Directed by Robert Altman. Screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr., based upon the novel by Richard Hooker. Produced by Ingo Preminger. Music by Johnny Mandel. Photographed by Harold E. Stine. Edited by Danford B. Greene. Art direction by Stuart A. Reiss, Walter M. Scott. Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Roger Bowen, Rene Auberjonois, David Arkin, Jo Ann Pflug, Gary Burghoff, Fred Williamson, Michael Murphy.
Major Margaret Houlihan: “I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps.”
Father Mulcahy, with full understanding: “He was drafted.”
On one level, Robert Altman’s MASH is exactly what it professes to be: a black comedy about doctors and nurses in the Korean War. On a deeper level, it is a liberal exploration of the futility of a war, and the stupidity of those who wage it. Then there is still another level, a conservative one, which targets hypocrisy and metes out justice to those who richly deserve it. And there is another level of nihilistic despair, epitomized by its episodic nature and frequent lack of explanations. And then there is the final, shallow level, where it is the prelude to a famous television series that lasted eleven years.
What I think is so fascinating about MASH is that it is all of these things…and it is also none of these things. It is a comedy, yes, but featuring some of the most graphic carnage you’ll ever see. It criticizes a war yet sympathizes with the men who fight it, seeing them as victims of an unfeeling bureaucracy. It celebrates the viciousness with which Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and his cronies plot their practical jokes, and yet some of them are really, terribly mean-spirited, and some of them don’t go as planned, and the movie calls them on that fact. And it did kickstart the legendary television series, but the two are different: the TV show reimagined Hawkeye as a dashing, homily-spouting funnyman—Groucho Marx meets Jesus—while the movie sees him more evenly: as a dweeby, socially-conscious fratboy. And it says in captions and PA announcements that it is about Korea, but those were at studio insistence to avoid controversy—MASH is actually about Vietnam, because of course it is.
What these conflicting statements say to me is that MASH is a movie about a war. Well, yes, of course, but it’s about the nuts and bolts of war, divorced from its combat its confusions, excesses and discrepancies, and its unnerving capacity to turn civilized people into monsters. Not just the nice generals who order men to their deaths, but the pious men who are hoisted on their own arrogance, and even the intelligent grunts who are either forced to become drones or who are reduced to jibbering hyenas like Hawkeye and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt). It’s no coincidence that even the most likeable character, Father “Dago Red” Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois), is shown to be ineffectual, because in warfare everyone is rendered more or less ineffectual. Like many films that focus on enclosed spaces, the movie is cruel, outrageous, harsh, and very funny – the Office Space of war films, if you can believe it.
Of course another reason that MASH is so good at encapsulating war may be because making it was like a war—director Robert Altman was new at making movies, and didn’t inspire much confidence with his crew (Sutherland and Gould even campaigned in vain to get him fired). It was based on a “terrible” novel by Dr. Richard Hooker that Altman effectively threw out, which frustrated many who wanted a serious treatments of a serious subject. And Sutherland was the only cast member not on drugs at the time, if you believe him, though we can certainly chose not to. Altman made a lot of the film under anger – anger towards Vietnam, anger towards the military, anger towards his own conspiring cast. And the film got a lot of anger back, from the US Army and from conservative members of the Academy, which ended up awarding Best Picture in 1970 to the more orthodox Patton (not to take anything away from Patton).
And yet, despite all these things (or perhaps because of them), MASH has an endearing, shaggy dog quality that is really quite hypnotic and wonderful. It’s hard to think of many other films that have so many deliciously odd moments while ostensibly inhabiting a “real” world. It is odd and nauseating and flippant and hip, and it never goes down the same way twice. Many of these qualities were caught on film via Altman’s tendency to encourage improvisation – it is telling that one of the movie’s major contributions to cinema history was that it was the first movie ever to use the word “fuck,” which is now a key point in a movie’s MPAA rating, but then was something casually thrown in without even noticing the taboo being broken.
