MASH (1970)
May 29, 2018 6:57 PM - Subscribe

The staff of a Korean War field hospital use humor and high jinks to keep their sanity in the face of the horror of war.

Variety: A Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.), two minutes from bloody battles on the 38th Parallel of Korea, is an improbable setting for a comedy, even a stomach-churning, gory, often tasteless, but frequently funny black comedy. The result is an uneven brew with director Robert Altman committing excesses that should provoke controversy and some loudly negative reaction.

Slant: Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould’s Hawkeye and Trapper John are first and foremost a double shot of youthful irreverence, a pair of anti-establishment swashbucklers who also, given their status as military surgeons, save lives and very conveniently serve through a war they don’t want to be a part of without ever once having to pick up a gun. But whatever socially vanguard credentials they and every other male soldier at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital outside of the Bible-thumping Maj. Burns (Robert Duvall) earn, they lose on modern audiences by virtue of their decidedly Neanderthal attitudes toward women: their garter-wearing fellow soldiers on base and the women they are unfaithful to while fooling around with the former.

Considering how they treat the women they like, it’s no surprise that they set out to utterly crucify the one they don’t, Hot Lips Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Altman scholar Helene Keyssar notes that the overall thrust of the film, its episodes “that constitute the humiliation of Hot Lips Houlihan—what I earlier called her defloration—are, transparently, about the ritualized degradation of women by men.” After watching the methodical devaluation of Houlihan’s social standing until the only authority she holds on base is as the captain of a cheerleading squad, you almost have to wonder if her Oscar nomination was an act of chivalry on behalf of AMPAS. Altman has countered criticisms of misogyny by stressing (with some accuracy) that his presentation of his cast’s loutish behavior is only meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive; that women indeed are systematically taken advantage of, if not outright ignored, by the fraternity of the Military-industrial complex.

But to be totally honest, his plea would wash a lot better if the rest of the movie weren’t so clearly tapped into the giddy code of the clubhouse, if Hawkeye and Trapper John weren’t so consistently rewarded for their behavior, and if it didn’t all boil down to, of all things, a football game.

The Nation: MASH is not about battlefield medicine; it is about three allegedly quickwitted young men who, because of their stipulated professional indispensability, can make an ass of the Army. But comedy is fairly hard work, and the picture shows few signs that anyone was willing to give it the necessary attention. The young men in question (played by Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Tom Skeritt) are not very inventive iconoclasts. They mock religion, authority and the dignity of women in terms so banal that I felt I was attending skit night in a fraternity house. (They never, it so happens, mock the presence of the U.S. Army in Asia.) And their butts—a milktoast commanding officer dedicated to concupiscence and fly-tying, a gung-ho Regular Army nurse, incongruously blonde and proportioned, and a religious creep of lascivious bent (sexual japes, you will surmise are the principal matter of the scenario)—are not worth sharp weapons.

Roger Ebert: We laugh, not because "MASH" is Sgt. Bilko for adults, but because it is so true to the unadmitted sadist in all of us. There is perhaps nothing so exquisite as achieving (as the country song has it) sweet mental revenge against someone we hate with particular dedication. And it is the flat-out, poker-faced hatred in "MASH" that makes it work. Most comedies want us to laugh at things that aren't really funny; in this one we laugh precisely because they're not funny. We laugh, that we may not cry.

But none of this philosophy comes close to the insane logic of "MASH," which is achieved through a peculiar marriage of cinematography, acting, directing, and writing. The movie depends upon timing and tone to be funny. I had an opportunity to read the original script, and I found it uninteresting. It would have been a failure, if it had been directed like most comedies; but Ring Lardner, Jr., wrote it, I suspect, for exactly the approach Robert Altman used in his direction, and so the angle of a glance or the timing of a pause is funnier than any number of conventional gag lines.

AV Club: My sense is that few if any films prior to MASH had depicted surgery as the gorefest that it actually is: torsos peeled wide open, multiple clamps jutting from the holes, blood fucking everywhere. This was right around the time that TV news was starting to show carnage in its coverage of Vietnam, and American audiences weren’t as desensitized as we are today; these scenes must have been visually shocking, especially when accompanied by jokes. Putting yourself in that grotesque headspace makes it easier to roll with the idea that MASH knows very well that its surgeons are assholes, and means to suggest that they maintain their sanity, in impossible circumstances, by picking on the weak. I still feel like Altman and screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. could have provided more critical distance—MASH seems to admire Hawkeye and Trapper much more than, say, The Wolf Of Wall Street admires Jordan Belfort. But the surgery scenes make it impossible to write the movie off as a relic of a less enlightened age. These guys aren’t nice, but neither is their situation.


