For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
If you changed the location and a few lines of dialogue, you could easily read the script for “M*A*S*H” as a dark comedy set in an office building. The interactions between the characters are understated, almost flippant. The situation that the characters exist within seems immovable, and any desire or hope for change is all but futile. These characters could be stuck in middle management. Instead director Robert Altman focuses on a handful of junior officers, the Army’s middle management, at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the Korean War. We watch as nameless soldiers are brought in from the frontline, and patched back together by the medical staff.
So how do you make all of this into a comedy?
Well it seems that we’re treading into the area of satire, but Altman doesn’t employ satire to comment on the life of the support troops, who exist in that space between open combat and a more normal existence. Instead he turns to cynicism and gallows humor. Altman uses his characters and their mean spirited pranks to hint at a philosophical bias, but as with “Nashville” which was only a few spots back on AFI’s list, Altman keeps any form of didactic grandstanding in check.
Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) have recently been assigned to the MASH unit, and are doing everything in their power to blatantly ignore the fact that they’re on the frontline. War has brought all emphasis onto the needs or desires of the moment. The challenges of the day cause one to think in terms of only that day. This overwhelming sense of the present moment leads Hawkeye and Duke to revel in their lust for women and alcohol, but even their powers of cognitive denial are nowhere near those of Trapper John (Elliot Gould).
Robert Altman lucked out when Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould signed on for the roles of Trapper and Hawkeye. Both have an understated demeanor that sells the jokes, and the situational comedy. It is at times almost as if Gould and Sutherland are trying to out underact each other. These two roles are exemplary choices in casting.
Both Duke and Hawkeye have accepted their concessions to the war, which in this scene are olives, but Trapper, refuses to make any concessions. He will remain resolute and not allow the war to change him emotionally, philosophically or otherwise.
Trapper has a run in with Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), a by-the-book military goon and a faux-Christian, because of Frank’s reactions when his patients die. Frank will too easily consign the patient’s soul to God or blame another for their death. In this next scene the scapegoat, Pvt. Boone (Bud Cort), takes Frank’s assault to heart, and it pushes Trapper too far. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)
Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen) is frustrated with Trapper, because he realizes that this crew of military misfits is made up of exactly the type of doctors he needs, but there is still a minimum sense of structure that must be followed within the military. Trapper will continue to push the structure further and further.
We’re also introduced to chief nurse O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). She, like Frank, plays the military by the book, and bristles at the lack of decorum and pomp that she sees around her. Frank and O’Houlihan quickly fall in together and draft a complaint about the officers around them. Both characters are all too willing to bend their philosophies to their own wills, as this next scene illustrates. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)
Hot Lips now has her well-deserved nickname, and Frank is exposed as a fraud.
As with “Nashville” Altman gives the viewer a ton of content in asides or minute digressions. Only on additional viewings do these tiny moments reveal themselves as integral to the story or characters therein. Each moment adds texture and tone to the overall, but any moment could be held up as a lens for interpreting the film as a whole.
One such example is a small scene, in which Trapper, Hawkeye and O’Houlihan work on a Korean prisoner of war.
In this one moment, Trapper makes the statement that O’Houlihan herself is a prisoner of war, a subtle and funny comment on their whole situation. He also gives O’Houlihan some modest respect for her abilities as a nurse. We also see that Radar (Gary Burghoff), the assistant to Blake, basically runs the entire camp and is willing to do anything to help it function smoothly, even take blood from the sleeping Colonel for a patient.
In “M*A*S*H” it becomes apparent that those who follow the rules blindly won’t be very successful, but those who apply the rules selectively can be themselves more freely and get their jobs done more humanely.
This lack of rules doesn’t work at all for others. O’Houlihan’s by-the-book nature makes her the continued target for Trapper and Hawkeye’s pranks. Careful there is brief nudity in the following scene.
This is a great time to talk about “M*A*S*H” as a mean film, that is almost whole-heartedly misogynistic. The few female characters, other than O’Houlihan, are little more than props for their male counterparts. O’Houlihan herself bears the brunt of many of the pranks, most of which are sexual in nature. Perhaps it’s the setting of the story, or the culture of the late 1960s, maybe it’s the fact that the jokes against the men don’t read in the same way, but there are times when the tone of the comedy is a bitter pill to swallow. Maybe mean content, as exemplified by the Korean War, calls for mean comedy.
To balance the meanness, there are moments of true heart and sympathy. When Trapper and Hawkeye come into the care of a sick Japanese baby, they throw caution and military resources to the wind in order to take care of the child. (Sound starts at 9 seconds.)
Here we see the care and concern that Hawkeye and Trapper give to those around them. There is no cultural or military line between themselves and anyone on the operating table. They will care for their patient, regardless of who it is, because it’s what they feel is ethically right.
The nature of war in “M*A*S*H” is shown as silly or often nonsensical. Priorities are always askew, and it appears that only those who know how to cheat the most effectively are the ones who win. This point is brought home in a football game between Col. Blake’s MASH unit and Gen. Hammond’s (G. Wood) team of appropriated players.
Blake and Oliver “Spearchucker” Jones (Fred Williamson) come up with a play that is the equivalent to legal cheating. The center eligible play pushes the MASH team to victory and their winnings of $5,000. That’s as close as “M*A*S*H” gets to a statement though, a vague parallel between a silly football game and the entire Korean War.
Altman ends his film with Hawkeye and Duke getting their orders home, a simple ending for an expansive tonal piece that seeks to show a culture and community that exists just off the frontline.
I personally feel that “Nashville” is a better film. Altman has more control of his style and can focus on his sea of characters and the sound textures around them. “Nashville” is also more evenhanded with both it’s male and female characters, and is therefore more contemporary than “M*A*S*H.” Still “M*A*S*H” is Altman’s breakthrough film. There is plenty of stuff about it that makes it list worthy, but I would be surprised if “Nashville” doesn’t slowly overtake it in the next revision or two.
Next up #53 “The Deer Hunter” (1978)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)