Wednesday, July 18, 2012

#33 - M*A*S*H (1970)

BACK-STORY:  M*A*S*H” is a Robert Altman film released in 1970.  It is loosely based on the novel by Richard Hooker.  The screenplay was by ex-blacklistee Ring Lardner, Jr.  He was upset with the liberties (ex. improvisations) Altman took with the script, but still accepted the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  Lardner was not the only one upset with Altman.  Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould tried to get him fired because they did not like his gonzo directing style.  Altman also had trouble with the suits.  They wanted him to take out the graphic operation visuals, but backed down partly because they were distracted by their two big projects – “Patton” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!”.  The studio did succeed in insisting on references to the Korean War be inserted into the film so noone would mistake it for Vietnam.  Mission not accomplished.  14 of the top 30 actors were making their movie debuts.  The film was a smash hit as it tapped into the iconoclastic mood of the early 70s.  It was nominated for five Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, and Supporting Actress – Sally Kellerman).  It won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical.  It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes.  It is #54 on the AFI list of all movies and #7 on the Comedy list.
OPENING:  The movie opens with “Suicide is Painless” as helicopters bring wounded in.  (The song’s lyrics were written by Altman’s fourteen year old son and he made over $1 million in royalties.  His father made $75,000 for the film.)  There are quotes from MacArthur and President Eisenhower to tell us it’s the Korean War.  Hawkeye  (Sutherland) and Duke (Tom Skerritt) are new surgeons who “borrow” a jeep to establish themselves as anti-heroes.  They arrive at the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and immediately start rocking the boat and flirting with the nurses.
SUMMARY:  Hawkeye and Duke are assigned to a tent with Maj. Burns (Robert Duvall).  He is tutoring a Korean boy named Ho-Jon on the Bible.  Burns comes off as a Jesus freak which is like waving a red cape in front of Hawkeye and Duke.  They substitute a girlie magazine for the Bible and change Ho-Jon’s life.  Even worse, Burns does not drink!  He’s got to go.
                The first trip to the operating room is graphic, bloody (as in spurting from an artery), and realistic.  It turns out that Hawkeye and Duke may be reluctant soldiers, but they are excellent doctors (unlike Burns).  When a patient is ready to be stitched up, one of the other doctors says to “make the stitches bigger” because he’s just an enlisted man.  The movie is more anti-military than anti-war.
                Trapper John (Gould) arrives (with olives for their martinis) and now it’s a trio of frat boys.  Also arriving is Maj. Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) who turns out to be a no-nonsense head of nurses who is proudly regular army.  Naturally, she hooks up with the other lifer – Maj. Burns.  Their first sexual encounter is broadcast to the camp via a hidden microphone and earns Houlihan the nickname “Hot Lips”.  Subsequently, Hawkeye goads Burns into swinging at him and he is discharged in a strait-jacket.   Score one for the atheistic misanthropes.
The Last Supper
                The next episode revolves around the dentist “Painless Pole” (John Schuck) who wants to end it all because he has discovered that he is a “fairy” because he could not “perform” last time out (or in).  Altman stages Painless' last supper as “The Last Supper”.  They even break bread.  It’s a really cool visual and surprisingly not overtly anti-religion.  Painless takes the “black capsule”,  but he is “revived” by nurse “Dish” (Jo Ann Pflug). 
waiting for Hot Lips to reveal her true color
                A bet about whether Hot Lip’s carpet matches her drapes results in the famous shower scene where she is humiliated in front of the whole camp, including her nurses.  By the way, although Duke wins the bet, she falls to the floor so quickly noone could have been able to tell.  (I should know -  I rewound the segment twenty times to be sure.)  Houlihan confronts Col. Blake (Roger Bowen) and yells “this is not a hospital, it’s an insane asylum!”  In spite of this, Hot Lips loosens up and even starts an affair with Duke.  This character development makes no sense.
                Hawkeye and Trapper John make a trip to Japan as “the pros from Dover” to play golf.  Oh, and they also operate on a Senator’s son while they are there.  Of course they step on the toes of the hospital administrator (representing the studio heads?), but he backs off after they drug him and take blackmailing pictures of him with a naked Japanese woman.  In this movie it is acceptable to humiliate people if they are incompetent squares. 
Hawkeye, a flunky, and Trapper John
                Blake makes a bet with a general about the outcome of a football game between the MASH unit and the general’s team.  The scenario is reminiscent of “The Longest Yard”.  They bring in a neurosurgeon who played in the NFL as their ringer.  He is nicknamed “Spearchucker” (groan) and is played by ex-NFLer Fred Williamson.  The game is a good climax for the film.  There is a lot of slapstick and silliness  Some of it comes from Hot Lips who is now completely on the side of the boys who humiliated her.  (Duke must be a great lover.)  Schuck ad-libbed the first use of the word “fuck” in a major motion picture.  (“All right, Bud, this time your fucking head is coming off”.)   They win the game using the old "center eligible, hidden ball” trick.
CLOSING:  Duke and Hawkeye go home.  Pretty anticlimactic – just like the Korean War.
Acting -  A
Action -  N/A
Accuracy -  A
Realism -  B
Plot -  B-