40 Years after "MASH" Elliott Gould Reflects on an Era
posted by MoonOrb (11 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I remember once as a child being very confused by watching an episode of MASH and encountering a scene involving full-on female nudity. I realized many years later that I must have come across an airing of the movie on HBO and assumed it was the TV show.

Robert Altman is one of my favorite directors and while MASH isn’t close to the top of my list of favorite Altman films, it is undeniable that his entire directorial style arrived fully-formed right from the very beginning.
posted by Atom Eyes at 7:45 PM on May 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

I liked the TV show but when I saw this movie it was like, WTF?

Also, the whole suicide is painless
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:00 PM on May 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

And it is the flat-out, poker-faced hatred in "MASH" that makes it work. Most comedies want us to laugh at things that aren't really funny; in this one we laugh precisely because they're not funny. We laugh, that we may not cry.

Hm OK well I never I understood this movie's appeal either, I guess having been born too late. But this description makes it sound like a proto- The Onion, which, OK, if I reframe the movie as an early movie-long attempt at an Onion article, I can understand that. But The Onion has so much context and framing around it that when they go dark you know what they're doing. A movie doesn't have any of that, or maybe it loses it over time or something.
posted by bleep at 11:41 PM on May 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I really liked this movie when I was in college, but even then a lot of the casual sexism and racism were glaring, and it certainly hasn't aged well around those issues at all and it's kind of hard to watch now. Still, there are moments that make me laugh out loud, and the overwhelming sense of outraged helplessness it has toward the war is more apparent in the movie M*A*S*H than the book that was its source material, and are even more apparent in the show. It's definitely a product of its time, and it's hard for me to take the film on its own merits because I love the show so much.
posted by odd ghost at 4:20 AM on May 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

I grew up on the TV series, and remember watching the movie and not really enjoying it so much as trying to find the threads that led to the TV show. I've watched it a few times since, though not probably since the turn of the century, and have filed it away as a decent movie of its time but not a classic.

Re-watching M*A*S*H recently I picked up on just how sexist and problematic it was, but the show and cast had heart and kindness that I feel the movie lacked. If you haven't seen the movie, it's worth watching but I'll take the TV show any day.
posted by jzb at 5:47 AM on May 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

The movie is based on a book (there are actually several books), and the books are fictionalized versions of real people. I worked with the daughter of one of the doctors this was based on (her father was not the author of the books), and she said it was actually fairly true to his experiences, good and bad.

The AV Club take on it is about the best I think. The movie definitely has issues, but its take on people who are clearly suffering from ptsd, but forced to try to find ways of coping while having to patch up the wounded again and again in a war whose purpose and end was unclear, had real resonance with people when the movie came out during the Vietnam War era.
posted by gudrun at 12:27 PM on May 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Some favorite trivia about "Suicide is Painless", from its Wikipedia page:

"Robert Altman had two stipulations about the song . . . first, it had to be called 'Suicide Is Painless'; second, it had to be the 'stupidest song ever written'. Altman tried to write the lyrics himself, but found that it was too difficult for his 45-year-old brain to write 'stupid enough'. Instead he gave the task to his 14-year-old-son, Michael, who wrote the lyrics in five minutes."

"Altman said that while he only made $70,000 for having directed the movie, his son had earned more than $1 million for having co-written the song."
posted by Zonker at 4:33 PM on May 30, 2018 [11 favorites]

I am a big Altman fan, but I find this film increasingly unwatchable because a recurring plot line consists of a relentless campaign of humiliation against Houlihan for having the temerity to demand professionalism and be ambitious in a military setting, rather than bask in the privilege of being a male non-com who can basically get away with anything. She's in part being punished for hooking up with Frank, and, as played by Duvall, he really is a monster, but I am not a fan of punishing women for the behavior of men, and have real problems with the fact that the movie thinks it is appropriate and hilarious to punish her through sexual harassment.

Additionally, she was played by Sally Kellerman, who makes the character daffy and fun despite how she is written and how the film wants to see her. At least Kellerman was working against the desire of the film to have a woman we could all hate.
posted by maxsparber at 7:26 AM on May 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

Altman tried to write the lyrics himself, but found that it was too difficult for his 45-year-old brain to write 'stupid enough'. Instead he gave the task to his 14-year-old-son, Michael, who wrote the lyrics in five minutes."
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
-- Not Mark Twain

Ceterum autem censeo Trumpem esse delendam
posted by kirkaracha at 3:42 PM on May 31, 2018

Remember that this was also the era of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, where misogyny was considered a heroic act, and the only good role for a woman was as a prostitute.

Sure the 60s and 70s were an age of sexual freedom and rebellion- but let's never forget this was mainly to the benefit of men. You can see the nature of Trump's generation in this film.
posted by happyroach at 11:17 PM on June 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

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