Written by Richard Hooker and Ring Lardner Jr.
Directed by Robert Altman
I have to wonder just how many people actually think of the movie first when they hear the word MASH spoken. How many people even know that it was originally a movie? The television series was a hit for eleven years, but it all started with a wonderful film directed by Robert Altman.
If you have never seen the movie, only the television show, do yourself a favor and rent the movie. I had seen the movie a few times on television, but there were scenes which were cut. The new DVD release is completely restored and uncut; a real treat to watch.
How do you sum up a story when there really is none? MASH is a series of vignettes based on a five to six month period in the life of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. It begins with the arrival of two new surgeons, Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt). It ends with their tour of duty over.
In contrast to most war movies, there is no mission; no objective that needs to be completed for the movie to be over. The audience is just shown what life is like during this time period. Unlike the television show which had a fairly stable cast, the players go in and out of this setting at various times. We are introduced to Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) in the beginning, but he is soon carted off in a straight-jacket after being provoked by Hawkeye. Trapper John McIntyre (Elliot Gould) does not come into play till around one-third of the way through the film. Around this same time, Major Margaret O’Houlihan enters the picture as well. Lieutenant Dish (Jo Ann Pflug), one of the nurses, also ships out part of the way through the film, and in one of the later segments we are introduced to neurosurgeon and former football star Spearchucker Jones (Fred Williamson).
I believe this makes the movie more realistic than the television show. We don’t have a guest du jour popping in to make the point of the episode. These people are stuck in a situation that none of them want to be in and they are just making the best of it. To deflect from having to sew up bodies blown apart by bombs, they drink, play cards, and let loose in many different ways.
Altman manages to convey that very well, transitioning at various interludes from the bloody gore of the operating rooms to the various diversions that go on both inside the camp and outside.
If you go into this movie expecting to see the Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John we know from Alan Alda and Wayne Rodgers, you’ll probably be disappointed. Sutherland and Gould portray these characters very differently than the television actors. It doesn’t mean that one is necessarily better than the other, only different.
This is also a much wider canvas than I was used to from the television series. Spearchucker Jones disappeared after the first few episodes. We never got to meet Duke Forrest, Lieutenant Dish, “Painless Pole” Waldowski, or “Me Lay” Marston. These actors all participate in the various stories which take place: Major O’Houlihan and Frank Burns try to put a stop to Pierce and McIntyre’s behavior and end up having sex with it broadcast over the camp loudspeakers (this is where the Hot Lips nickname comes in), Waldowski (the camp dentist) at one point decides he must be gay since he couldn’t perform and wants to commit suicide, the 4077th MASH competes against another outfit in football and we get to watch both team try to unscrupulously rig the game, Pierce and McIntyre travel to Tokyo to perform an operation on a Congressman’s son, the camp tries to find out if Major O’Houlihan is really a blonde.
The DVD has a whole bunch of extras. There is a Still Gallery, the option to watch the film with a commentary by Robert Altman, the original theatrical trailer, and a whole bunch of documentaries. It wasn’t until I began watching these documentaries that I realized just how different MASH was for its time. To begin with, most of the war movies being put out during this time were decidedly rah-rah, go-get-‘em type films with our country’s involvement in Vietnam. Altman was trying to make an anti-war film and yet have it not appear so. To do this, he set it in Korea and had the subversiveness on the part of the doctors be very subtle.
The movie presents its case that war is hell. It does not glamorize it or glorify it. We see all the blood and bodies; the result of so many of those other war films. Fox tried to get many of the operating room scenes deleted, but the feedback it received told them to leave it in.
MASH only won one Academy Award for Original Screenplay. This is ironic since Ring Lardner Jr. wanted to distance himself from this film after he felt the actors and Altman took way too many liberties with his script. In fact, most of the dialogue is ad-libbed, a credit to the entire cast, their chemistry, and Altman for being able to reap this wonderful talent.
Sutherland and Gould also at one point tried to get Altman fired as they were convinced this movie would be the end of their careers. This ended up being good for the movie, however, as Altman was able to use that friction to his benefit.
Many of the techniques Altman use in this film were groundbreaking, such as the zoom lens. The actors would be in scenes and they would not know if he was focusing on them or not. He fitted the actors with microphones so their conversations would be going on over each other, creating a general tone for the movie. He then used the camp loudspeakers, and announcements almost word-for-word out of a Korean War manual to wrap the film together.
The three documentaries AMC Backstory Behind-the-Scenes Documentary, Enlisted: The Story of MASH, and MASH: History Through the Lens all seem very similar. I would watch these at different times since I think they would be better appreciated instead of watched one on top of the other. However, the 30th Anniversary MASH Cast Reunion was an excellent piece I will watch again and again. The Film Restoration Featurette was also good.
MAS*H is a don’t miss. It’s a true classic that deserves to be on any best film list. Do yourself a favor and get this DVD in your collection.
Written by Richard Hooker and Ring Lardner Jr.