rip cord of Snowden's parachute and covered his body with the white nylon sheets.

"I'm cold."

"There, there." (End of chapter 41 "Snowden," pp. 463-4)


Robert Merrill, Joseph Heller (Boston: Twayne, 1987). Chap. 2 "Catch-22: Its Place in Literary Tradition," pp. 9-32; extract from Chap. 3 "The Meaning of Catch-22," pp. 49-54.

Joseph Heller, Catch 22 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961).

Joseph Heller, Catch-22: A Dramatization (1971) (New York: Delta, 1973).

Joseph Heller's Catch-22: A Critical Edition, ed. Robert M. Scotto (New York: Delta, 1973).

Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (Oxford University Press, 1989). For a perspective on WW2 by a veteran and literary historian who confirms Heller's blackest and funniest moments.


  • The problem of sanity and insanity in war so cleverly encapsulated in the principle of "Catch 22." How does a sane man cope/survive in the insane situation of war? Perhaps the strangest, such as Y (who sits naked in a tree) and Orr (who always ditches his plane in the ocean as preparation for a daring escape to Sweden by rowing), are the only sane people in the film.
  • The meaning of "Catch-22": the principle which enbales wielders of aboslute power to do whatever they like and get away with it. In the "Foreword" to the play version (1971) Heller notes that:

There is much about law in the novel. Catch-22 itself, unread, unseen, perhaps evem non-existent, becomes a handy edict for overriding all safeguards to individual liberty and safety, the key element in a tricky paradigm of democratic government that allows the law to do legitimately what the law expressly forbids itself from doing. "Catch-22 says they have the right to do anything we can't stop them from doing," the old woman in the whorehouse explains to Yossarian (p.416), and, in practice, she is shown to be correct. Throughout the novel, there are inquisitions, trials, sneaky undercover investigations, bullying interrogations, and numerous more cruel, unpunished acts of intimidation and persecution of people in positions of power, no matter how small, against others who are decent, innocent, and harmless, whose offences, if committed at all, are trivial. Many of these episodes are in the play. Thematically, in fact, the play is structured around such unchecked misuses of authority in an atmosphere of war.

Much of our national experience in recent years has been characterized by the same. (pp. xii-xiv)

  • The problem of distinguishing between justified killing and murder in wartime. Y to Arfy who has thrown a prostitute out of a window and killed her "You can't take the life of another human being". The MPs arrest Y for being AWOL and ignore Arfy. Y's concerns about bombing civilian targets like the town of Ferrara.
  • The theme of escape or desertion. Y wants to escape the army and pretends to be crazy in order to do so (compare Corp. Klinger in "MASH" TV series who dresses like a women in order to get out of the army). He eventaully jumps out of the hospital window and rows away in an inflatable raft. Orr deliberately crashes his planes into the sea and successfully rows to Sweden. Only way out for Y is to fly the required number of missions (impossible since number always raised before he reaches it), death (like dying son he impersonates), to be certified as crazy (impossible because to ask the doctor to do this is proof of his sanity), to accept Col. Cathcart's offer of returning to the US to promote Col C's career (Y refuses to play Col C's "game"), or to desert. Is running away the only sane solution to Y's problem? In an interview in 1962 Heller states:

Oh, yes - I'm a terrible coward. I'm just like Yossarian, you know. It's the easiest thing to fight - I learned that in the war - it takes a certain amount of courage to go to war, but not very much, not as much as to refuse to go to war. I think that's the danger the world faces today; war might be the easiest solution to problems, and one country or the other might rely on war as a solution, not because it's dictated, but simply because it's a way out of frustration. (Scotto, p. 459)

