Thursday, January 17, 2013

Movie – MASH (1970)

This review is going to be about MASH the movie, not the long-running television series.  If you didn’t know that the TV show originally was a movie then you may be surprised by what you see.  Both were originally based on the 1968 “Richard Hooker” novel of the same name.  (More on “Hooker” a little later, including why I have the name in quotes.)  The year that MASH the movie (hereinafter known simply as MASH) came out, the film Catch-22 also came out.  The latter was expected to be the more successful of the two, based on the people making it, but MASH proved to be the one that had more lasting success.  Both show the craziness of war, Catch-22 for World War II and MASH for Korea.  I like both films quite a bit.  (You can read my review of Catch-22 here.)  Of the two, MASH is the more realistic film, having been based on the author’s real experiences during the Korean War.

So who is “Richard Hooker”?  Well, he doesn’t exist.  This is a pen name made up perhaps to disassociate the author from the novel.  In reality two men worked on the book.  The first was Dr. H. Richard Thornberger, who was head of Thoracic Surgery at the Mid-Maine Medical Center in Waterville, Maine.  The second was journalist W.C. Heinz.  Maybe Thornberger thought the novel might stain his reputation as a surgeon.  Maybe not.  I was unable to find any statements from him on the subject.

I had watched the TV show M*A*S*H for many years before I ever saw the movie.  When I finally did see it I was so used to seeing the TV actors as these characters that I frankly had a hard time adjusting to the movie actors.  They didn’t feel “right” in the roles, if that makes sense.  I was able to finally adjust as the movie went along, though.

The film opens with Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Captain “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerritt) arriving at the 4077th MASH unit.  The initials stand for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and the two are doctors.  The movie, much like the TV show that followed, doesn’t spend much time on the war, other than the series of patients that are brought in that need to be operated on.

Both Hawkeye and Duke (a character not on the TV series) are rebellious and not at all serious about the situation they are in.  They even arrive in a stolen jeep.  They immediately clash with their tent-mate Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) who dislikes them both because he is a religious man and he sees them as immoral, and because they are superior surgeons to him.  Hawkeye goes to Colonel Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), the head of this MASH unit, to request a thoracic surgeon specialist be brought in…which will incidentally help push Burns aside.

That specialist, Captain “Trapper” John McIntyre (Elliot Gould) is at first reticent about his past, but Hawkeye eventually ferrets it out.  Soon after, a new head nurse arrives, Major Margaret Houlihan, who doesn’t have a nickname yet like all the rest.  How she gets the nickname “Hot Lips” is a funny scene in the film.  In fact, pretty much everyone either has, or gets, a nickname while there and many of them are ones that would give a modern, ultra-sensitive, easily-offended, PC person a fit.  In addition to Hot Lips there is also a nurse known as “Lt. Dish”, “Dago Red” (Father Mulcahey, played by Rene Auberjonois), “Painless Pole” (whose desire to kill himself is accompanied by the song Suicide is Painless, which later became the opening theme of the TV show), and especially “Spearchucker” Jones, a black doctor.  “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff, the only person to reprise his role on the TV show) seems pretty tame in comparison.

Over the course of several months Hawkeye, Duke and Trapper manage to antagonize both Frank Burns and Hot Lips, with Col. Blake playing referee.  These are usually humorous exchanges.  The drama is brought in from the war injuries they have to treat and the cumulative impact they have on the doctors and nurses who serve there.  If you listen closely to the loudspeaker announcements in the camp there are additional jokes buried within them.  In fact, for one final joke the film’s closing credits are not shown on screen, but are instead read out over the P.A. system.

To say that the atmosphere around this film was contentious is to refer to Korea as a “conflict” and not a war.  Director Robert Altman would eventually joke “this movie wasn’t released; it escaped.”  Altman angered both Sutherland and Gould by focusing too much on the other characters, in their opinion.  They tried and failed to get him replaced.  The studio constantly criticized Altman for the tone of the film, especially when compared to the other war movies they were filming (Patton and Tora Tora Tora).  In return, Altman used the studio’s distraction with those bigger films to get away with as much as he could in his own film.

Despite winning an Oscar for his screenplay Ring Lardner, Jr. wanted nothing to do with the film because Altman just let his actors improvise, left in flubs that Altman found funny, and shot scenes that people suggested to him out of the blue (i.e. the blessing of the jeep).  Years later Tom Skerritt said that about 80% of the dialogue in the final film was improvised.  When Altman was working with his editor after filming had been completed, the head of Post Production at the studio tried to get Altman thrown out of the editing room.  Altman had been in negotiations to receive a percentage of the profits in addition to his base salary, but when the studio heard him commenting in the press about how much he hated working with them, that killed any chance at getting more money.  According to a piece of trivia I read, Altman’s son co-wrote the song Suicide is Painless and that since it was used as the TV show’s opening theme, the son ended up making far more money from royalties than his father did from directing the film. 

MASH does a good job of balancing out the humor with the drama.  It shows people making jokes in a gallows humor sort of way, but it also shows the impact on the people.  A Korean boy who helps in the camp gets drafted into the army.  Hawkeye is unsuccessful in getting his draft deferred and the boy does show up again at the hospital, but as a patient.  Resemblances to Vietnam were entirely intentional.  In fact, the studio forced Altman to put a note at the beginning of the film that this was taking place in Korea so people wouldn’t confuse it with Vietnam.

Vietnam is long behind us, but we’ve had the Gulf wars for the last decade that still have had 18 year olds head away alive and come back wounded or dead.  MASH should still resonate today.  Unless you think all war films should be gung ho serious, then I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. To me, this film is one of Robert Altman's quintessential films. My favorite line in that film is...

    "Hotlips you incredible nincompoop, it's the end of the third quarter".

  2. Great film. Some really terrific scenes and there's a lot going on.

  3. I saw this in college, and I remember it as a very good film though I didn't love it as much as the T.V. series. The story behind the book and movie is fascinating. Thanks for sharing that. Excellent post!

    1. It's interesting to hear from someone else who started with the TV series first, then saw the movie. It was a little strange after getting so used to how the TV show did things, wasn't it?

  4. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for 70's Ensemble Flicks Tuesday at

    Keep up the good work!