Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Well here I am, reviewing MASH. It’s hard enough approaching one of the canonical films of Robert Altman, harder still considering this is the film that launched his career. But MASH also happens to be the only Robert Altman film adapted into a long running, utterly iconic sitcom. While I’m no super fan of the series, I’ve seen enough to know that the tones of the two works are definitely distinct. MASHketeers who approach Altman’s film familiar only with the series are in for a shock, because MASH bristles with bitterness and rage underneath its veneer of shaggy humor.
… MASH bristles with bitterness and rage underneath its veneer of shaggy humor.
What struck me on rewatching the film for the first time since college is how abrasive the film is as a whole. The story of doctors stuck on the front lines of the Korean War, MASH of course comes preloaded with a certain amount of grittiness. Unlike in the series, though, where the two main doctors, “Hawkeye” Pierce and “Trapper” McIntyre, are lovable scamps, here they come across as, well, real pricks. While Alan Alda would make Hawkeye a beloved figure through his open, inviting features, Donald Sutherland gives his version of Hawkeye an aloofness, conveyed through an omnipresent set of sunglasses. Elliot Gould plays Trapper as a mumbling but foul mouthed lothario. Though both do “good” things over the course of the film, neither display any warmth toward their fellow human beings.
This leads to some very uncomfortable situations in the film, particularly involving Frank Burns (an intense Robert Duvall) and Hot Lips Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), the uptight surgeon and nurse who team up to make life hard on Hawkeye and Trapper. There are a few scenes where Hawkeye and Trapper pull practical jokes on the two, but in reality these jokes enter into the territory of shaming and sexual humiliation. These situations work in the movie only because the squeamishness they induce seems to be Altman’s intended effect. Hawkeye and Trapper are not Revenge-of-the-Nerd style lovable underdogs - they are men trapped in the hell of war, who sometimes unleash that hell on other people.
The aimless, futile nature of war comes out through the structure of Altman’s screenplay, which features no overarching plot. Instead he presents a series of sketches from camp life, intercut with scenes of the doctors in the operating room. This approach works marvelously for the first ⅔ of the film, but by the final act the film starts to run out of steam. At that point Hawkeye and Trapper take a trip to Japan which does little to illuminate or entertain, then the film spends the final 15 minutes on a football game between the doctors of MASH and a rival unit. This segment starts out amusing, but pays increasingly small dividends as it drags on. Think of MASH as Altman working out the kinks of his large, sprawling style. By the time he made Nashville a few years later, his vignette-style plotting had reached peak fine tuning, but it’s more of a ragged affair here.
The aimless, futile nature of war comes out through the structure of Altman’s screenplay, which features no overarching plot.
Altman’s signature as a director, his aural experimentation, is on full display in MASH, to wondrous effect. He uses his trademark overlapping dialog to great effect here, especially in the bravura surgery scenes, which are the best part of the film. Multiple operations occurring simultaneously in a cramped space, with a dozen voices all chattering their trade at once, makes for riveting cinema (especially since Altman pulls no punches on the gore, offering very graphic looks at the crudities of wartime surgery). I was also taken, however, with several other techniques Altman uses in the film to add to the chaos of wartime. First, there are several points in the film when characters will speak to one another, but their voices will be obstructed by other noise, and their conversations lost. This too helps emphasize the disjointed, chaotic nature of war.
Two other choices highlight instead the incompetence of “the man”, here played by the powers that be of the U.S. Army. Colonel Henry Blake (Roger Bowen) is ostensibly in command of the MASH unit, but his leadership skills are sorely lacking. He’d rather fly fish or fool around with his on base mistress than get a hold on the misdeeds of Hawkeye and Trapper. His incompetence gets played up by a running gag where he tries to give orders to his assistant, Radar (Gary Burghoff), but Radar anticipates his whim and talks over his orders with his own idea of what needs to be done. The other reoccuring aural joke comes in the form of the camp’s loudspeaker, which periodically blares news, camp rules, and announcements of patriot films being shown. The announcer, however, frequently stumbles over his words, creating a sense of unease with the people in charge. Its subtleties like this that make MASH a frequently delightful satire. Though it stumbles in some of the big things, MASH nails most of the little details.
Though sometimes a little too ramshackle, and sometimes a little too cruel, MASH is a Robert Altman film through and through.