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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
When Hot Lips confronts Lt. Col. Blake after she was exposed in the shower, she stands framed in the doorway of Lt. Col. Blake's tent. To her left, there is a mirror hanging on the tent wall that appears/disappears between shots. See more »
You know what MASH is. It's a culture icon. One of the most important films of the 1970's, but if you haven't seen it recently you might forget just how cruel the film is. There are a lot of different points of view about the cruelty baked into the film, here's mine...
Yes, the film has sexist, racist, cruel and homophobic characters. But I strongly believe that the film is NOT laughing along with them. Again and again we see the repercussions of callous behavior in the faces of the taunted. Altman holds on Frank Burns' face (through fire, no less) as he's being driven away by the military police after being driven to violence. The infamous shower scene with Hot Lips isn't played for laughs to me at all, it's a horrible scene, just because people are laughing in it doesn't make it less horrible. It's a long held shot of her humiliation, and ultimately, when she goes to her CO only to find him drinking wine in bed another nurse, her futility. When Hawkeye and Trapper John are making fun of Japanese people, the driver of their jeep is openly irritated by their baffoonary. He verbally blames the culture of the Army for their behavior, repeating the phrase "Goddamned Army" again and again.
I do believe that Altman is saying something here about what war does to people. How spending hours every day trying to save mangled human beings creates a surrealist hell and hardens those who live in it. Also, let's not forget that this film is set in the fifties. The attitudes towards women, minorities, people of other cultures and homosexuality are not out of step with the era that the characters are supposed to be existing in. In that regard it's not just a comment on the state of war, but on 1950's moral values as well.
Having said all of that, it is undeniable that Women get a pretty bad rap in this film. Hot Lips is a completely inconsistent character. She seems to change to become whatever the script needs her to be to get a laugh. One could argue that changes in an effort to "join them" since she can't "beat them", but even this reasoning shows little regard for her character. The only other female of note in the film, Dish, has sex with Painless the dentist because her lover asks her to (in an effort to save his life, which is ridiculous). It's one thing for the main characters to be sexist. I'm not opposed to that. I don't need my protagonists to be "good" people. But it's another thing when the universe of the film itself is sexist. And sadly, I do feel that is the case in this film.
Fortunately we have a whole body of work from Altman where he counters this attitude about women, but it does keep this film from being one of his absolute greatest achievements for me.
Apart from that, the film is a technical masterpiece. The level of narrative communicated through what seems to be total chaos on camera is amazing. Scenes don't transition from sequence to sequence, they spill all over one another. Altman took the messiness of life and captured it in a bottle. It's also an incredibly edited.
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