Friday, November 22, 2013


(January 1970, U.S.)

Let me begin this post with a personal story first. When I was just a young child, roughly around seven years-old, my favorite TV night of the week was Saturday night on CBS. Those who remember it well will recall the following lineup beginning at 8 pm: ALL IN THE FAMILY, M*A*S*H, THE MARY TYLER MORRE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and finally THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW (if I was able to con my parents into letting me stay up that late, that is). Trouble was, I didn't like, nor did I understand M*A*S*H at the time. What I would do is watch the opening credits because I liked the instrumental theme (little did I know it was an instrumental version of a song called "Suicide is Painless") and then find something else to watch for half an hour before returning to CBS at 9 pm. Now jump ahead about two years to when Robert Altman's original film of M*A*S*H is re-released in movie theaters based on the runaway success of the TV show. My father decides he wants to see the movie (probably for the second time) and packs his two young kids up in the car and heads for the local Long Island drive-in movie theater where M*A*S*H is playing as a double feature with Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. From my child's inexperienced, uninformed and confused mind, I truly believed I was watching a movie of M*A*S*H that was based on the TV show. Hell, I even recognized Gary Burghoff who played the character of "Radar". But I was only seven years-old, so you really think I had any clue as to what I was watching on the screen in front of the car's windshield?? At that age, you're just glad to be taken to the movies! Still, now you know that one of my earliest experiences (if not THE first experience) at the movies was a double feature of M*A*S*H and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Not too shabby, huh?

And so, with the age of the "New Hollywood" breaking out of its shell, bold and daring directors like Robert Altman chose to give the world a satirical, black comedy that depicts a unit of medical personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH - get it?) during the Korean War; the subtext clearly launching a full-frontal attack on the Vietnam War at the time and the public outcry against it. It was an outrageous assault on the true absurdities of war, in general. It jolted a new generation of moviegoers with its irreverence and seditiousness. While mixing dark humor with shocking surgical realism, it also called into question issues of sexually-charged antics and underlying morality during a time of an unpopular war. It was, in a word, insanity!

The time is Korea of 1951 and the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital is assigned two (supposedly) top surgeons that go by the name of Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce (played originally by unknown Donald Sutherland) and Captain "Trapper" John McIntyre (played originally by unknown Elliot Gould). From the moment we both of them, it's clear that their sole purpose in the army, when they're not saving lives, is wreaking as much havoc whenever possible. It's a film version of the American army where the respectful are disrespected and tormented. Inferior surgeon and religious man Major Frank Burns (played by Robert Duval) and chief nurse Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan clearly don't stand a chance in a setting like this one. Like TV's "Seinfeld", M*A*S*H is, essentially, a non-linear story about nothing. This is a war film (or ANTI-war film, actually) that has no thrilling combat, no moral message, none of that "gung-ho" spirit that made World War II films so popular in American culture and no glorious victories. It's simply men and woman trying to survive the harsh (and bloody) realities of war by acting as chaotic as possible with each other. So in other words, war may be Hell, but M*A*S*H makes its concepts and messages wild and rather fun! One scene, in particular, is the rather infamous "Last Supper" spoof in which the entire unit is in on a gag to make one of their members think he's actually committing suicide when he concludes that his incompetence must be attributed to hidden latent homosexuality. Suicide (painless) as a solution to homosexuality may be very un-PC by today's bullshit standards, but it was funny in this film, nonetheless. That's the whole point of this film, though; to slap everything that's decent, respectful and politically correct into the face of Hollywood and its audience with a great big "fuck you"! It's also particularly interesting to note that in a film that's this non-linear, it's something as simple as a loudspeaker and a rather nervous voice making announcements that manages to put the entire film together as somewhat of a saga. By the end of the film, unlike the highly-watched final episode of the TV show in 1983, the Korean War does not come to an end. Instead, "Hawkeye" is given the green light to finally go home and simply says goodbye without any sort of sentimental emotion, and it's just the way things should be. Robert Altman's M*A*S*H does not achieve it's notoriety by being nice to us or filling our heads with war-torn emotion and drama...thank goodness!

It's curious to note that in 1970, Twentieth Century Fox also released two other war films; PATTON and TORA, TORA, TORA. Although PATTON is a great film and won the Oscar for best picture of that year, it's M*A*S*H, in my opinion, that should have taken that high honor!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Trapper John: "Look, mother, I want to go to work in one hour. We are the Pros from Dover and we figure to crack this kid's chest and get out to golf course before it gets dark. So you go find the gas-passer and you have him pre-medicate this patient. Then bring me the latest pictures on him. The ones we saw must be 48 hours old by now. Then call the kitchen and have them rustle us up some lunch. Ham and eggs will all right. Steak would be even better. And then give me at least ONE nurse who knows how to work in close without getting her tits in my way!"

1 comment:

  1. I always think of this as a football film. The irreverent tone was definitely a selling point. Painless had ED, that's an issue worth considering Suicide for in the days before Viagra I guess. I gotta go with Patton, but this was excellent as well. Of it's time.