Thursday, August 6, 2009


Two things stand out after re-watching Mike Nichols 1970 adaption of Joseph Heller's novel: our demand for coherence and for happiness. An impossibly young Alan Arkin plays Captain Yossarian, who wants to get out of flying combat missions because "they" (the Germans and his superiors) are trying to kill him. That the Germans are trying to kill him is a commonplace, but his superiors? Yossarian's rationale is that every time he approaches the required number of combat sorties to be placed on non-combat status, the required number gets raised. He draws the plausible if not fully reasonable conclusion that Colonel Cathcart is trying to kill him - and everyone else in his squadron.

Yossarian is trying to make sense of the madness that is modern, bureaucratic warfare. The madness is increased when he tries to make sense of the Army Air Force's policy of pyschological fitness. The sympathetic doctor explains the policy and how Yossarian could be taken off combat flight status. Yossarian summarizes:
In order to be grounded, I've got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I'm not crazy anymore and I have to keep flying.
As he lives through this impossible situation, his comrades die, go missing, withdraw from life, go crazy, or become homicidal. An unlikely advocate and bearer of ultimate good news (in the limited context of the film) is the chaplain, played by Anthony Perkins. Like Yossarian, Chaplain Tappman is seeking understanding. He has this encounter with executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Korn:
Korn: Get your ass over here Padre. Were you describing some mystical experience you've had?
Tappman: No, sir. It's just that there's some peculiar things happening...
K: You haven't had any ecstatic visions, have you?
T: No, sir.
K: Didn't see a burning bush? Hear any voices?
T: No, sir, it wasn't anything quite so extraordinary.
K: I hope not. I think we have to keep our supernatural episodes down a minimum, what with a war to win and all. Do you get my meaning?
Colonel Korn typifies the modern mentality that reality should be constrained by what is practical, narrowly understood. Toward the end of the film Chaplain Tappman reveals that the aptly named Captain Orr has rowed from the Mediterranean Sea to the coast of Sweden! Orr had ditched more B-24s into the sea than anyone else; when questioned on Why, he replied that he was "practicing." Now it is clear that all of his practice with a life raft has paid off.

Yossarian weighs the possibilities either take up his superiors offer to "just like them" or to keep flying missions over German guns. He decides instead to follow Orr's example: with joy on his face he runs to the sea and sets sail in a tiny craft and one oar.

What is striking about Yossarian (and to some degree, Tappman) is that he does not reduce his desire for happiness because of the war or the concomitant loss of life; he remains open to the possbility that reality might be ultimately positive. Yes, rowing to Sweden in a rubber boat with one oar is highly improbable. Yet it is more reasonable than his superiors' desire that Yossarian "like them" despite their self-aggrandizement and callous disregard for human life.

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