The key performance is Sutherland as Hawkeye, who strolls into frame under a triumphant fanfare, like a heroic call that he will make a point of not answering. Within minutes of our meeting him, he accuses a surly black lieutenant of being racist, steals a jeep, and meets move-edition-only character Duke Forest, who has a cornpone charm that compliments Hawkeye’s knack for always having a tart reply, as if they’re all stockpiled somewhere in the ether. Together, they move into the 4077 M*A*S*H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit and begin their own reign of anarchy, which involves drinking, capering, exceptional surgical skills, and comprehensive skirt-chasing. One of the first perfectly-delivered jokes in the film is when both Hawkeye and Duke consecutively put the moves on a pretty nurse, until they are dissuaded by Cprl. “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), who whispers something inaudible to us, but judging by Hawkeye’s reaction, is quite shocking.
The two jesters are made three with the arrival of chestcutter “Trapper” John McIntyre (Elliot Gould), who finds quick use for the jar of olives he has inexplicably brought to camp. Together, they try to tidy up their little corner of hell with makeshift alcohol, sarcasm, and general irreverence. Importantly, when they begin to strike against villains on their radar, they are careful to target people and not groups. They blackmail an American general with photos of his trip to a brothel not because he is a general, but because he is an unfeeling one who values resources over human decency. They pick on the holier-than-thou mouth-breather Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) not because he is a Christian but because he is a clumsy and hypocritical one, who takes pride in his talents and blames his failures on others. They make a point of embarrassing Head Nurse Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) not because she is a woman in a man’s army, but because she’s an inflexible, self-righteous martinet (“a regular army clown.”) At all times, there’s a precision to their attacks; they are doctors, after all.
One key sequence typifies the film’s attitude control. Burns and Houlihan, now allied in their hopes to crush Pierce and his irreverent cronies, write a complaint letter to headquarters before tumbling into bed – hotly dispensed army discipline being the ultimate aphrodisiac. That’s when a PA microphone is sneaked under their bed, and their moans of pleasure are broadcast throughout the camp, delighting everyone (except for Fr. Mulcahy, who stumbles upon a listening party and his delight turns to hilarious discomfort when he realizes what he’s listening to). The legendary resulting exchange is how Margaret gets her nickname “Hot Lips,” which is, to be fair, self-bestowed. The whole affair is funny, yes, but it is capped perfectly the following morning when an enraged Burns decks Hawkeye and gets a court-martial…and a ticket home. So off he goes, while Hawkeye and Duke retreat to their tent, having rid themselves of their foe by giving him what they want so desperately themselves. There’s just no way to win.
The film follows the doctors and nurses on numerous misadventures, but takes care to place several scenes in the operating room, where limbs and innards are hacked and prodded mercilessly. The film’s level of gore is horrific, but appropriate, because it positions the film’s perverse sense of humor as a desperate reaction to a daily human toll. The operating room is not a standard hospital OR but a nasty, enclosed space with dirt on the floor and bodies stacked high, like a demented butcher shop. Here, army doctors work agitatedly to patch up pieces of meat so they can be pushed out the door and maybe get sent back the next day. The operating sequences establish our heroes’ skill, professionalism and grace under pressure, which stands in stark, understandable contrast to their childish behavior elsewhere. The surgery scenes are crucial to developing the film’s sense of gravity: these men take their jobs seriously. They just don’t see why being good army should be part of their job.
The film’s structure is persistently episodic, which aids its rough-around-the-edges nature. The surgery sequences are punctuated by jokes both small and elaborate, peculiar musical sequences, random observations of army life, slapstick comedy, anything, and everything. (My favorite bit of nothingness in the entire movie is the one accompanied on a PA by a cheerful rendition of “Tokyo Shoeshine Boy.”) There’s no real structure to any of this, intentionally so: some bit even contradict earlier ones, because their transition points are missing; whole subplots are developed offstage, while we only see their contrasting endpoints, because what really makes sense during wartime, anyway? Instead of plot, we get dialogue, although it would be unfair to quote it: the movie’s dialogue is incredibly funny, but much of it depends upon situation, delivery, and the way they’re assisted by glances, asides, and Hawkeye’s infectious whistle.