Overall – B+

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?     The movie is pretty sexist in its depiction of the nurses.  The doctors do not have much trouble seducing them.  Although this may have been realistic, it still could be off-putting.  It’s not your typical adrenaline fueled war movie.  The operating room scenes are not for the squeemish.

ACCURACY:  The movie does not purport to be a true story, but the novel is semi –autobiographical so we can assume the operating room scenes are authentic.  The episodes (ex. the football game, the trip to Japan) seem made up.  The movie conforms to the book for the most part.  All of the major episodes are in the book, but improved upon in my opinion.  For instance, Painless Pole is suffering from a periodic bout of depression and does not have sex with a nurse to cure it.  The movie also leaves out some of the weaker parts of the book so it is superior to its source.  In the book, the trio are meaner drunks than in the movie.

CRITIQUE:  MASH is a movie that defies conventions.  It mixes realism with dark humor.  Much of the dialogue was improvised which you would not realize by watching the movie.  Altman likes to overlap the dialogue, especially in the operating scenes.  This makes the movie seem more intelligent than it is.  The cinematography is also noteworthy.  Altman uses a lot of fly on the wall shots.  Some of these shots are long range and static.  This is seen best in the “Last Supper” scene.  We are put in the middle of the action in the operating room scenes.  Action and dialogue swirl around the viewer.   
                The movie made a big splash with the Vietnam anti-war movement, but there is little in the dialogue that criticizes war.  The movie is definitely anti-war in the operating room simply because the audience gets to see the results of combat.  The insanity of war does come through.  For the most part it is more of an anti-military film.  All the negative characters are loyal to the Army and want to follow its rules.  A corollary to that is the anti-authority theme.  Most of the authority figures are incompetent and deserve to be taken down.  Perhaps not surprisingly,  Altman does not give the trio a competent foil.  Contrast this with Col. Potter in the TV series.  On the other hand, Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke are anti-heroes typical of 70s counterculture flicks.  As a teacher (and not an incompetent one), I have had students like them and they are much more fun on a movie screen than in a classroom. 
                The movie is episodic in structure.  Altman arrived at the loudspeaker announcements as bridges to the new episode.  This device works, but the announcements are overrated as humor.  Speaking of humor, the movie does have some great one-liners.  However, much of the humor is crass and mean.  Some it would be considered politically incorrect today.  You have characters named “Spearchucker” and “Dago Red” and a scenario where a dentist would rather be dead than gay.  The movie is also anti-religion, but Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois) comes off well.  He even gets the best line.  When Hot Lips asks rhetorically (about Hawkeye): "I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps."  Mulcahy dead-pans:  "He was drafted".
               Many war movies would be better if remade because of the lowered constraints on language and violence.  This movie is not one of them.  It is perfect for its time.
CONCLUSION:   M*A*S*H is a unique movie.  MASH is one of the great war comedies and an important one.  It may be second only to “Dr. Strangelove”.  It certainly was unlike any other war comedy made before it.  There are few war movies that concentrate on military medicine, much less of the dark humor variety.  (Interestingly, there is another Korean War movie set in a military hospital – “Battle Circus” (1953).  I have not seen it yet but I’m betting there’s a generation between them.)  I have to say I think "MASH" is overrated.  The Vietnam War generation is very protective of it.  It does have some good lines and some moments of genuine humor, but to be ranked #7 on AFIs list of the best comedies of all time is ridiculous.  However, it is a movie that has filled a niche that needed to be filled and we should honor it for that. 

