Synopsis: One of the world’s most acclaimed comedies, M*A*S*H focuses on three Korean War Army surgeons brilliantly brought to life by Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt and Elliott Gould. Though highly skilled and deeply dedicated, they adopt a hilarious, lunatic lifestyle as an antidote to the tragedies of their Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and in the process infuriate Army bureaucrats. Robert Duvall, Gary Burghoff and Sally Kellerman co-star as a sanctimonious Major, an other-worldly corporal, and a self-righteous yet lusty nurse.
eyelights: the extensive ensemble cast. its episodic quality.
eyesores: the interminable football match. the muddy audio.
“Attention. Tonight’s movie has been ‘MASH’. Follow the zany antics of our combat surgeons as they cut and stitch their way along the front lines, operating as bombs and bullets burst around them; snatching laughs and love between amputations and penicillin. Follow Hawkeye, Trapper, Duke, Dago Red, Painless, Radar, Hot Lips, Dish and Staff Sergeant Vollmer as they put our boys back together again. Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Jo Ann Pflug, Rene Auberjonois, Roger Bowen, Gary Burghoff, David Arkin, John Schuck, Fred Williamson, Indus Arthur, Tim Brown, Corey Fischer, Bud Cort, Carl Gottlieb, Dawne Damon, Tamara Horrocks, Ken Prymus, Danny Goldman, Kim Atwood, Michael Murphy, G. Wood, Rick Teal and Bobby Troup. That is all.”
MASH is an acronym for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. These were mobile medical units used by the United States in combat zones from 1945 until 2006. Robert Altman’s 1970 film ‘MASH’ is based on a Richard Hooker novel called ‘MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors’. It was such a huge success that it spawned a ridiculously popular TV show, ‘M*A*S*H’.
I never watched the show, which ran from 1972 to 1983. I was far too young at the time, and I was never pulled to war-related entertainment anyway. In fact, I never understood people’s fascination with war – unless you were stuck in one or lived through wartime. It seems to me that all this wanton destruction gets tedious, if not trite, after a while.
In any case, although I have not seen the show (except in small bits while changing channels as a kid), I have seen the film a handful of times. It’s a terrific film. Some people call it an anti-war picture, but I don’t see it that way one bit. In fact, ‘MASH’ doesn’t really have a message. Or even a plot, really; it’s as meaningless as the war itself.
And that may just be the point.
If anything, the setting of the Korean war is really just an excuse for endless acts of impertinence and general mockery. The picture is an episodic affair that is more about the characters and the dialogues than anything else. To me, it’s hardly a surprise that it was adapted to the small screen, because its core concept and structure are a natural fit for television.
It all hinges on the cast of characters and their hijinks.
Interestingly, I wasn’t especially taken with any of them. In fact, our trio of leads, played by Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Tom Skerritt feel interchangeable in many ways to me. I also keep forgetting that Robert Duvall has a small part in this as the trio’s primary antagonist. The only person who stands out for me is Sally Kellerman as Major Houlihan – what a sexy voice she has!
Speaking of sex, it’s astounding to watch those three guys so blatantly hit on women the way that they do. In this day and age, their behaviour would likely be viewed as sexual harassment. But it does lead to one of the picture’s best lines, when Duke sees Frank Burns being escorted away by MPs: “Fair’s fair. If I nail Hot Lips and punch Hawkeye, can I go home?”, he pleads sarcastically.
I loved MASH’s many recurring gags, like having Radar and the Colonel Blake talking over each other (which rendered all of their chatter completely incoherent), the PA announcements (which features endless stumbles and corrections), or even the surgeons and nurses talking all manners of unrelated things while operating on their patients. They tied the picture together nicely.
One the film’s gags, Walt’s “last supper”, cemented the film’s theme, “Suicide is Painless”, in the public’s memory. Although it became iconic in instrumental form, the film version has darkly comic lyrics about suicide. For the scene, Altman recreated da Vinci’s painting, then had Walt lie down in a coffin set in front of the table while a soldier sings the song. Classic.
There’s another extremely memorable prank when our trio of misfits decide that they want to find out if Houlihan is a natural blonde. So they get the whole crew to set up in front of the women’s showers, and ensure that Houlihan has nowhere to hide when it comes time to find out. Although you can’t help but feel bad for Houlihan, the boldness of their stunt is one for the books.
But there’s a sequence that I simply can’t get into, and it’s the football match at the end of the picture, between the MASH unit and visiting General Hammond’s unit. It’s far too long for my taste – especially in comparison to the rest of the bits, which tend to last just a couple of minutes. This one bogs down the whole third act. If one like this sort of thing, however, it’s entertaining enough.
Honestly, given the nature of the piece, there’s not much to be said about ‘MASH’. It’s a terrific comedy, even if it’s pretty much plotless; it’s an enduring classic. But whereas ‘Catch-22‘ poked fun at the absurdity of war, this one makes it mundane, almost trivial. It shows people trying to amuse themselves as a distraction from the atrocities.
And in so doing they distract, and entertain, us too. Abundantly.
Date of viewing: November 2, 2014