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The personnel at the 4077 MASH unit deal with the horrors of the Korean War and the stresses faced in surgery by whatever means. The tone at the MASH is established by recent arrivals, surgeons Captains 'Hawkeye' Pierce, 'Duke' Forrest, and 'Trapper' John McIntyre - the latter who Hawkeye knows he's met somewhere, but Trapper who won't divulge where - whose antics can be best described as non-regulation, and in the negative words of one of their fellow MASH-ers: unmilitary. The unit's commanding officer, Colonel Henry Blake, doesn't care about this behavior as long as it doesn't affect him, and as long as they do their job and do it well, which they do. Their behavior does extremely bother fellow surgeon, Major Frank Burns, and recently arrived head nurse, Major Margaret Houlihan, who obtains the nickname 'Hot Lips' based on information they glean about her through underhanded means. Beyond their battles with Frank and Hot Lips, Hawkeye, Duke and/or Trapper help unit dentist Painless ... Written by
Strange film; basically entertaining, but not exactly a masterpiece. One of the most likable things about Robert Altman is that every film of his has been in some way an experiment, and almost none of these experiments, even the very good ones, work perfectly. This is a great example. As is obvious from the many user comments here, it's difficult to talk about "MASH" without comparing it to "M*A*S*H," and in fact the most important cultural thing the film may have done is establish an aesthetic universe for the TV series to exist in (and that really is the only thing the film and the TV show have in common as many have pointed out, the tone, style, timing, and even character personalities are quite different between the two). But taken on its own, "MASH" is not really the anti-war polemic it's been made out to be, nor is it the joke-driven movie comedy we might expect from the series' style. Instead, it's a kind of exercise in black-comic tone; it subverts the idea of war not by explicitly criticizing it, even through jokes, but rather by being exactly the opposite of what we expect a traditional war film to be. Here we don't see courage or valor or heroism or honor; we see cowardice and nastiness and vice and stupidity, even from the "good" characters. The movie subtly suggests that war makes ordinary people into silly, stupid, and vicious ones, and Hawkeye and Trapper are no more exempt from this law than Frank Burns; in fact, if anything they are more angry and mean than he is. This unusual approach to the subject matter is well-maintained throughout the film, and never becomes too harsh or ugly and yet Altman missteps with some oddly chosen episodes (Painless's "suicide attempt," for instance, and the overlong, if symbolic, football game), and the ending of the film is abrupt, making what's come before seem even more pointless and inconsequential. Which may be exactly Altman's point, of course . . . so here we have another Altman film that manages to be simultaneously witty, jokeless, boring, entertaining, confusing, beautifully thought out, artfully constructed and artless, symbolic and realistic. It's recommended, but viewers should ideally go into it with no expectations whatsoever. 7 out of 10.
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