MASH, the breakthrough film from Robert Altman, was a commercial and critical hit, winning the Palme dOr at Cannes. It was one of the most successful sitcoms of the 70s, with the television version continuing the focus on the pranks and rivalry between characters on a mobile army hospital during the Korean War. However, Altman's direction remains consistent on many levels.
What Is MASH About?
Captain Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) is a non-conformist surgeon assigned to the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) where he designs various pranks and sexual encounters alongside the job of treating wounded soldiers who enter the facility.
MASH is deliberately plotless, although there's a bit of structure as comedy vignettes alternate with graphic scenes set in the surgical tent. Anytime the film threatens to take on a meaningful plot, such as Hawkeyes' attempt to save Ho-Jon (Kim Atwood) from conscription, the story proceeds to the next issue. It's a sex comedy more explicit than the dry offerings of the 60s, including Porkys and even Fast Times at Ridgemont High episodic comedy where
MASH Is a War Film
The Korean War setting is an obvious stand-in for the Vietnam War, with the main characters' anti-establishment stance echoing those of the 1960s rather than the 1950s. The only evidence of a war are the helicopters flying in wounded people.
The medical scenes in the film have a documentary feel, particularly in their naturalistic acting and sound design. In one instance, a helicopter engine almost drowns out the conversation between Radar OReilly (Gary Burghoff) and Colonel Blake (Roger Bowen), but theyre also talking over the same thing at the same time in one of the films ongoing jokes.
Sound Is All-important in MASH
In MASH, sound is all-important, and there is no need to think of a scene that isn't filled with voices, music, or the drone of helicopters. These are disjointed statements from the PA system in other scenes, where the characters misunderstand one another's intentions (sometimes deliberately), as with Colonel Blakes' discreet attempts at sex. Their shocked voices create a feedback loop around the base.
MASH Is a Comedy With an Underlying Anger
MASH is a comedy with an insatiable rage that manifests itself in the pranks played on members of the army establishment. Rather than the patriotic war films played in the camp, the film's spiritual inspiration is Joseph Hellers' book Catch-22, which satirized a psychotic army bureaucracy. MASH attacks authority figures that sustain the conflict.
Burns is a surgeon who is wreaks havoc on Hawkeye and his coworkers both because of his spitefulness (he unfairly blames a young doctor for killing a patient), but also because he is overtly religious. Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois) is accepted because he is unassuming and supports the patients' treatment, but also because he is a prude who openly condemns the rampant sexual assault on the base (while
Hawkeye refers to Houlihan as a regular army clown. Like Burns, she is uptight and spiteful. Many critics of the time view the attacks on Hawkeye and his friends as bullying and victimization.
Parts of MASH Have Not Aged Well
In most of his films, Altman depicts the group's cruelty and the tendency to despise individuals. Hawkeye and Trapper see Burns being taken away and Houlihan becomes a comedy cheerleader at the football game.
MASH's Ensemble Cast Still Shines
The ensemble cast is spectacularly composed, and as such, in a way that is undoubtedly the result of careful rehearsal. Many scenes play with time and sound, quick cutting between events to suggest the inner lives of the characters in a manner that is now commonplace but was cutting-edge at the time. When Altman tells Duke he can go home, the scene immediately cuts to him running into his family's arms, but then back to the surgical tent a second later a flash of insight from the announcer is made.
MASH is still funny (although in the recurring gags and Marx Brothers-style patter rather than the nasty pranks) and brilliantly directed. Its a relic of a time when actors like Hawkeye were viewed as cool and anti-establishment rather than the champions of a different kind of conformity. Altman went on to produce better films that have aged better than his. But his techniques carry through into his best work. The claustrophobic world of the base,