“Suicide Is Painless” remains one of the most misanthropic themes on record and that’s without the completely nonsensical lyrics. With lyrics, it’s even more disillusioning.
Still, this stays very much in line with Robert Altman’s conception of the world. Nothing is ever straight and true. Convention must be eschewed with subverted expectations and darkly comic underpinnings. MASH is one of the finest vehicles he ever had for his methodology of the world.
In full disclosure, someone like me, raised on the sitcoms of old and classic television must admit the inherent difficulties in considering Robert Altman’s MASH, based loosely off Richard’s Hooker’s novel of the same name.
If you are unfamiliar with the historical background, it’s important to know MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and they were posted on the front lines during the military police action that was the Korean War (1950-53).
For everyone else, MASH was a prominent black comedy and an arguably even more beloved television show. Its finale, of course, was the most-watched moment in TV history for many, many years.
All this is to say, to go back and retroactively analyze the original film, it’s all but impossible to totally untangle its reality from my deep affections for Alan Alda and the rest.
Because one point must be made early on. Though appearances might be initially deceiving, they could not be more disparate. My choice is to begin to focus on what Altman’s film does well.
One has to admit he brings his loose and sprawling sensibilities to war pictures with seamless ease. The frames are full of near-constant bouts of improv and an ensemble cast that’s loaded with tons of non-actors and fresh faces. The distinction to make is Altman gives them time in the spotlight, with Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, and Elliot Gould pretty much becoming the head honchos in a comedy overflowing with nobodies.
Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) is a free-and-easy surgeon with a case of “whistling dixie” and a taste for pretty nurses and awful gin. Duke is an equally game southern boy who falls into cahoots easily enough. They’ve got their eyes on the top prize christened “Lt. Dish” and the vexing but no less attractive head nurse “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).
The new chest cutter that Pierce pines for, Trapper John McIntire, is cut out of the same cloth. No wonder they all get along. Their main hobbies are sticking it to authority and they get away with every ounce of arrogance because they can back it up in the operating room. The taste that remains is all abrasive — Gould in particular — with he and Sutherland sticking it to just about everyone in their line of sight.
But that’s what this film feels like, purely anti-establishment; it’s never allowed the opportunity to be a true indictment of the utter lunacy of war. Likewise, for a film with purportedly progressive themes for the times, their treatment of the Asian characters, specifically while in Japan, is nothing short of troubling.
When they’re flown out to Japan on a special assignment, they walk all over everyone as the best surgeons around in a world would surrounded by a sea of shmucks. They gas a colonel and blackmail him handily while having no sense of sympathy for other fellow human beings. You begin to wonder about the patients they serve every day. What about them?
We have Gary Burghoff, the only holdover for the TV show. Otherwise, Henry Blake is a bland and vacuous commanding officer, hardly the lovable buffoon he would become as played by McClean Stevenson. The rest of the cast is a decent assemblage of 1970s movie talent, mostly on the road to bigger and better things.
Frank Burns (as played by Robert Duvall) is a hard-edged hypocrite far from the whiny, ferret-faced Larry Linville. The latter is far more enduring. Father Mulcahy is much the same. Unfortunately, the priest in this go-through feels like an easy runt of the jokes. His faith is something to thumb your nose at — little else.
There is not the same warmth nor the moral backbone that William Christopher would bring, only nervous timidity. Again, it’s so easy to enter this dangerous zone of comparison. Taking a page out of Luis Bunuel’s playbook, Altman is having a grand old time toying with the icons of religiosity in his film. Irreverence is his wellspring for comedy.
Because, up against the typical fare of a generation, MASH feels like a freestyle, scattered affair. Whereas the TV show was blessed by the calculated wit of its scripts balanced with pathos, this project thrives on its laxity and general indifference.
There’s a hodgepodge of overlapping dialogue simulating the cadence of real conversation with its constant asides and disruptions. It’s content to be all over the place, not conforming to any Hollywood standard of any kind.
Again, this becomes its life-force. Making a mockery of tradition in a way that no doubt does honor to the Marx Brother’s chaos and might have still been to their chagrin.
But again, MASH, for all who know anything about it, can hardly be considered an out and out war movie. And it’s not just a comedy either. Altman takes those expectations — all those things we assume this picture to be — and tosses them out.
Because MASH is full of darkness and absurdity that goes beyond war. It is an anti-war picture in general terms and yet how can we not at least laugh at the scenarios, the characters, and the insanity of it all?
Because this is a film and not the marginally sanitized airwaves of syndication television, there is the space to be raunchier, the O.R. is grislier, scenes are more sensual, but with it, all the playfulness of the later material is flushed away. It’s verging on the bitter, even vindictive.
Fortunately, there is space for a few shenanigans. The in-camp dentist, known as the “Don Juan of Detroit” back home, is having serious doubts about his virility. He thinks he’s losing his prowess and so he’s made the decision to end it for good. He’s gonna commit suicide. In solidarity, all his buddies get together to put one slam-bang finish to the end of his life. A winking “last supper” of sorts that everyone’s in on.
Catching “Hot Lips” in the shower is all in a day’s work to confirm a bet of whether or not she’s a natural blonde. She spends the majority of the film anal and little better than a blithering idiot. In fact, her commanding officer calls her one (granted in the context of a football game). But she is another character who feels like a constant punchline. Altman could care less.
Speaking of the football game, it’s no doubt the piece de resistance in this monolith of absurdity. The boys rally the troops to take on a smug General’s hulking football team.
The only countermove is to call in a ringer, the one, and only, Spearchucker Jones, to help neutralize their opponent’s stacked lineup. By this point, the movie all but jumps off the deep-end leaving reality behind for the sake of comedy.
There is very little war left and nothing to think about except the Marx Brother-like mayhem on the field (although it’s not quite to the caliber of Horse Feathers). Altman directs it like a circus act. Yelling, screaming, whistles blowing, pom-poms bouncing, from the sidelines. Players falling all over the place from injury and fatigue. It’s utter chaos. And that’s the end of it.
The final poetic justice is a payoff on the film’s first joke. Hawkeye and Duke ride out of camp in the same stolen jeep they came in. As I watched them go, I couldn’t help thinking it was a far cry from a “Goodbye” message telegraphed for a lifelong friend departing by helicopter.
Despite all my sincere attempts, I will remain horribly subjective to the end. I know it already. I’m hopeless. How can I not choose preferences with such singular interpretations of the same material? In fact, it seems like a fine problem to have. It makes it marginally easier to appreciate each on their own merits.