MASH (1970)


(director: Robert Altman; screenwriter: from the novel by Richard Hooker/Ring Lardner, Jr; cinematographer: Harold Stine; editor: Danford B. Greene; music: Johnny Mandel; cast: Donald Sutherland (Capt. Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce), Elliott Gould (Capt. John Francis Xavier ‘Trapper John’ McIntyre), Tom Skerritt (Capt. Augustus Bedford ‘Duke’ Forrest), Sally Kellerman (Maj. Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ O’Houlihan), Robert Duvall (Maj. ‘Frank’ Burns), Gary Burghoff (Cpl. Walter ‘Radar’ O’Reilly), Rene Auberjonois (Father Mulcahy), Roger Bowen (Lt. Col. Henry Barymore Adlai Blake), John Schuck (Painless Pole Waldowski); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Ingo Preminger; Twentieth Century Fox; 1970)

“A black comedy that rings hollow today.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The only thing worse than this overrated “War is Absurd” satire was the popular TV series that followed. Robert Altman (“Thieves Like Us”/”Countdown”/”Brewster McCloud”) took over the directing honors after about 12 directors turned down the Ring Lardner, Jr. screenplay that was based on the novel by Richard Hooker. Under Altman’s direction, with an eye toward the topical concerns of America and completely rewriting Lardner’s screenplay, it hit the right anti-military mood sweeping the country during the time of the Vietnam War and became a box office smash. This gave Altman’s film career a considerable boost. Though the film was set during the Korean War the audience clearly took the pot shots directed at the military as pertaining to the Vietnam War. It also took shots at such easy sitting targets as military decorum, religion, prudes, hypocrites and sexual mores. The shallow cynical stance it takes, there are only good or bad people, its flat depiction of humanity and its smutty frat boy humor result in a black comedy that rings hollow today.

It deals with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital’s staff (M*A*S*H) and the comedians on the medical staff who deal with the carnage of war. Most of the juvenile pranks are carried out by the martini drinking and wisecracking three anti-establishment young surgeons–Captain Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Captain Trapper John (Elliott Gould), and Captain ‘Duke’ Forrest (Tom Skerritt)–who unite to drive the smug, nutty religious phony Major Burns (Robert Duvall), their incompetent surgeon colleague, crazy to the point where he’s removed in a straight-jacket. This comes after the rigid new Army head nurse, Maj. “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), arrives and unites with Burns. The two villains in the piece fail to understand the suffering around them, and they are seen hiding behind protocol to avoid any real human feelings for their surroundings. They are depicted as the idiotic true-believers in military rules who have no understanding about war or what really makes the Army work. While the two hypocritical moralists spend a night in making love in their bunk, the hospital boys hook up a recording device so everyone in the hospital can hear them over the intercom and when she tells lover boy her lips are hot during foreplay the nickname sticks to her regret.

No plot or character development, but numerous vignettes (such as Hot Lips’ exposure in the shower, The Last Supper parody and a wild football game that inspires betting and cursing). It’s filled with humiliating, mean-spirited and tasteless jokes; it seemed ready-made to be a TV sit-com. Altman’s teenage son wrote the lyrics to the theme song ”Suicide Is Painless.” This, probably, best indicates the low-level this bad-joke childish rant of a film sinks to. In any case, it does not stand up to the test of time.