POSTER:  The poster is cool, but a little misleading.  The legs give you the impression there will be a lot of skin in the movie and there is not.  The peace sign implies that the movie is anti-war which it really isn't. A middle finger would have been much more appropriate.  The blurbs are your typical hyperbole.  B-

the trailer

TRAILER -  It does include some of the best lines.  You get a feel for the anarchic nature of the film.  I feel sorry for Duke when the trailer mentions "two doctors".  The football game footage is thrown in with no context which is confusing.  Of course it makes a big deal of the marijuana smoking during the game.  Note that the trailer includes the word "tits".  Surely a first.  B-



  1. I haven't seen it yet because I'm not too much into war comedies but I will get to it sooner or later.
    It sounds a bit like a mixed bag message wise, not very clear in it's statement, more drastic than critical sort of.
    I'm curious to watch it.

  2. I would be interested to hear what a non-American thinks of it.

  3. Is it just me but did anyone notice that in the football game presumably played in 1951 the equipment is all from the 70s. There were no plastic helmets or face guards back then.

  4. That's probably true but this is not the kind of movie that brings out the rabid nitpickers.

  5. It's a great comedy, highly appreciated in Europe since it was released (the TV series was a success as well).

    The pranksters are as pitiful, and often more so, as those on which the jokes are being played. Everybody's just insane - or, more exactly, senseless - and rabidly trying to forget displeasure. That's where the darkness of MASH comes from.

    Is it the product of the ongoing war? Of course, that's what was seen at the time, but my guess is Altman's pessimism - in line with that of the Marx Brothers - goes far beyond the circumstances.

  6. Thanks for the info about Europe. I assume anything that makes Americans look like assholes will go over well there.

  7. Much like Dr Strangelove, at the box office MASH fared significantly better in the USA than in Europe.

    While anti-military feelings had also become quite popular there, the significance of mocking the U.S. military was very limited: it made more sense for audiences in European countries to mock their own armed forces.

    Moreover, very few people cared about Vietnam, and European participation in Korea had been small. As far as war films go, the main focus at the time was Europe's own past, particularly revisiting WW2 from a civilian point of view, often through comedy.

    Hadn't MASH been the work of a great director and actors able to embody a certain generational 'coolness', it wouldn't have met in Europe neither critical acclaim nor its relative public success.

  8. I share your feeling that this film is overrated, probably due to sentimentality. My own sentiments might bias me, however - I'm irritated by several aspects of the film (the jerkishness of the main characters, the nonsense of the plot, the character lobotomy arbitrarily given to Major Houlihan) to such a degree that I have a hard time appreciating the good parts of the film.

    Still, I think I would judge it harshly even if I could be objective. It has that feel and style you see in a lot of movies from the 70s, though admittedly not as often in the war films of that decade.

  9. I could just never get into this movie. It just didn't have the look or feel of the Korean War, or early 1950s. It just screamed early 70s (ain't we cool) MOD. Korean farmers wearing Vietnamese hats, the clothing, the movie was just too overtly about Vietnam. The whole anti establishment, anti military theme seemed repetitive. This makes the whole film seem terribly dated. Of course that worked for the younger audiences in the early 70s (which I remember).
    I seem to recall that Altman wanted to do a black humor film about the Vietnam War, but the old studio system refused because of sensibilities over the war at the time.
    What's astounding to me is that it's been over 50 yrs. since the release of MASH, & yet other than the low budget "Reluctant Hero" in 1971, nobody's done a high budget good attempt to make a Korean War film. At least not American made, that I'm aware of. Compared to the last 2 major wars we've been involved in Korea looks like a resounding victory, especially if you look at & compare the 2 Koreas today. You'd think Korea would be fertile material for a Spielberg, or Clint Eastwood (who was in the US Army during the KW).


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.