MASH (1970, Robert Altman)

M*A*S*H is one of my favorite TV shows; in high school I watched it almost every day on FX. My sister said several years earlier that you knew you were getting old when you became addicted to M*A*S*H, which made my friend Marc and me both officially old men (we discussed each episode at length during statistics class, to the extreme annoyance of our classmates and teacher, who was more the Cheers type). The show is certainly low-key, and not exceptionally ambitious in any artistic way. It’s very much a TV show, in many ways the opposite of most series I enjoy, relying on very basic (but not superficial) characterization and plotting. What I liked about it was how so much of the comedy (and drama) came completely from character, not necessarily from the reality or unreality of the situations. The show straddles comedy and unadorned seriousness in a way that makes it uncomfortable as a portrait of its time; it is absolutely not ageless as a piece of satire. My stepdad, a Vietnam vet, considers the show flippant, probably for that reason.

He is, on the other hand, a fan of Robert Altman’s breakthrough feature MASH that inspired the series (in turn based on a novel by a former army doctor). The Altman film, while still set in Korea, was targeted much more directly at the Vietnam crisis and was extraordinarily subversive in its examination of the army. Anti-authority as it unmistakably is, it does not have the aggressively serious peacenik overtones of the TV show. It protests war not directly but through total and insane rejection of the grave subject matter.

It’s also inescapably a Robert Altman film, which means lots of characters and lots of stories, but unfortunately in this case it’s all too much. There is very little characterization, and the actors don’t seem to embody their roles in any serious fashion (even without a comparison to the singular dominance later managed by the cast of the series), an unfortunate side effect of Altman’s dedicated but haphazard methods. The film is extremely episodic, so much so that it resembles — perhaps not coincidentally — watching five or six episodes of a television show. The immediate consequence of this is that it lacks any kind of a story, and the labored, pseudo-spontaneous business of it all prevents any coherent character arc. Sadly, the film has no structure, and this neuters and ultimately kills it.

Some of the individual sequences are hilarious but tempered by aggressive misogyny (particularly those revolving around the conflict between central troublemakers Hawkeye and Trapper and the unforgettably nicknamed Hot Lips O’Houlihan), one (concerning a side trip to Hong Kong) is quite amusing but doesn’t belong in the film, and one of them is simply outstanding, concerning the sexual ambiguity and attempted suicide of the dentist known as “Painless.” This last segment displays the kind of intelligence, drive, and gravity that could have made the film something unforgettable if its techniques had been applied to the movie as a whole.

There perhaps could be a way to hold a mess like this together through charisma, failing an improvement in writing or direction, but Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould are not the men for the job (and the best actor in the feature, Robert Duvall, is given nothing to do). Again, this isn’t simply because of my association of the roles with Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers, respectively, though it can’t be ignored that Alda is a far more skilled comic performer than almost anyone in the feature. Sutherland and Gould seem to believe they are in a ’50s teen film and not a war movie, determined to look cool and disaffected at all times, hiding any kind of humanity in favor of a sense of overall cheapness. It’s a copout beyond everything else here, even Altman’s utter resistance to creative decisionmaking. If you watch Alda in the TV show, he’s consistently right there with the audience, not five steps ahead of them, because Alda’s performances are so emotional at their core, and therefore considerably funnier.

The running time of 116 minutes doesn’t seem offensive until it’s considered how much of it is occupied by an insipidly overlong and pointless sequence about football that climaxes and ends the film. I guess there’s some reason I’m missing why the filmmakers felt a Korean war movie needed to have a chunk devoted to something that could easily be set elsewhere, seeing how the characters are nonexistent enough that we don’t gain anything from witnessing them in such a situation. Doesn’t hurt the story, of course, since there isn’t one.

MASH put Robert Altman on the map; his style is seductive in its ways, to be sure, both in terms of his wild ideas about faux-accidental illusion-making (a criminal indulgence since his best work seems invariably to be his most conventional), in other words the way this and a number of his other films seem to just “happen,” and his self-awareness that straddles a line between wry wisdom and painful narcissism. But I don’t think there’s anything great about MASH as a movie. It certainly serves as an acceptable jumping-off point for what would become a damn good TV show, but that doesn’t make it a great film, just a serviceable TV pilot. The two or three scenes that are worth keeping here are utterly fabulous, but in a film overloaded with this much goddamn stuff, two or three sublime little bits aren’t enough, and the drawling smugness that remains puts me literally to sleep.

[Originally posted elsewhere, in slightly different form, in 2006.]

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