Posted by: Gregoryno6 | December 27, 2014

From page to screen: it’s Christmas, so let’s talk about war part 1.

If your family is anything like mine… let’s put it this way: the roast was the last thing to get a knife stuck in it.

1970 saw the arrival of two very offbeat war films. Both were based on successful novels. One film was praised at Cannes and inspired a tv series that, by general agreement, ran a few seasons past its best. The other film had a short life at the box office but is nowadays appreciated as a cult classic.

Catch 22 demonstrates the dangers of adapting a book too faithfully to film. I first read Joseph Heller’s novel in 1981. I was a reckless lad of twenty hitch hiking north from Melbourne. Heller worked a magic with language that I’d never seen before. Catch 22 seemed to defy the laws of physics. I’d seen the movie beforehand, and I learnt that for once general opinion was correct. You really did have to read the book first.
A book that repeatedly loops back on itself can be challenging, but you don’t have to take it in all at once. A movie, especially in the theatre, doesn’t offer the same opportunities to stop and draw breath. Mike Nichols and Buck Henry tried to reproduce Joe’s literary style in the visual language of film. They didn’t quite hit the bullseye. (On second thoughts, I take that back: they hit the bullseye dead centre. It’s just that what was brilliant on the page became clumsy on the screen.)

Heller published the book in 1961 and it sold millions. Ten years later, when the film hit the screen, Vietnam was the central story of American culture. And, thanks to television, war was no longer a remote event unfolding on a distant battlefield. With images from Vietnam available on every evening news report Catch 22’s dark humour was hard to swallow.

The movie was a victim of bad timing twice over, hit again by being released three months after MASH. Released earlier, it might have done better. MASH was no rallying cheer for God and the flag but its cheeky, anti-authoritarian tone made it palatable. Catch 22’s message was bleak. Even in war, everyone is out to screw you over – your friends twice as much as your enemies. MASH, though it was set in a hospital, was relatively bloodless. Certainly it had nothing that compared to Catch 22’s ghastly climax, where Yossarian watches Snowden’s guts slide to the floor.

“There, there,” Yossarian said, because he did not know what else to say. “There, there.”

As noted in my first P to S authors are not usually satisfied with the end result when their work is adapted for film. Joseph Heller, having written for movies himself, had no high hopes to dash. As he explained in an interview with Playboy in 1975:

I was experienced enough in film making to have virtually no hope that Catch 22 would become a good film. And if I had participated in making it, I would have been compelled to care how it turned out…


…I think if the same film had been foreign, in black and white, without stars and based on an unknown novel, it would have been a major critical success.


Although Philip Caputo’s Vietnam memoir is still easy to find in print, a strange fate has befallen the screen version. Originally a two-parter for American television, A Rumor Of War was edited down to feature length for overseas release. A VHS version followed – several versions, apparently. One reviewer at IMDB complains that he has rented the movie on VHS three times and seen three different versions. One excluded the scenes from Caputo’s officer training altogether. Huh? One of the most disturbing scenes – taken direct from the book, incidentally – was the class that opened with an axe flying into shot and embedding itself in the wall. Shortly after that Brad Davis and his brother Marines are chanting Ambush is killing! Killing is fun! AMBUSH IS KILLING! KILLING IS FUN!
VHS copies can be found online, but obviously, buyer beware. Compounding the strangeness, the only DVD version available at this time is produced in China and carries hardcoded subtitles.

Having seen only the edited version – okay, an edited version – my surmise is that the complete work would have adhered fairly closely to its source. In both book and film the young Caputo comes across as a restless boy itching to break away from his comfortable affluent home. Phil wants adventure. The Marines promise to grant his wish. When Lieutenant Caputo is assigned a desk job – he calls himself The Officer In Charge Of The Dead – the romance of war is lost beneath a mountain of paperwork.

All reports had to be written in that clinical, euphemistic language the military prefers to plain English. If, say, a Marine had been shot through the guts, I could not write ‘shot through the guts’ or ‘shot through the stomach’; no, I had to say ‘GSW’ (gunshot wound) ‘through and through, abdomen’. Shrapnel wounds were called ‘multiple fragment lacerations’, and the phrase for dismemberment, one of my very favourite phrases, was ‘traumatic amputation.’ I had to use it a lot when the Viet Cong began to employ high-explosive weapons and booby traps.

Brad Davis as Caputo captured the essence of young manhood – restless in suburbia, eager to face danger, but never certain that his courage will hold up when he finds it. Other performers in the cast support Davis well. Brian Dennehy appears as Coleman, the grinning sergeant who regularly mocks Lt. Caputo for being green. Dennehy in real life later brought disrepute upon himself for falsely claiming military service in Vietnam. Another reason perhaps why the movie has been shunned.

Part two here

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