Catch-22: The story behind the story
It’s third time lucky for Yossarian, the US Air Force bombardier caught in the endless loop of contradictions of war that produced the phrase “Catch-22”. The mini-series of that name, now streaming on Showmax, began life as a classic anti-war novel by Joseph Heller. It made it to the big screen as a frenetic movie of the same name in 1970.
It was fast paced, mixing the absurd with gruesome reality, but the limitations of a two-hour feature meant cutting out many of the novel’s story arcs. In an effort to do the story justice, it was pitched as a TV series in 1973, starring Richard Dreyfuss. But it never made it beyond the pilot episode.
Almost half a century later, its potential is finally realised in a medium that was never imagined back then: streaming video on demand.
A six-part series produced by Hulu and Sky Italia, it has been given an approval rating of 87% by the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregation site, with largely positive reviews. This ensures it won’t meet the fate of the first planned series, and may even lead to a second season.
Heller the bombardier
The real story behind the story, however, is that it almost never happened. Author Joseph Heller based it on his own experience in World War II, when he served as a bombardier in the US Air Force, stationed on the island of Corsica.
Like Yossarian, he flew numerous bombing missions, aimed at disrupting the movement of German soldiers and supplies. On his 37th mission, over Avignon in France, his plane was hit by enemy fire. According to Tracy Daugherty, who wrote the Joseph Heller biography “Just One Catch”, he thought he was going to die.
“And that mission that he barely survived became the basis for Catch-22,” she told the online magazine Inside Edition.
Heller went on to fly 60 missions, survived the war, and then studied at the University of Southern California, New York University and Columbia University, all known for their media and entertainment departments. Catch-22 appeared in 1961, allowing him to quit a job in advertising.
The ill-fated film
John Jordan, second unit director, refused to wear a harness while sitting in an open tailgun turret during filming – at 1 200 metres. He fell out, to his death.
Almost a decade later, the movie produced its own series of unintended legends. For one thing, a fleet of flyable B-25 bombers was accumulated to make the movie, literally saving the historic aircraft from extinction. No less than 15 of the bombers from the movie remain intact today, with one on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.
And then there was the director who didn’t make it back. John Jordan, second unit director, refused to wear a harness while sitting in an open tailgun turret during filming – at 1 200 metres. He fell out, to his death.
A Clooney collision
We might have imagined the new series could not possibly have such mishaps occurring, so strict are safety regulations in the film industry today.
But lo and behold, during filming in Italy, executive producer George Clooney was hit by a car while riding a motorcycle to the set. Fortunately for him and the series, he was quickly discharged from hospital.
He plays the role of a relatively minor character, General Scheisskopf. Yes, that’s a vicious pun. But then we should expect nothing less from a story that makes a mockery of the military. The catch in Catch-22 revolves around the rule that being willing to fly on bombing missions is insane, but asking not to fly because of insanity is proof that you are thinking rationally, and therefore sane. That may sound absurd but, considering the many absurdities of war, it feels real.
The series blends that absurdity with the harsh reality of war – including deeply disturbing scenes that keep the viewer from getting too comfortable. Which is exactly what we’d expect from good satire.