Movie Review: MASH


Note: This is #51 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

I was kind of familiar with the television series of the same name that spun off from this movie, so MASH wasn’t completely new ground. Like the TV show, the movie features an ensemble cast, but the main players are three Army doctors pressed into service as field surgeons during the Korean War: Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), and “Trapper” John McIntyre (Elliot Gould).

Oddly, the movie is episodic, featuring a series of interconnected stories that last 15 to 20 minutes each. The common theme that runs through all of them is the three doctors (and to a lesser extent their comrades) trying to retain their mental balance in the face of the wartime horrors that keep coming to them on stretchers and operating tables. Mostly this is done by desparately scrabbling for humor wherever it can be found, from sneaking a microphone into a tent so that two people’s lovemaking is broadcast over the loud speakers to fooling a the camp’s meloncholy dentist into thinking that he has committed suicide only to give him a new lease on life when he wakes up. There’s a strong streak of anti-establishment rebellion running through almost everyone in the camp, but especially the three doctors. Those few, like Nurse “Hot Lips” Houlihan, who do not embrace absurdity and black humor of their situation are targeted for humiliation and ridicule until they finally break down and either get with the program or get carried away in a straight jacket. If National Lampoon covered the Vietnam War (or the Korean war, for that matter) the results would be pretty similar to MASH.

MASH is billed largely as a dark comedy, and I get that to some extent. Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould in particular have a great, understated comedic tilt to their performances, and they’re fun to watch and listen to. And I get the vibe about how the only way they can endure their situation is to laugh in its face while they’re elbow deep in the gore of the war’s victims. But by and large I just didn’t find MASH that funny. Dark, yes. Often absurd, yes. But not really funny. Still, dark and absurd aren’t that bad, especially when you’ve got some great performances. Plus I also liked the style that director Robert Altman brought to the filming, with long shots, extreme zooms, and overlapping conversations. I hadn’t seen anything much like that in my movie list for this experiment, but I can see how it affected subsequent films.

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