A tricky film to review in 2021, Robert Altman’s critical and commercial hit comedy about a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean war is still a recognized brand, but that sentiment is largely due to the success of the more warm and friendly tv version that made Alan Alda a star. He’s nowhere to be found here (although Gary Burghoff appears in the familiar role of Radar) and the life-lessons and generosity of spirit are also MIA. Altman’s original movie revels in misogyny, racism, prankster humour and very outdated attitudes; it really should not be watchable in 2021, but it is.
Although the setting is the army at war, the central characters is a civilian; Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) is a surgeon with a family waiting at home for his return. He’s been drafted, and Hawkeye and fellow surgeon Trapper John (Elliott Gould) have a vital, life-or-death role to play in keeping soldiers and prisoners of war alive. Both men aggressively surf a wave of class-conflict, flaunting a rock-star life-style, day-drinking cocktails and playing golf amidst the carnage; notably, the only shots fired here are the starting pistol at the end of each quarter of a football game. Instead, we see the chaos created by idle minds; pulling a shower tent to the ground while naked women are inside, or placing a microphone under the bed while Hotlips Houllihan (Sally Kellerman) makes love to prig Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). Meanwhile innocents die on the operating tables, and Altman doesn’t choose to dwell on their agonies for a moment, much like the attitude of his anti-hero leads.
Such escapades have set the standard for several decades of frat-boys pranks; the origins of Porkys, The Choirboys and other regrettable films are contained here, although the excuse here is that war is hell, so who cares?.Ring Lardner’s caustic script sympathizes with the anti-establishment attitudes of the protagonists, and yet the handling defuses accusations that Altman’s film has no moral compass. War has blown our lives off-course, and Hawkeye and Trapper John have little alternative but to endlessly bail out the sinking ship and salvage what they can; the film climaxes with a deeply immoral football match in which syringes are used to dope unsuspecting players, while a ringer with a racist name (Spearchucker) is used to fix the result to ensure a betting payday.
A rare film that struck home with all classes, MASH is rude, crude and plays to the peanut gallery, and the content would never be made by a major-studio now. But there’s also sophistication in Altman’s presentation, with overlapping dialogue and observational camerawork; Altman is trying to show that war is hell in a humanistic way, and it’s possible to overlook the individual cruelties and see a wider picture. The behavior seen here is not that of role-models, but ordinary people under extreme pressure; Altman’s film still serves as a pressure valve, a place where the down-trodden can come to blow off some steam, and it still passes muster to this day. The theme song and the camp announcements don’t hurt either.