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America was hurting and ready for M*A*S*H in the late spring of 1970. Now remembered as a raucous comedy punctuated by realistic surgery scenes, for most viewers M*A*S*H was the first Vietnam War-era picture to come right out and say, Screw the army. The "service comedy" had been around since the early 1950s and had found its best expression in pictures like 1957's Operation Mad Ball. The organizing principle behind these comedies was the dame-hungry soldiers' schemes to procure female companionship, usually in the form of sexy army and navy nurses. By the time of The Teahouse of the August Moon all connection to real experiences of real GIs had been lost amid silly characters and slapstick comedy. The service comedy eventually ended up a TV staple with Sgt. Bilko, McHales' Navy and the supremely tasteless Hogan's Heroes.
Vietnam was no laughing matter, so much so that Hollywood retreated to WW2 stories instead of confronting the war on any level, with The Green Beret as a grotesque exception. That's why M*A*S*H, sneaking onto screens in between the big-budget productions Tora ! Tora! Tora! and Patton, became such an instant hit. By combining a raunchier update of the service comedy with allusions to the pointless carnage of combat, M*A*S*H encouraged American audiences to express their contempt and disapproval of a war they didn't believe in, run by a military they didn't trust.
1951. Drafted surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, now an Army Captain (Donald Sutherland) reports for duty at the 1077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit just behind the front lines in Korea, where wounded GI's receive immediate attention but the rules of military discipline are openly ignored. Hawkeye joins Southern doctor Captain Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) and "chest cutter" heart surgeon Captain John "Trapper" McIntyre in giving the field hospital a party-friendly atmosphere just short of being an organized orgy. In between grueling shifts patching up the wounded and maimed, the boys booze it up, womanize and harass the very un-hip Major Burns (Robert Duvall) and the authoritarian goody two-shoes Major Margaret O'Houlihan, who they re-dub "Hot Lips" (Sally Kellerman). When the work gets them down, the surgeons express their individuality by pulling scams that would get ordinary soldiers sent to the brig for ten years. But in the insanity of war, it all seems to make sense.
M*A*S*H is a crude (for 1970) frat-boy level comedy with the expected sexism and anti-establishment irreverence, filmed in a style owing nothing to traditional Hollywood methods. Anarchic director Robert Altman doesn't so much block out scenes as toss them like a salad and pick out the tastiest parts. The typical Altman scene has a minimum of five speaking roles; Altman covers the action with three or four cameras, multi-mikes the audio to allow the actors to step on each other's lines, and lets them improvise their hearts out.
The technique insures that no individual actor beyond the two or three leads has any idea how much screen time they'll receive; Altman's skill is picking a cast of crazies so interesting that every scene becomes a living, breathing ensemble. Altman simply shapes the individual actors as needed, winds them up, and sets them loose to interact as they will. Ring Lardner Jr's screenplay was reportedly used only as a basic guide, as several participants recall Altman and actors inventing character-specific gags on the spot. Playing chaplain Dago Red, actor Rene Auberjonois recalls coming up with the idea to bless a jeep on his own.
The doctors and nurses of M*A*S*H are all hipsters to some extent, or exhibitionist party types that enjoy being around hipsters. Assuming that Altman doesn't want anachronistic comparisons, imagine pre-beat Robert Mitchum types that constantly say funny things but are too laid back to laugh at their own jokes. The camp is a goofy comic strip Utopia where everyone walks around bumping into each other. It's also a sexist stronghold, as the nurses seem content to belong to one big happy sex club. What could be a better announcement for the beginning of the 1970s?
Audiences responded uproariously to the film's frequently savage humor. The charismatic doctors enforce a communal spirit that includes the outright persecution of the square pegs Burns and O'Houlihan. Critics unmoved by the film's sense of humor often condemn the doctors as sexist monsters who humiliate and crucify anyone not measuring up to their standards of Cool; the movie condones a pitiless Cool-ocracy. The situation is a bit more complicated. The surgeons hold the army in contempt. They've been drafted away from work back home to clean up the human debris of a war they certainly don't believe in. They can get away with ignoring army rules because their skills are desperately needed. Hence the laissez-faire attitude of C.O. Colonel Blake. A surgeon as well, Blake delegates his duties and turns a blind eye to the chaotic details; he spends his free time fishing or in the sack with a compliant nurse.
The M*A*S*H surgeons are a hipster adaptation of the male professional unit from Howard Hawks films. They have their own code, which excuses behaviors that don't interfere with good medicine. Frank Burns is a fatally un-cool Bible zealot and all around wet mop, but the surgeons claim that they harass Burns because he's a lousy surgeon who kills patients and then blames innocent underlings like Orderly Boone (Bud Cort). Most of the pranks hatched in the Swamp tent are aimed at "regular Army clowns", whether rigid nurses like Major O'Houlihan or martinet officers back in Tokyo. The part of the game that doesn't add up is the rampant alcoholism on view. M*A*S*H clearly doesn't believe in hangovers; if the surgeons drank as much as shown in the film, they'd be useless for work in just a few short weeks (or so I'm assured).
This is of course where things get dicey, as the dirty tricks and merciless humiliations committed in the name of communal Coolness are mean-spirited and criminally sexist -- even the nurses happily participate in trapping Hot Lips in the shower. As for the other sexed-up antics, they're completely believable considering the close quarters of the male and female personnel. The GIs of Operation Mad Ball spend 90 minutes just trying to throw one lousy get-together, whereas the doctors can enjoy these front-line nurses whenever they're not on duty. The film is fairly honest about the arrangement. When Hawkeye and Lt. Dish (Jo Ann Pflug) go at it, they babble out rationalizations for their behavior: "If my wife were here I'd be with her now..."