As with any movie built this way, some sequences are more successful than others. The film has two weak portions: the “Suicide is Painless” sequence, which revolves around a doctor (John Schuck) trying to commit suicide, and the finale scenes involving a football game between Army units, which feels like outtakes from The Longest Yard stapled together, almost saved towards the end with the marvelous shot of the camp cheering their victory while trucks of dead bodies drive by in the background, momentarily forgotten. As for the “Suicide is Painless” subplot, it deals with the Schuck character’s reputation as a Don Juan being shattered as he comes to grips with impotence and latent homosexuality – it’s nice that the film doesn’t resort to gay-bashing, but focuses instead of Schuck’s depression and lack of identity. But the whole subplot takes far too long to climax (so to speak); it’s up to the little moments to make it worth watching, like Hawkeye’s deadpan reaction to Schuck’s list of complaints. The film doesn’t have perfect aim, but you have to admire the determination with which it keeps firing.
The actors may have disliked their director, but they shine brightly just the same: Sutherland was never more spontaneous and sharp, and Skerritt as Duke, with his lackidasical Southern drawl and general air of bewilderment, perfectly reflects the state of mind that the US was in at the time. Every actor gets at least one moment all to themselves, like Burghoff’s wide eyes of corrupted innocence while planting a microphone under Burns, or Kellerman’s raw performance in the shower sequence, which deserves a mention wherever perfectly-timed setups and payoffs are treasured. (“This isn’t a hospital! It’s an insane asylum!” she compains, as she stands half-naked and dripping wet, screaming at the top of her lungs until her voice breaks.) The weakest link in the film’s acting chain is Gould as Trapper, basically because he’s playing Elliot Gould, although he does get the film’s most satisfying moment, when he punishes Frank Burns for unfairly blaming a GI’s death on a dim male nurse. Many of these actors would work with Altman in future projects, except for Sutherland, who Altman pointedly never drafted for duty again.
Robert Altman (1925-2006) is viewed as one of the greatest of American directors, and for good reason. At a time when many filmmakers were striving towards artificial stylistic flourishes, Altman found his own by embracing a documentary aesthetic – he liked crowds and scenes of people talking over each other, with dialogue that didn’t sound like dialogue. We see him playing with that technique here in crowded mess halls and frantic OR scenes. And we also see him here shepherding his affection for large casts of colorful eccentrics: Nashville, Short Cuts, Dr. T and the Women and Gosford Park are but a few examples of his love for large canvases with natural, quirky behavior. In most of his films, stretching all the way to 2006’s A Prairie Home Companion, he favored character over plot, and observation over pretense, flakiness over the predictible. An Altman film will bewilder and frustrate; it can easily provoke hatred. Then admiration. Then liking, then love. Altman wasn’t just one of the twentieth century’s premier film artists; like the best artists, he was a teacher, and a patient one.
Is MASH an anti-war film? I don’t think so. I think it is anti-stupidity. Certainly wars must be fought, and it is difficult to imagine this material playing in World War II. But when wars are used as excuses to strut on parade, or to value order more important than lives, then warfare can become obscene. If those terms are so thoroughly couched in the Vietnam war in MASH that they lack perspective, then perhaps that’s intentional, since Vietnam was a failed war that so thoroughly rattled the mindset of much of an entire generation in one protracted movement. It’s hard to think of a movie about Vietnam that celebrates American victories or glorifies the American mood at the time, and perhaps there really should not be one.
If there is an overarching purpose to MASH besides comedy, I would say it’s a meditation on imprisonment, and the inevitability of being institutionalized. Despite Hawkeye’s protestations, he and so-called “army clowns” aren’t so different at all, because they’re both captives who have found refuge in audacity – he in childish pranks, Margaret in polishing her brass, Trapper in the specific ingredients of a perfect martini. MASH is about people who have all gone mad, in one way or the other, and there is no more emotional moment in the film than the final one, where Duke gets the news that he can go home. His eyes tremble; the walls have come down. His world is over. What will he do? The cliché is that war is hell, but MASH’s argument is that sometimes we can find it tolerable, and that is a deeper, nastier hell altogether.
NOTES: My favorite exchange of dialogue in the entire film is Hawkeye and Trapper’s running commentary after being caught by military police in Seoul. Quoting it would be meaningless, but, damn, is it funny.
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