#64) MASH (1970)

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#64) MASH (1970)

OR “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?”

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Ring Lardner, Jr. Based on the novel “MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors” by Richard Hooker.

Class of 1996

The Plot: Set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (there’s your trivia answer) during the Korean War, “MASH” chronicles the episodic misadventures of surgeons “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland), “Trapper John” McIntyre (Elliott Gould) and “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerritt). They drink martinis, hit on every nurse in sight, and cause trouble for the higher brass, most notably Major Burns (Robert Duvall) and Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), who gets more than her share of abuse from the unit.

Why It Matters: The NFR applauds the film’s “black comedy” and “gritty presentation” and praises Altman, Lardner and a “[s]pirited ensemble”.

But Does It Really?: Perhaps my appreciation for the TV series gave me a disadvantage, because the film is…okay. I laughed a lot, but the film’s anti-war stance seems a bit tame. Whether that’s my familiarity with the show or today’s more common acceptance of anti-war sentiments, I don’t know. I place “MASH” slightly more on the culturally significant side of this list. I’ll be curious to see if the film continues to hold up compared to the TV series.

Shout Outs: Henry Blake briefly mentions “Knute Rockne” during the football game.

Everybody Gets One: Gary “Radar” Burghoff was the only cast member to reprise his role for the TV series.

Wow, That’s Dated: While Altman intentionally made very little effort to make this film an authentic period piece, Elliot Gould’s moustache screams 1970.

Take a Shot: As is often the case with movies where the title is a location, they say, “MASH” consistently but not frequently.

Seriously, Oscars?: “MASH” scored five nominations, including Best Picture. At the time, Oscars were still handed out by Old Hollywood, so they favored the more traditional pro-war “Patton”. The Academy did, however, give Best Adapted Screenplay to “MASH” and its Old Hollywood screenwriter, Ring Lardner, Jr., even though very little of his dialogue ended up in the final cut. Robert Altman lost the first of his five Best Director nominations. And how “Suicide is Painless” didn’t get an Original Song nomination is just unacceptable.

Other notes

  • First of all, I have to say that I do love that poster. That one image somehow tells you everything you need to know about the film.
  • The title “MASH” is presented without the asterisks during the opening credits, but the poster and TV series include them. I don’t know who to trust anymore.
  • Boy these credits are making a lot of introductions. What a host.
  • Ah yes, Sutherland’s whistle thing that he sneaks in. I knew “Fantastic Mr. Fox” got it from somewhere.
  • With this film we are introduced to Robert Altman’s bold idea that you actually don’t need to hear or understand any dialogue.
  • I forgot how much rampant sexual harassment happens in this film. I’m supposed to like these guys, right?
  • Shout-out to The Bickersons.
  • Best line in the film; “If I nail Hot Lips and punch Hawkeye can I go home?”
  • The song “Suicide is Painless” was written by Robert Altman’s 14-year-old son Mike. It became the TV series’ theme song as well, and Mike made more money off the song than his dad did from the film.
  • Sometimes Margaret’s last name is given as “Houlihan” and other times as “O’Houlihan”. All evidence I can find shows that it’s always been “Houlihan” and that the few instances of “O’Houlihan” are slip-ups by the actors kept in the film.
  • The film’s claim to be the first major film to say “fuck” has been contested. Further research is needed.
  • That…is a weird ending. Although at least now I know how to pronounce “Auberjonois”.

Legacy

  • As mentioned throughout this post, “MASH” the film became “M*A*S*H” the long-running, Emmy-magnet TV series. The NFR calls it “folksier” than its film counterpart, but that’s really only the first few seasons. It’s sanitized for broadcast, but “M*A*S*H” broke out of the film’s shadow and became the better known of the two. That being said, Altman hated the show.
  • About halfway through the run of the TV series, a spin-off show called “Trapper John, M.D.” followed that character’s life in modern-day (1979) San Francisco. The producers of “M*A*S*H” sued for royalties, but the court declared the show a spin-off of the film rather than the series, hence its inclusion here.
  • Based on the success of the film, Richard Hooker wrote two more novels: “M*A*S*H Goes to Maine” and “M*A*S*H Mania”. An attempt at turning “Maine” into a film never took off.
  • And of course, this is the film that gave us Robert Altman, so I blame “MASH” for “Popeye”.

Further Viewing: “MASH” isn’t the first film about the Korean War’s mobile hospital units. 1953’s “Battle Circus” told a story of love and war with Humphrey Bogart as a Hawkeye-esque doctor and June Allyson as, let’s say a “Lukewarm Lips” kind of nurse. I haven’t seen it, but let’s just assume it’s a bit more pro-war than “MASH”.

Further Further Viewing: 1970’s other irreverent look at war, “Catch-22” had an all-star cast, a very hot Mike Nichols at the helm, and a best-selling novel as its source material. All signs pointed to “Catch-22” being the bigger hit film over “MASH”. That didn’t happen.

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