We soon realize that all the nutty behavior is a natural reaction to the insanity of war, a message communicated without a single position speech. Interspersing the comedy with gory surgery scenes works perfectly: without it the film would be an aimless sex romp. The film received an extra critical boost because its screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. was one of the key Hollywood Ten to go to prison and suffer the blacklist. The early 70s saw a big upswing in liberal moviemaking, with M*A*S*H at the head of the parade.
Audiences loved the irreverent anti-military comedy, even when the Korean War context seemed unclear -- I myself went home to ask my veteran father what a Short Arm inspection was. A title up front reminds viewers that the theater of war is Korea, not Vietnam, a distinction that made little difference to the public.
M*A*S*H isn't as revolutionary a film as one might think, at least not structurally. Altman employs talking loudspeakers as cutting pieces to maintain a ragged continuity, a gag that works because the speakers provide more comedy bits. The second act closes with Hawkeye and Trapper John taking a "road trip" to a Tokyo brothel, for a little extra fun giving stuffy officers the goose. The third act reaches way back to '30s college movies to stage a comic football game. What might be a desperation move works thanks to Altman's irreverent attitude -- that the macho army amuses itself with team sports and gambling in the middle of a war zone cues a game where anything goes. The M*A*S*H surgeons dope the opposition's best runner and bring in their own ringer (future blaxploitation star Fred Williamson) to trounce the opposition. Corruption reigns supreme.
The script does cheat somewhat by letting our brat pack of Hawkeye, Trapper John and Duke come out as morally superior even when grossly misbehaving. They buck the rulebook to save the life of a baby, try to keep their (corrupted?) mess boy Ho-Jon out of the draft and pull off a ribald masterstroke to convince the sexually confused dentist Painless Waldowski (John Schuck) not to kill himself.
For the "Painless miracle" scene Altman almost goes abstract, recreating the Last Supper and overlaying the soundtrack with a Biblical epiphany courtesy of composer Johnny Mandel. The miracle, of course, ends up an expressed on the face of Lt. Dish, who "sacrifices" herself after beholding Painless's prodigious "equipment". Rowdy is as Raunchy does.
As happens in more than a few Altman pictures, the last couple of scenes slow to a crawl. They show us what's become of Hot Lips O'Houlihan, now that her unacceptable "army" ways have been ironed out. She's now just another bed bimbo for the super surgeons; she's even been to the feathers with Duke. Altman's affection for his actors shows in the personalized cast run-down at the end, so we can learn the names of all our favorites, right down to the unhappy Tokyo jeep driver played by Bobby Troup. "Goddamn Army!"
M*A*S*H looks and sounds fine on Blu-ray, digitally prodded to look less grainy than original prints. The Ultimate Edition repackages the good extras from the 2000 special edition with a new interactive trivia track that pops up with IDs on the actors and creative sidebar discussions. One trivia track thread tabulates the number of drinks consumed on screen, while another clicks off the offenses of Hawkeye Pierce, explaining why he could be court-martialed fifty times over.
The older extras include Robert Altman's commentary, a slick AMC docu and a better featurette docu on the making of the movie. Another piece plugs the TV series while reporting on the history of the M*A*S*H franchise. Coverage of a 2000 cast & crew Anniversary celebration allows more quickie voice bites from the stars. Two trailers are included as well as a still gallery. In the extras, Altman eagerly names all of his actors, even the bit players. That loyalty would serve him well on his many big-cast films to follow.
Most of the stars contribute interesting comments to the making-of docu. Sutherland and Gould admit to being snobs that almost asked for Altman to leave the movie, because he seemed a disorganized madman; Altman says that if he had known about their feelings at the time, he might have indeed quit. We get a good look at personalities given a career boost by the film, like Sally Kellerman, John Schuck and Elliott Gould. Gary Burghoff (Radar O'Reilly) talks about being cast while appearing on stage in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown; I remember taking a bus on a school excursion to see that play on Ivar Street in Hollywood in 1969.
Burghoff also says that the military tried to ban the film from its theaters, something I'm not sure is true. I saw M*A*S*H on an Air Force base at graduation time, 1970 when it was still first-run in Westwood. I can report that the airmen went nuts over the picture and voiced raucous approval of every gag, stunt and sexist outrage. The biggest laugh may have been when John Schuck said the "F" word in the middle of the football game. That ultimate shock was proof that the movies were 100% liberated and could now do anything they wanted. When we took off that fall for the UCLA dorms, the freedom of male and female students all locked up together was definitely liberating.
M*A*S*H therefore had a real and immediate impression on my particular generation. Robert Altman would go on to make fantasies, art-house snoozers and the occasional winner, but I doubt that he was ever as popular as he was with this consummate service farce. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
M*A*S*H Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: The Complete Interactive Guide (Trivia Track), Altman commentary, docus on the film & the franchise, AMC Backstory piece, 30th Anniversary featurette, trailers, stills.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 3, 2009
1. We were all shocked two years previous when Steve McQueen said the word "Bullshit" near the end of Bullitt. That movie was one of the first I rented at UCLA. When we showed it in the dorms, the 16mm print we received was in perfect shape -- but the offending word had been bleeped from the soundtrack! The students were so angry, I thought they were going to tear the screen off the wall.
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