Joseph Hellers mad,mad novel Catch-22 is one of the best anti-war satires. It recreates with dark hilarity the lunacy of war,flinging us into a place where laughter is the only recourse: if you dont laugh,youll cry.
The film has the unenviable task of capturing that flavour with a sparkler of a cast (which includes singer Art Garfunkel and Orson Welles). It gets into the zone only occasionally: as director Mike Nichols,who had the wildly successful The Graduate behind him,says in the commentary,maybe he wasnt the right guy to make this film.
A group of airmen is stationed on a Mediterranean island towards the end of World War II. Like everyone around him,Captain Yossarian wants out,but he wont be allowed to leave. If you continue to fly in those impossible conditions,you are insane and will be grounded,but if you know it is madness to keep flying and ask to be grounded,you are sane,so you wont be grounded. Catch-22. The phrase gained currency after the book came out.
Watching the film now (it came out in 1970),you can see how it speaks for all wars,particularly the ones America has engaged in. In one of its more successful moves,the movie version dispenses with a supporting cast,so what we have is this completely unreal situation where a handful of soldiers populate a base,trying to live out a meaningless war. Why are we destroying that town? Why are we bombing the ocean? This comment,from the film,embodies the spirit of the novel.
Nichols wanted to cast a crowd-pleaser like Dustin Hoffman as Yossarian,but Alan Arkin does a wonderful job of bringing out the bewilderment of a grunt just following orders. Welles plays the fat general who asks,You mean I cant shoot whoever I want? Garfunkel,who became friends with Nichols during the filming of The Graduate,is Yossarians flying pal. The sad part is that you know hell never break into song in the film,though hello darkness,my old friend could have been perfect for this one.
The much more recent No Mans Land is a much better comment on the futility of war. Two men get stuck in a trench which is between two warring sides,and as the world whirls on around them,they discover lost kinship and humanity What we look at,for most of the movie,is a muddy trench somewhere in war-torn Bosnia. It is strewn with dangerous mines,one of which is beneath a wounded soldier.
The conversation between the two men,who start out as enemies and who end up as just two people stuck on opposing sides through no fault of theirs,veers around to who started the war,to hey,that was the same girl I dated! The wounded soldier says: What does it matter who started it,we are stuck in the crap now,in no mans land. The agencies involved are complicit. The UN contingent is shown as helpless,the authorities as callous,and the real victims are the men on the ground. No Mans Land got the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2002,beating our own contender Lagaan.
Being unreal is not just the purview of movies on war. Being There,about a man whos never stepped out of the house having to deal with the harsh reality around him,is just as unreal,but just as sharp. Peter Sellers does a stellar job of a middle-aged gardener pitch-forked into a series of improbable situations,which include befriending a dying billionaire,and his much younger wife (Shirley MacLaine),as well as being the wise oracle the US president admires.
Sellers knows how to do things only because hes watched them on TV. He doesnt know how to read or write,and hes lost without his remote control. His halting one-tone-ness is sometimes jarring,but look at the strong subtext of the movie (and an astonishing last scene),and you know where Being There is going with its underlying questions: what do we need to live this life,and who,indeed,is the wise one?