Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Roger Bowen, René Auberjonois, Jo Ann Pflug
Comedy often seems to come from a very dark place. That’s not all that surprising as the world itself is just as dark, moreso for some than others. It’s a great defense mechanism; we might surely go mad without it. Those in military service, who witness horrors that nightmares are made of, need it just as badly as anyone. If a soldier’s sense of humor gives the impression that he’s something of a prick, that may not be due to a character flaw, merely a sign that he’s seen a lot of terrible things in his time. In “M*A*S*H,” superior officers (and women in particular) are treated with such disrespect that it’s hard to say whether these men were this mean-spirited before the war, or if it’s only a symptom of having to patch up the wounded on a daily basis, but perhaps they deserve the benefit of the doubt.
The war in question is the Korean War, although it could have just as easily been the Vietnam War (especially since the latter conflict was still VERY MUCH ongoing at the time). The year is 1951, and Captains “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerritt) have been assigned as combat surgeons for the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. As they arrive in a stolen Jeep, it is already clear that these men are the sort for whom following the rules sounds too inhuman. That they are bunkmates with Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), a religious zealot, doesn’t jive well, either. They’re more at ease once they’ve successfully gotten the Major switched out for Captain “Trapper” John McIntyre (Elliot Gould), who even comes bearing a jar of olives for their martinis.
For Hawkeye and the others, the arrival of Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) at first really begins to suck the fun out of everything. She doesn’t even seem to agree that Major Burns is a lousy and incompetent surgeon. Ultimately, they come up with a plan to embarrass both her and Major Burns when they learn of the hot and heavy affair that their two enemies have started, placing a microphone under their bunk and broadcasting their words of passion to the entire camp. Now, everyone calls Major Houlihan by the nickname “Hot Lips.” Major Burns is emotionally compromised to the point of attacking Hawkeye and subsequently being led away from the camp in a straight jacket, but the degradation of “Hot Lips” is far from over, as the boys all camp out in front of the women’s shower, having placed bets on whether she’s a natural blonde. The curtain is raised, and Major Houlihan, still with shampoo in her wet hair, storms into the cabin of Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), where he is entertaining his mistress in bed, and demands that he do something to discipline the members of the 4077th. Her request is denied.
Our protagonists’ behavior is not always cruel and selfish. When Father Mulcahy (René Auberjonois) comes to Hawkeye with the news that the dentist known as “Painless” intends to commit suicide (hence, the theme song “Suicide is Painless”), Hawkeye, Trapper and Duke devise a scenario that involves a final meal for Painless (in a sequence deliberately staged to satirize The Last Supper) and a “black capsule” placebo, both satisfying Painless’s desire to commit suicide and easing Father Mulcahy’s conscience in knowing that the man is not actually killing himself. However, even this situation does not avoid turning a woman into an object. Painless’s entire reason for ending his life is because he had recently been unable to “get it up” for a woman. Therefore, Hawkeye convinces one of his girlfriends (Jo Ann Pflug) to be the one to help “cure” Painless.
Had this movie been filmed in a traditional manner, it wouldn’t be half the classic that it is. Perfectly timed zoom camera angles, overlapping dialogue, and a healthy dose of improvisation really help out. Apart from Robert Altman’s brilliantly unorthodox method of directing, what makes “M*A*S*H” so immensely entertaining is the talent in its cast, some for whom this was their very first movie (like Bud Cort, who would go on to star alongside Ruth Gordon in “Harold and Maude”). Even Donald Sutherland, who is hard to see as Hawkeye now because of the way Alan Alda took that role and made it his own, is terrific. Sally Kellerman, in particular, gives my favorite performance in the movie. In the football game which takes up most of the final 20 minutes, pay attention to her in particular. Every word out of her mouth during this sequence is pure comic gold. Speaking of the football game, its inclusion is enough for me to hail “M*A*S*H” as my favorite football movie. It was also during this game that the word “fuck” was spoken in a major Hollywood studio film for the very first time, uttered by actor John Schuck as Painless. Nowadays, that word can appear in a movie hundreds of times over, but in 1970, it was groundbreaking.
“M*A*S*H” was nominated for Best Picture, but the anti-war comedy lost to the more patriotic, serious drama “Patton.” That in no way diminishes the impact this movie had, and continues to have. Even now, almost 45 years later (and 40+ years since the end of the Draft), I can still laugh at all the jokes until my sides hurt. There have been other movies which have spawned a television series (and vice versa), but none quite like “M*A*S*H,” equally as groundbreaking on the small screen as its cinematic parent, and staying on the air four times as long as the Korean War actually lasted. Incredibly, one actor from the movie was retained. Gary Burghoff who plays Radar, would continue the role when the show premiered in 1972 on through to the final episode, which aired in 1983 to what was then the largest audience for a single TV entertainment broadcast in recorded history.
Each of us learns to cope with horror and tragedy in his own way. “Hot Lips” Houlihan is vilified because she approaches her task as a nurse with the sort of coldness we’ve probably associated with one or more doctors we’ve seen in our own lives. It’s the best way she knows how to do her job, even if it does make her appear less than human. Anyone who’s seen as many patients, sewn up as many bullet holes, and amputated as many limbs has to distract themselves somehow. Throw in the fact that this was a time when the youth of America were being snatched up at random to serve in a war they didn’t agree with or believe in, and it’s no wonder why some might choose to stir up trouble for their own amusement.