Genre: Comedy and War Running Time: 1 hr. 56 min.
Release Date: February 18th, 1970 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Robert Altman Actors: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Roger Bowen, Rene Auberjonois, David Arkin, Jo Ann Pflug, Fred Williamson, Gary Burghoff
et during the Korean War, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) receives a new captain, Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), who immediately brings a buoyant sarcasm and prankster morale to the group of soldiers. He’s driven to the colonel by Captain Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), a similarly wisecracking scoundrel more intent on flirting with the female staff (such as Lt. “Dish” played by Jo Ann Pflug) than reporting to his superior officer upon arriving to the base. Levity is clearly a mental deflection for the horrors of warfare.
The greatest bits of humor are derived from scenes of graphic surgery, where crimson-soaked sheets and shiny surgical instruments are flourished with sounds of bone-sawing and monotonic, fumbling microphone announcements – and fast-talking, hilariously jokey observations. There is a playful, insincere attitude expressed by nearly all of the main characters, with the conversations taking a natural, almost improvised approach. The dialogue is frequently sustained beyond the transitioning of scenes as if it were narration, mirroring the most outstanding supporting role, Radar (Gary Burghoff), who needs no instruction from Colonel Blake, outguessing his every order and talking over him with an unforgettably mousy voice.
“We try to remember, we’re a military organization,” states the Colonel, a commanding officer unable to impart discipline or strictness, perfectly summing up the level of unprofessional wackiness at work in the camp. Ultimately, the goofing around is a psychological defense mechanism to crimp the assimilation of the battlefield atrocities. The lead frivolers withhold no subject for mockery, ribbing the usefulness of religion, anatomy, infidelity, the battle of the sexes, sexual tensions, the application of “prisoner of war” to everyone involved, utilization of skills to abuse power and ignore/intimidate rank, and the illusion of court-martialing.
A major subplot also involves the contention with authority figures. Officers adopting a stern manner toward any matter become the enemies; quarries to be removed from the action. No-nonsense Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and misogyny-attracting Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) are the primary targets for roughhousing and horseplay; Hawkeye is keen on insulting, humiliating, and provoking them at every turn, as if some initiation tactic for ultimate acceptance. Houlihan rightly points out that something must have gone wrong to allow such a man to achieve a level of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps – to which a surgeon aptly retorts, “He was drafted.”
From the iconic, melancholy title song about suicide by Johnny Mandel, presiding over army helicopters as they transport bloodied bodies, to the abrasive mix of subtle, dry humor and straightforward raunchiness, to the instantly famous poster art, M*A*S*H is a wholly unique comedy, oriented in a most unlikely setting. The spoofing of procedures, general confusion of accountability, time-wasting, and chaotic relationships between soldiers symbolizes a skewed outlook on Korea; here, the stresses and altercations are eased with humor and games, culminating in a disorganized, rambunctious diversion of football highlighted by creative cheating (ironically injuring more enlisted men than those seen under the knife during the course of the film). Structured chiefly as an episodic (or skit-based) movie strung together with announcements, it’s not surprising that the project led to a long-running, much-loved television series. Its unconventional humorousness, tone, and environment similarly contributed to a Palme d’Or win at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, as well as five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
– Mike Massie