” M*A*S*H Gives A D*A*M*N.”
Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt
Synopsis: The staff of a Korean War field hospital use humor and hijinks to keep their sanity in the face of the horror of war.
War’s a different kind of hell in Robert Altman’s satirical 1970 comedy, MASH. It’s a personal, private hell, one which threatens to engulf the ragged surgeons drafted into the war against their will to ply their trade amongst the ramshackle tents and makeshift theatres of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. To cope with the seemingly endless succession of young men lying upon their operating tables with shattered bodies and twisted limbs, the surgeons close their minds to the horrors that surround them. Apart from when they are operating, they treat everything and everyone as a joke, and show respect for nothing. Authority is ineffectual, and religion is both trivial and hypocritical. Women are objects to be pursued. The Army Machine is a contemptible enemy, and those who subscribe to its protocols are targeted for particularly vicious and unrelenting treatment.
The tone of MASH is set in an early scene in which Captain Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland — Billion Dollar Brain, The Hunger Games), newly assigned to the 4077th, steals an army jeep to take him and fellow new arrival, Captain Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt — Alien) to their new posting. Pierce’s anarchic approach to army life three miles from the front is complemented by that of Forrest and a third new posting, Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould — American History X), a ‘chest cutter’ who replaces Frank Burns (Robert Duvall — The Godfather, Jack Reacher) the original tenant of Pierce and Forrest’s tent. Trapper’s fondness for ladies and martinis proves to be more compatible with Pierce and Forrest’s dissolute ways than Burns’ deep religious beliefs and adherence to military protocol. Another ‘army clown’ who evokes the wrath of this unholy trinity is Major Margaret Hoolihan (Sally Kellerman), the unit’s new career-oriented head nurse. The surgeons’ dislike of Burns and Hoolihan more or less throws the two of them together, paving the way for another in an apparently endless stream of pranks…
Comedy doesn’t come much blacker than the kind found in MASH. In fact, it’s difficult to think of a more sour, mean-spirited movie. That Korea is intended as a substitute for the Vietnam War then raging is obvious — no mention of Korea is even made after the opening scroll — and no doubt there was a lot of anger around at the time that MASH was made, but the cruel sense of humour shared by Hawkeye and Trapper John in particular transcends the level of juvenile prank and plunges deep into the malicious and offensive. Their behaviour is intended to demonstrate the extreme lengths to which people will go in order to retain their sanity in times of war — particularly a war in which the individual probably doesn’t believe — but the connection between their stress levels and their bullying behaviour is too oblique to make an impression. Hawkeye and Trapper John just come across as a couple of boorish idiots in wartime who would be equally boorish idiots during peace.
Those who chose to make a career of the army and to abide by its regulations are portrayed as hypocrites and weirdos, fit only for a straitjacket or a spot of sexual harassment to bring them in line. The uptight Hoolihan bears the brunt of this treatment after Burns is carted off to whatever remains of the wreckage of his life and career. And while Burns’ fate can marginally be justified by the fact that he’s a poor doctor who bullies those beneath him and apportions blame on those innocent of any wrongdoing, the reasons for the boys’ victimisation of Hoolihan is more problematic. The movie implies that tormenting another person in the same position as you simply because they don’t handle the situation in the same way is acceptable behaviour, when clearly it’s not. And Hoolihan’s sudden transformation from uptight career nurse to brainless cheerleader is too jarring to be believable, with the only reason given for it being that she gets laid by Forrest after Burns’ departure.
But then the women in MASH are treated as nothing more than playthings for the men, and in that respect, Hoolihan’s treatment is entirely in keeping with the kind of punishment measured out to uppity women who refuse to jump in the sack when required. It’s true that the movie is ostensibly set in the 1950s (although it wants to have things both ways by having you forget we’re in Korea, remember?) and that women were treated less well than they are today, but MASH seems to exploit this reality rather than use it to make any kind of cogent point about the treatment of women in general, which sort of illustrates how misaligned the right-on, counter-culture, anti-establishment movement was back in the 1960s.
MASH was never intended to be a laugh-out-loud comedy. It was intended to be an abrasive satirical comedy with a serious message. But is there anything particularly new about that message, even in 1970 when the new ‘freedom of the screen’ meant it could be put across far more forcefully than before? Not really. Nothing new, and nothing clever. And when the boorish behaviour of a movie’s protagonists alienates a large section of its audience and prevents it from caring about — or even liking — them, then all you’re left with is a lot of empty noise. It’s like being stuck on the table next to the rowdiest guests in the restaurant…
(Reviewed 7th August 2014)