April 18, 2024

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #56: MASH

Doctors in an Army hospital unit during the Korean War spend about two hours messing with every authority figure they encounter in this counterculture comedy.

I have a poster in my classroom from the people at Pop Chart Lab.  It depicts 100 great movie posters, with a bit of foil over each one.  The idea is you scratch off the foil for the ones you’ve seen.  Among the 100 the folks at the poster company chose was MASH.  I’ve had students tell me they’ve seen that one, only to be surprised to learn that there was a movie first.  They seem to think it’s just a TV show.  As it is, I have seen most of the movies on this poster, including MASH.  In the past, I’ve gotten the same reaction over Spartacus.  Younger people think it was just a TV show.

By the by, I have Pop Chart Lab’s 100 Great Novels poster too, but I haven’t read nearly as many of those as I have the seen the movies.

The confusion over MASH is entirely understandable.  The television series ran for 256 episodes over 11 seasons.  It’s been in nearly perpetual rerun for decades.  Heck, I remember watching the show when I was a kid.  I don’t think I understood it in the slightest, but it was on every day and I saw many of them, possibly while new episodes were still being produced.  The cast of the film is bigger, focusing mostly on the antics of Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Trapper John McIntyre (Elliot Gould), and Duke Forest (Tom Skerritt), though Duke seems to disappear from time to time.  Perhaps that’s why he never seems to have appeared on the show.  That’s fine.  Corporal Klinger isn’t in the movie.

As it is, MASH has no discernible plot.  It’s more like a “hang out” film where the audience just hangs out with the characters for two hours and calls it a day.  What structure there is comes in the bookending of Hawkeye and Duke arriving and later leaving the camp together in the same stolen jeep.  The film opens with the familiar theme music, only for the film it has lyrics (“Suicide is Painless” is the actual title of the piece), and despite the fact the film is a comedy, the first sight is helicopters loaded down with wounded soldiers landing outside the camp.  It isn’t long before the rather unorthodox doctors start to make their way to the camp, a place where Hawkeye soon seems to become the de facto leader of the anarchists (for lack of a better word) that make the place tolerable.  As explained by the seemingly clueless officer in charge, Col. Henry Blake, there’s a lot of long stretches where not much happens.  But when things do happen, then the doctors and nurses will be busy.

As such, most of the film is the doctors in the unit not doing much.  The story being told is more episodic than anything else.  Mostly, Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke play pranks on anyone who tries to act like an authority figure, starting with new head nurse Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) soon given the nickname of Hot Lips (she hates it), and Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall).

That episodic plot structure may help explain why this film was so successfully remade as a TV series that ran as long as it did.  The show also tended to simplify the characters a bit.  Frank Burns on the show is mostly a pain in the ass, a snobby guy the others can push around.  Here he’s an incompetent doctor, a religious man, a stickler for rules, and like every other wannabe authority figure in the film, a world-class hypocrite.  Just about all the doctors and nurses are married or at least have someone back home (the well-endowed camp dentist has three someones back home), but that doesn’t stop any of them from screwing around with each other as often as they can.  Burns, along with career Army-type Houlihan, spout off about following procedures and being upright and moral, but ultimately are found out to be just as corrupt (if that is the right word for it) as everyone else.  The crime in MASH isn’t being unfaithful to your spouse back home.  It’s being a hypocrite.  And just about everyone Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke bring down a few pegs is guilty of the same sin in that regard.  Not all of them are seuxal, as seen with the general who brings in a ringer for a climactic football game, but the sins are there.

As such, the characters we like may not be the best people, but are just up front about it.

MASH is a war movie without a war going on.  The Korean War is no doubt substituting for Vietnam at a time when a big studio wasn’t going to make an anti-Vietnam film so directly.  Instead, set it in Korea two decades earlier, and have the cast made up of people with a lax regard to Army regulations.  Most of the cast are actually listed as “Introducing” in the opening credits, so most of the actors were new to film.  And then make sure to show everyone is in one way or another just out for a good time.  Col. Blake may not seem to be on the ball, but he isn’t completely unaware of how everyone is sleeping around.  Heck, he’s doing it himself  This is a film where the characters immediately undercut the uptight Burns directly in front of him within seconds of meeting him.  It will have Hawkeye train Burns’ Korean mess hall attendant in the art of serving drinks.  It will undercut Burns further by having Duke hand the lad a porno mag immediately after learning the highly religious Burns has been teaching the kid to read from the Bible.

Above all, the characters need to just let Hawkeye and Trapper John do whatever they want.  Trying to stop them only invites retaliation.  If this is a war film, it’s done by way of the Marx Brothers, where anarchy is the way of doing things.  If they want to play golf, let them.  Otherwise, they will find blackmail photos.

MASH is a very typical film from director Robert Altman.  His style is known for, among other things, large casts where multiple characters might all be speaking at the same time.  That does happen here, as the doctors and nurses screw around both literally and figuratively.  And letting them do so earns their respect.  Arguably neither Corporal Radar O’Reilly (played by the same actor from the TV series, the only one to do both) and chaplain Father Mulcahy never seem to fully participate in the bacchanal around them, but Radar anticipates what Blake wants before it comes out of the C.O.’s mouth, and Mulcahy is just as cynical as the others.  When an angry Hot Lips demands to know how someone like Hawkeye Pierce managed to become a captain in the United States Army, it is the chaplain who replies, “He was drafted.”

This is a pretty funny movie, but I think that might be my favorite line.

NEXT UP:  That poster I mentioned in the introduction above has a film on it that many of my students are often shocked I haven’t seen.  Heck, so are a lot of other people.  Next time, I will rectify that omission with the 1965 musical The Sound of Music.