1 Year, 100 Movies #54 M*A*S*H (1970)

by Trey Hock on December 7, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

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)

1 Year, 100 Movies #55 North by Northwest (1959)

1 Year, 100 Movies #56 Jaws (1975)

1 Year, 100 Movies #57 Rocky (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #58 The Gold Rush (1925)

1 Year, 100 Movies #59 Nashville (1975)

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)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris December 7, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Altman’s belief in the audience challenged the rules of film making. With his overlapping dialogue, and his innovative sound recording, he put the responsibility on the viewer to determine which conversations were important, and which conversations were superfluous, just like in real life.

Great insights into the misogyny of this film, another thread I’ve noticed throughout his catalogue.


2 Trey Hock December 7, 2010 at 5:39 pm


Nice point on his use of sound. His sound mix in the mess hall is particularly inspired and challenging. Every conversation is mixed at the same level. So a viewer will catch snippets here and there.


3 Eric Melin December 7, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Great stuff, as always, Trey!
This movie is dated for sure, but eminently re-watchable for me, maybe even more so than “Nashville.” I like the fact that nothing is treated as sacred and anything goes, but like you said, there are clear lines drawn when it comes to life and death.
Blake Scott put this film on his Top 10 Overrated Movies list and started quite a discussion a while back.


4 Trey Hock December 7, 2010 at 7:06 pm


I think “MASH” in many ways has a clearer linear narrative than “Nashville.” It’s easier to know who to glom onto and sympathize with in “MASH,” which may be why you find it more re-watchable, but that’s just me speculating.

Some good and questionable stuff over on Blake’s list. I don’t agree with how he questions M*A*S*H, but it is a complex and challenging film that definitely draws questions.

Prepping for the DeNiro Double dip-Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver.


5 Amanda Beggs December 8, 2010 at 6:55 pm

I’m gonna have to be ‘that’ guy, or girl, as it were, and just put this out there – I ruined the movie MASH for myself by watching the tv series MASH first. And as much I admire Robert Altman, and I completely agree that Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould were fantastic in their respective roles, when I watched the movie, I just found myself missing Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers/Mike Farrell. The tv series really struck a chord with me – I’d never laughed so hard and then cried so hard in one 25 minute span. For me, the show was damn near perfect. So I admit, I was completely biased and ruined for the film version. I absolutely respect and give the film it’s due in that I wouldn’t have the tv show without the film, but I just really, really, really love the TV show. The movie was good…but I didn’t love it. And that might just totally be due to me loving the show more, so I might be the absolute wrong person to talk about the film. I don’t know…should I have tried to separate my history with the TV show when I watched the film, or is it ok to just have this comparison view of the film? What about people who watch remakes before originals? Or even vice versa? How do you ever reconcile seeing one of them first?

I will say, the one thing that immediately struck me about your review was the mention of the attitude towards the only major (no pun intended) female character – Hot Lips. You’re right in that the jokes towards her and even how she was written is very one-dimensional and somewhat off-putting (especially as I’m a woman watching it). I’m not sure if I even picked up on the possible offensive nature of how she was written when I saw the film, and I think that was due to me just focusing on comparing the show and movie. But the more that I reminisce on it, the more I’m actually going to go with – it’s not offensive, and I would want to expound on your statement that “Maybe mean content, as exemplified by the Korean War, calls for mean comedy.” I think it’s more true that the military was, and still is, a huge boys club. A woman, especially overseas back in the 60s, would probably definitely be treated as second-class, even by likable, fun characters like Hawkeye. And they don’t see the harm in it, because society didn’t see the harm in it. I don’t think Altman wrote a terrible female character, I think he actually probably wrote a pretty historically convincing depiction of a woman during that time in that scenario. Sure, Hot Lips is not all women in the military, but I’d be surprised to hear that she was the only one. And you better believe that women in the boys cub are gonna get sexual pranks and cruel jokes at their expense. I can’t be mad at Altman for this lame female character, but I can be mad at the military or just the general treatment of women in society over the years. I don’t know, that’s just what popped into my head when you brought up Hot Lips.

Ok…now I need to go watch the 100000000 episodes of MASH I have saved in my DVR. :)


6 Trey Hock December 8, 2010 at 8:02 pm


There’s a whole crew of critics and casual viewers alike that claim that the television show gave MASH a heart and soul that wasn’t present in the film. So you’re not alone. For me personally, I try to separate the two. The film and the show just had different goals. But personal experience will always skew our viewing experience. It’s like reading a book you love then watching a movie adaptation that’s good, but changes your favorite character. Even if you respect the decision, you may still be disappointed.

I also think you’re right that Hot Lips may have been a somewhat accurate depiction of a military woman, but Altman’s in a position to skewer the concept of women as objects or victims of penis envy. He definitely goes after everything else. Instead he seems to revel in the boys club. Hawkeye and Trapper’s mean spirited fun is rewarded, and most often it’s at the expense of Hot Lips. That’s a pretty woman unfriendly slant, and not just a representation of life for a woman in the military at the time. The fact that there is no strong female character at all that comes out ahead makes me a little skeptical of Altman’s direction, but only as far a his female characters are concerned.


7 jack duhamel December 10, 2010 at 10:59 pm


- Jack Duhamel


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