A Black Comedy That Isn’t Funny.
Everyone in MASH comes across as cruel, not humorous.
American Film Institute’s Ranking: #56/100
Awards: Nominated for five Academy Awards winning for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Here’s some avant garde stream of consciousness for you.
War is horrifying. To participate and survive, people must cope. Some people do so by adhering to procedure and military culture. Others become self-destructive, running to drugs and alcohol. Then there are some that become unabashedly cruel. They live out crude and misogynistic lives to deal with the mangled bodies.
That last group is the focal point of Robert Altman’s MASH. We are supposed to sympathize and laugh because they aren’t doing this out of free will. In the words of Roger Ebert:
“Most comedies want us to laugh at things that aren’t really funny; in this one we laugh precisely because they’re not funny. We laugh, that we may not cry.”
Ebert’s take is ridiculous because we have nothing to cry about. The characters don’t become conduits for the horror of war because they are so deeply unlikeable. We don’t relate to them; we want to get as far away from them as possible.
To make matters worse, the director, following the new Hollywood template of hippie bullshit, created an episodic story where nothing matters, connects, or coalesces. Trying to pull the strands together in this one is intentionally made impossible.
It’s purposefully inscrutable because that’s all it has to offer: nonsense.
A division in South Korea gets two new surgeons: Hawkeye Pierce (Don Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerrit). Not wasting any time breaking the rules, Hawkeye steals a Jeep to take them to their new outpost. They find they are sharing a tent with Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), a Christian and serious personality. They quickly get him assigned to another tent to make way for the more amicable Trapper Mcintyre (Elliot Gould).
The crazy big three of Trapper, Duke, and Hawkeye team up against straight-laced Frank and Head Nurse Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).
While this is the semblance of the plot, it falls apart early.
I’ll admit, there was a movie in there somewhere.
Altman, with that New Wave Hollywood attitude, decided to have free flowing, open-ended filming sessions without much direction and plenty of drugs. This led to the two lead stars trying to get him fired off the project. Realizing that nothing flowed, interlude loudspeaker cutscenes were added after filming was done to try and create some guideposts for the viewers.
Between all the chaos, you can see the seedlings of the counter culture vs. establishment theme bubbling up in the beginning of the film. It gets wiped out by half-way through the film, though: Frank is kicked off base and the stringent Nurse Houlihan becomes a cheerleader, like that was fucking believable.
Then the plot goes off the rails.
A dentist on base thinks he’s gay because he had ED and decides to kill himself. The gang decides that’s a reasonable response, gives him a last supper celebration, and puts him in a coffin after a sleeping pill. Thankfully, Hawkeye convinces a female officer to satisfy the dentist who’s rumored to be well equipped and everyone ends up happy, particularly the female officer.
It’s awful. It is all awful.
One particularly cringe worthy scene is when Nurse Houlihan is taking a shower. The gang gets the entire post to sit outside as they lift up the tent, exposing her nude as she grovels on the wood with soap still in her hair. The men laugh and laugh as she indignantly gets her clothes and reports to the commanding officer who is incompetent. Her outrage is pure and true, and I didn’t find myself laughing.
None of this funny. Nor, in the words of Ebert, is this keeping me from “crying.”
The most common mental gymnastic I see people perform for this film is the very one I’ve referenced with Ebert. While these men are seeing the mutilated bodies from war, they exquisitely perform complicated surgeries without a hiccup. It affects them so deeply that they most cope in any way that they can. They are crazy and ill-mannered because war has made them this way. The movie never states that this behavior is okay; it more points to what war does to people and how it can turn these professional surgeons into groveling frat boys.
This could have worked if not for the main characters being so completely without merit for empathy. At no time do we see the cracks of the facade — everything is a joke through and through. Even while in the operating room, there are no shortage of quips and sexist comments to the nurses.
These characters never show that all of this extra-curricular crap is a coping mechanism. It is actually way more believable that this is them being their true selves. They aren’t doing this shit to Nurse Houhlihan because they need to blow off steam; they are actually just asshole surgeons.
Awful movie where I didn’t even mention the non-sequitar football game!
Other People’s Takes:
- Bored and Dangerous Blog: “How did this movie do so well, how does it still have a such a great reputation, when there isn’t a single likeable character in it?”
- Bill’s Movie Emporium: “A thoroughly despicable picture from start to finish!”
- Time-Traveling Film Critic: “MASH has an endearing, shaggy dog quality that is really quite hypnotic and wonderful.”