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A pragmatic U.S. Marine observes the dehumanizing effects the Vietnam War has on his fellow Marine recruits from their brutal boot camp training to the bloody street fighting set in 1968 in Hue, Vietnam.
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
I thought Altman's "Nashville" was brilliant. "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" was a solidly "different" western. MASH, on the other hand, manages to bore and rankle at the same time.
What's right with MASH: ingenious innovations in technique, like a loudspeaker within the movie helping to announce the final credits and a comic eating scene shot to resemble the layout of Da Vinci's "Last Supper." Clever! Yawn. (These bits neither advance the plot, contribute to characterization or ambiance, or do anything except exist. Some viewers will laugh at the moment of recognition, but playful directing doesn't make a good film all by itself.) Another possible innovation is the use of a Simon&Garfunkly theme ("Suicide is Painless") that has no bearing on the movie or much else in the world. If Altman thought this bit up all by himself, it's clever. Yawn.
The cast does the best they can with so little of interest to work with.
I didn't find MASH funny, for reasons that many others have mentioned. Its worst sin against humor, to my mind, is that the "fun" here is based entirely on a the antics of a few angry and arrogant narcissists. I'd have called them "psychos," but that would make them sound too interesting. The fact that they're also brilliant surgeons doesn't outweigh their mental-health issues, unless you get a lump in the throat just watching SOB's save lives.
"All Quiet on the Western Front" is anti-war. "Paths of Glory" is anti-war. You don't need to be told that because they show war itself as cruel and dehumanizing, right up on the big screen.
"MASH" is not antiwar, and would be pretty poor even it were, because most of the dehumanizing is done by the protagonists themselves. It was *marketed* as antiwar (something quite different) because being antiwar *sold* in 1970. The posters that showed a peace sign morphing into a leggy babe had nothing to do with the movie except to convince people that it was "anti-war" and therefore great, sexy, hilarious, and more than worth the price of admission. In fact, MASH is none of these things.
Hawkeye, Trapper John, and their buddies are not against war or even *the* war. They do and say nothing about any war. All they do and say is whatever they feel like, tormenting female nurses, outsmarting superior officers, taking their petty vengeance and unmotivated peevishness out on everyone around them. Sound funny? Wrong. The Marx Bros. might have been able to pull it off, but not this crew.
MASH is anti-authority, but that's a whole lot different from being anti-war. MASH is also anti-military, but in a motiveless way (unless raking in the bucks was a motive). All the army ever did to these distinguished surgeons was to replace, temporarily of course, their zillion-dollar a year civilian careers with the opportunity to play golf, football, and crude practical jokes while occasionally saving of patients whom they obviously do not give a **** about personally.
The primary "anti-war" message here is that surgical operations involve lots of blood squirting around. That's it. Why not say MASH was is "anti-surgery" or "anti-medical profession" movie? Because that would nail the picture for the fraud it really is.
(Note: I know that medical students can be krazy kut-ups, especially when it comes to spare cadavers. MASH is a lot less funny.)
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