  • The corruption of the US military (and by extension US society in the 1950s when Heller wrote the novel) by capitalism. The idea of the US Army as a large corporation: Yossarian's girl "I work for a big American corporation" to which Y responds "I do too." Milo Minderbinder decides to act on the principles the US was supposedly defending in the war to start his own business buying and selling military supplies (even to and from the "enemy"). "That's what were fighting for" - the American way of doing business. He takes the pilots' silk parachutes and first aid morphine (in return for a share certificate in "M&M Enterprises") to sell on the black market; he paraphrases Henry Ford's famous statement that "what is good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country." Discusses price of eggs for officers' mess with Col. Cathcart oblivious to crashing plane on runway. Tries to corner the cotton market. Only way to get rid of it is to exchange it with the Germans in return for letting them bomb the American airfield. MM organises a brothel in Rome and runs it on mass marketing principles.
  • The theme of survival of both individuals and great empires. Y objects that "Those bastards are trying to kill me" and thus wants to get out of the army. The old Italian man (Marcel Dali - Rosenthal in Renoir's "Great Illusion") who is 107 years old offends the American Nately (Arthur Garfunkel) by saying "All great countries are destroyed" and that surrender is a rational strategy for survival which has been perfected by the Italians over the centuries. He asks "is it better to live on your feet than die on your knees" or vice versa. Compare with attitude of American conservatives of 1950s and 1960s that it is "better to be dead than red."
  • The nature of the people who rise to the top positions in a bureaucracy like the army. Note the way the officers are portrayed - venal, ignorant, ambitious, incompetent. Note how promotions are made in bureaucracies. A man named "Major Major Major" (played by comedian Bob Newhart) is promoted to the position of squadron commmander and the rank of Major simply because of his name. He copes with his inability to run the squadron by delaring that "when I'm in (my office) I don't want to see anybody. When I'm out I will see people."
  • The attitude towards religion. The ineffectual Anabaptist Chaplain Tappman who offers Y religious supplies when he is in hospital when all Y wants is a blanket; Y asks "What are you here for?" to which T replies "I don't know." T's services are wanted by Col Cathcart who wants him to say some "short snappy prayers" for each bomber as it takes off. This is to enable Col C to get his photo in the Saturday Evening Post.
  • The bureaucratic disregard for individual human beings and the preference for the reality of "paper and official forms." The concern by the army hierarchy in the efficiency of the process of bombing ("tight bombing patterns") not the goal of the bombing (the destruction of towns of no military value but of high artistic or religious value, the bombing of fish in the sea for which Y receives a medal, all these are just as good as any other target). Y pretends to be the dying son of an American couple who have come to visit him. They realise he is not their son and agree with Doc Daneeka that "one dying boy is just as good as another, or just as bad." Doc Daneeka hates flying but wants his flight pay, so he finds a pilot who is willing to let him sign the flight manifest but not have to go up in the air. When the pilot crashes his plane Doc D is "officially" on board and thus dead in spite of the fact that he is visibly alive to all concerned. (Heller's experience of bureaucracy in army, business, universities).
  • The stabbing of Y. The film begins and ends with the stabbing of Y by "Nately's whore." N is a young American soldier who has fallen in love with an Italian prostitute. N is killed in the German bombing of the airfield arranged by MM. Y tells "N's whore" who for some reason blames Y, dresses up in army uniform and stabs Y in the back. Y ends up in hospital twice - injured leg on a mission and stabbed by N's whore.
  • The death of the new gunner Snowden. Turning point in the development of Y's thinking about desertion. S is a recent arrival who is injured on a mission. Y goes to his aid and dresses the wound in his leg. However, S has a much more serious wound in his side which Y does not discover until later, by which time S is dead or dying. MN uses a number of devices to gradually reveal what happened to S and Y in the plane: the use of white outs, repeated flashbacks (4) each one revealing more information than the one before.
  • Y's Dante-esque journey through the streets of Rome where he sees children robbing a drunk soldier, old women breast feeding a child, men beating a boy, whipping a dying horse.
  • JH's fear that wartime measures which restrict liberty are needlessly carried over into peace, i.e. during the Cold War (compare Orwell's similar fears in Nineteen Eighty Four). In the 1962 interview:

I regard this essentially as a peacetime book. What distresses me very much is that the ethic that is often dictated by war-time emergency has a certain justification when the wartime emergency exists (DMH - JH previously argued Y would not be justified in deserting just after Pearl Harbor and when Hitler is at the height of his power), but when the thing is carried over into areas of peace - when the military, for example, retains its enormous influence on affairs in a peacetime situation, and where the same demands are made upon the individual in the cause of national interest: the line that I like very much is when Milo tells Yossarian that he's jeopardizing his traditional freedoms by exercizing them - when this wartime emergency ideology is translated to peacetime, then you have this kind of lag which only leads not only to absurd situations, but to very tragic situations. (Scotto, pp. 472-3)