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
"The Japanese Farewell Song (Sayonara)", which plays over the P.A. speaker when Frank Burns is being taken away in the straitjacket, was not published until 1955, two years after the fighting in Korea ended. See more »
An enjoyable, episodic comedy but not the classic many claim it to be
And then there was Korea. In an understaffed and overstretched medical camp Lt Col Blake puts an order in for more surgeons. Dispatched to him in a stolen army jeep are Captain's Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest who immediately start chasing the nursing staff and annoying their tent mate Major Burns. When chest cutter Trapper John McIntyre joins them in the camp it starts a working practice that ignores authority and tries to find as much fun as possible in the middle of their bloody war.
I had watched the TV show for a long time before I finally got to watch the movie - I prefer the cynical comedy of the film although I have always loved the more sitcom style approach of the series. Many critics have hailed this as an anti-war film that exposes the brutal effects of war; to some extent I suppose that is true but it is far from being a part of the main narrative - even to call it a theme would be generous! It does have some scenes of blood and gore but it is far from having anything substantial to say about the cruelty of war.
Instead I always find this film to be a very episodic, freewheeling comedy, some bits of which work and some others don't. On the whole it is pretty funny and uses the sort of sporadic dialogue and action to move it forward. At times it is based on imaginative banter between Trapper and Hawkeye and at others it is out and out slapstick such as the chaotic game of American football at the end of the film. The downside of this is that sections of it just don't work - Painless Paul's dilemma is pretty uninspiring at least - however, on the whole it is energetic and very funny. Altman's use of overlapping dialogue and his usual use of overlapping scenes as opposed to a traditional narrative flow is good here but it would have been better if it had been toned down somewhat.
The cast is what really carries the film - the plot is weak and they have no characters other than what they create themselves and, although the dialogue is good, I couldn't help the feeling that the cast did as much as the writers. As such the lead two of Sutherland and Gould stand out as great comedians with great witty touches, their characters are the largest and their lines are the funniest. Skerritt starts out as equal to them but quickly becomes a third wheel despite still giving a good performance. The support cast are all a good mix of characters whether they be played by actors such as Duvall and Kellerman or less well known faces such as Burghoff or Bowen.
Overall, I am still unable to see what those who call this a `brutal anti-war film' see but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it as a comedy. As such though, it is very episodic and really lacks a solid narrative flow meaning that any 10 minute period could be good or bad. Aside from this lack of substance it is a funny, enjoyable comedy but it doesn't deserve the classic reputation that it has obtained.
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