September 19, 2013

Movie Review: M*A*S*H (1970)

Now, fair's fair Henry. If I nail Hotlips and hit Hawkeye can I go home too? - Capt. Augustus 'Duke' Forrest (Tom Skerritt)

Director: Robert Altman

Writer: Richard Hooker (novel), Ring Lardner, Jr. (screenplay)

Producer: Ingo Preminger, Leon Ericksen

Studio: 20th Century Fox (US)

Major Stars: Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, Elliot Gould, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, Rene Auberjonois, Roger Bowen, Gary Burghoff

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing what happens in the film. With that in mind, there may be SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

Without a doubt, M*A*S*H is the funniest war film you will ever see in your life. And while it hardly has anything you would normally associate with a war movie, it touches on many aspects of wartime in a very subtle manner.

The film is set in the Korean War and focuses on the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and in particular two doctors; Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce (Sutherland) and Captain "Trapper" John McIntyre (Gould). Through the movie you pretty much laugh non-stop at their antics, which including baiting and teasing the two uptight officers in the unit; Major Frank Burns (Duvall) and Major Margaret Houlihan (Kellerman). The film comes to a peak at the end during a football game between the 4077th and the 325th Evac Hospital, which is absolutely gut-busting hilarious.

So it all sounds like a great comedy with just the trappings of a war movie, right? But there’s a lot more to it.

  • One of the scenes has Pierce operating on a wounded soldier. He makes jokes and has the nurse scratch his nose all over the sound of a bone saw amputating the soldier’s leg.
  • Pierce and Hawkeye are rushed to Japan to operate on a soldier in a top-flight military hospital. The soldier happens to be the son of a Congressman. Would a regular GI get that treatment?
  • There is a Korean teenager named Ho-Jon who works at the camp. When he is drafted, Hawkeye tries to get him out of service by slipping him drugs to raise his heart-rate.

And that leads to a moment that you almost miss. The original script had Ho-Jon getting wounded, returning to the 4077th and dying on the operating table. The film edited most of that out. But you do see him in the operating room. And then after that, at a poker game with the doctors, you see a jeep drive off and the doctors stop playing for a moment. The jeep holds Ho-Jon’s corpse.

It’s a moment like that, that encapsulates the suffering war causes and how the survivors deal with it, that pushes M*A*S*H beyond being “just” a comedy. The plain fact is that Hawkeye and Trapper John act like maniacs because otherwise they’d go mad from all the suffering and death they are confronted with. The whole movie is one long look at how these soldiers cope with the war. And that is what makes Altman’s film not only a good comedy, but a good war film as well.

See, war films don’t always have to show the war to be effective. You have obvious films in that category, like Casablanca, and others you may not know about ( The Best Years of Our Lives - the damn film won seven Academy Awards but you barely ever see it on television or mentioned anywhere). That is the kind of war film M*A*S*H is; it focuses not on the battles, but on how those battles affect the soldiers who fight them and the people associated with them.

So where does a film like this rank? My method is simple (have I talked about this yet?); I start at the bottom of the list. If I think the film is better than the one listed, I go up a peg. That continues until I can’t go any higher. Which is how I find myself slotting it (at this time) between Where Eagles Dare and Braveheart. And I didn’t see that coming.

Not that M*A*S*H isn’t deserving of that kind of ranking. It’s a great movie that makes you laugh and think at the same time. But I thought going into this list that it would likely be in the middle tiers. I was wrong, which is only more of a testament to the actors and director.

Without a doubt, see M*A*S*H if you haven’t done so yet. It should also be a permanent part of your movie collection.


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