M*A*S*H (1970)

  • Director: Robert Altman
  • Writers: Ring Lardner, Jr., based on the novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
  • Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Roger Bowen, Rene Auberjonois, David Arkin, Jo Ann Pflug, John Schuck, Gary Burghoff, Fred Williamson, Bud Cort, G. Wood, Ben Davidson, and Kim Atwood
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#54), 1970 Cannes Film Festival – Palme d’Or, 1 Oscar (Best Adapted Screenplay), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Robert Altman, Best Supporting Actress – Sally Kellerman, Best Film Editing
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Today M*A*S*H the movie is mostly overshadowed by the TV series based on it, because that TV series turned out to be literally the most popular TV comedy (in terms of viewers) of all time. I have seen many episodes of that TV series over the past several years, because my wife is a fan and I once got them the complete series on DVD as a present (of course the whole thing is now on Hulu anyway, which is how that goes). The original movie has much in common with that series (while only sharing one actual actor, Gary Burghoff as “Radar”), so in a movie sense it’s hard for me to come to it with fresh eyes. 

But in fact, M*A*S*H had a significance at the time beyond serving as a basis for a TV series. One can see the source material for multiple strains of movies here, one about disillusioned soldiers during the Vietnam War, a la Apocalypse Now or Platoon, and another of comedies about casts of misfit men trying to get a glimpse of naked women and/or get laid, a la Animal House or Porky’s. This was also the first big success for director Robert Altman, in which his style of episodic storytelling and overlapping dialogue first emerged. From the very first dialogue of the movie, with Col. Blake (Roger Bowen) and Radar shouting over each other, a modern moviegoer will immediately recognize we are in an Altman film.

The movie follows the rag-tag members of a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit during the Korean War. It would have been extremely clear to audiences at the time that the movie is actually talking about the ongoing Vietnam War, but the studio would only make the movie if it was very clear that it was set in Korea. Thinking this wasn’t clear enough in the finished product, 20th Century Fox even made Altman add the weird title cards up front that start with “AND NOW… Korea.” The “heroes” of the movie are a group of doctors who deal with the trauma of their daily grind (performing blood-gushing operations on wounded soldiers) through practical jokes, rebelling against authority, and doing their best to sleep with all the nurses. Most prominent among these are Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliott Gould). Their foils include the religious, uptight Maj. Burns (Robert Duvall) and the new head Nurse, Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), a stickler for the rules who, the horror, seems uninterested in sleeping with them.

The story follows no particular overarching narrative and consists solely as a series of episodes connected by the increasingly bizarre announcements on the camp loudspeakers. There’s the bit where the gang conspires to put a microphone under the bed while Houlihan and Burns are having an affair, broadcasting their lovemaking over the camp speakers and leading to her nickname of “Hot Lips.” There’s the part where the camp dentist (John Schuck, who would go on to play Spock’s brother in Star Trek V), is so distraught after an incident of impotence with a nurse that he decides he must actually be gay and is therefore going to kill himself. The gang puts together an elaborate send-off for him while secretly plotting to foil his plan. At one point Trapper John and Hawkeye have an extended sojourn in Japan, where they’ve been called to treat a Congressman’s son. And, to my surprise, the closest thing there is to a “climax” centers around a lengthy football game between the MASH and a general’s chosen team, featuring multiple former NFL players as ringers (played by actual NFL players Fred Williamson and Ben Davidson). A bit of trivia for you, the trash-talking during the football game includes what is generally thought to be the first use of the word “fuck” in a mainstream movie.

I am really torn about this movie. On the one hand, I definitely thought it was funny. I think I probably laughed more watching this than during any other AFI Top 100 movie we’ve featured here so far, and we’re down to the last 25 or so out of the 100 at this point. On the other hand, the sense of humor is really, well, mean. I’m not here to “cancel” this movie for engaging in humor we now consider inappropriate, I just find it entirely lacking in empathy for characters like Hot Lips, who commits no great crime other than insisting on regulations. The movie sees her not being “one of the guys” as reason enough for scenes like the famous one where the gang rips down the shower tent around her. All of the rest of the camp is waiting and applauds. This is done to settle a bet to see if she’s a “natural blonde.” On the other, other hand, I laughed a lot even at the mean stuff, like during the ever-escalating asides involving Hot Lips during the football game. After a gun goes off, she cries, “Oh no, they’ve shot him!” Col. Blake’s exasperated reply: “Hot Lips, you complete and utter nincompoop, it’s the end of the quarter.”

One might be surprised to learn that this is actually the only gunshot in the movie. Yet the unspoken subtext of the whole thing is that the reason these people are like this is because of the senseless horror they have to live with in their daily lives. In a post-ER world, it doesn’t really register, but every review at the time commented on how gory the movie was. If these guys do ridiculous, mean, and terrible things, the movie thinks, that’s why. And if they have no patience whatsoever for authority, beyond all reason, it’s because those authorities have forced them to be there and are putting all these men through the meatgrinder. And for what?

It was in that context that the movie became a universal, massive hit, the sort of movie on which one would base a TV show. A war movie embraced by the anti-war counterculture, it ended up as the third highest grossing movie of the year, behind Love Story and Airport, and certainly the most-watched movie from that year today. But I don’t know. While I certainly laughed a lot, like I said, it feels more like the first real Robert Altman movie than the best one. It was here that the got the clout to make classics I think I’d probably hold in higher esteem, like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville.

Yet it would certainly be a true statement to say that M*A*S*H struck a cultural chord where those movies didn’t, not in the same way. Perhaps it was that, because it came earlier, it felt more rebellious. It shared a producer with The Sound of Music, who tried to keep the movie from being released once he actually saw it. Or perhaps it was because it captured something about the life of a soldier in war, at a time when lots of young people were currently being drafted, that previous movies and TV shows couldn’t or didn’t want to show. Altman, who had served in the Air Force flying bombing missions in World War II, found himself being told by the studio that the soldiers in his movie were too dirty, too weird, too unconcerned with what soldiers in movies are normally concerned about. He replied that real soldiers were actually dirty, unkempt, surly, and often jerks. M*A*S*H is a comedy taking place as a tragedy happens just off-screen. Laughing is the only way to deal with it.

2 thoughts on “M*A*S*H (1970)

  1. I grew up in a household where the tv show M*A*S*H was appointment viewing. Sometime after the series finale in 1983, I saw that the movie was showing on tv and decided to watch it. I hated it at the time, especially how much time the football game takes up in the movie. I need to revisit it as an adult to see whether I’d like any better. I expect that a lot of the jokes will make me cringe, but the cast of the movie is also excellent and I’d like to see the actors in these roles now that I know more of their work.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: