(This review was written when I was using a different, erroneous list of #1s. It now resides in the “Other Movies” category for your enjoyment. –MCS)
February 1, 1970 | 5 weeks at #1
Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? I’ve seen this movie many times, so I knew what to expect. What interested me on this viewing was whether the “juvenile,” “bullying,” even “cruel” aspects of the main characters’ behavior would bother me more than it had on prior viewings.
What did I get? I continue to find M*A*S*H uncommonly, sheerly, inexplicably wonderful. There’s something about the messy, overlapping, offhand style and the senseless-yet-sensible goings-on that resonates with me very powerfully. As I watched the movie this time, several times I became a bit misty and emotional in a way that has nothing to do with the content of the movie. There’s something difficult to define about the form and the purpose of M*A*S*H that — for me — is close to the Platonic ideal of what a movie should be and how a movie should work, and I find it profoundly… moving. It’s jammed with meaning, it’s genuinely funny, it takes itself seriously but is really about not taking yourself too seriously…. I don’t know. It works wonders on me.
One especially effective strategy, I think, was the casting of apparently un-military types in pivotal roles. Sutherland as Hawkeye, Gould as Trapper, Roger Bowen as Henry, Auberjonois as Father Mulcahy, Burghoff as Radar, Bud Cort as Boone…. none of these guys seems anything like soldiers as we normally think of them. They don’t “read” as soldiers — if anything they read as gentle civilians of a mildly anti-war bent (remember, it’s 1970), but in this context they are persuasive enough as enlistees or soldier-surgeons. And yet, they didn’t go too far in that direction, these characters really don’t stick out as non-soldiers, as for instance Sutherland does in Kelly’s Heroes (we’ll get to that one later on in 1970). In M*A*S*H the working, functioning bulk of the army we see (i.e., not Frank and Hot Lips) are defined by this group, so we don’t question it. They’re there, they’re not happy about it, and they’re putting up with it as best they can, which means not being particularly attentive to military discipline and so forth.
As a fan of M*A*S*H, I’m duty-bound to confront an obvious and central problem with the movie, which is this: no matter how much we like and admire Hawkeye and Trapper and the rest, no matter how much we identify with them and understand that they stand for all the right things, it’s an uncomfortable truth that a lot of their conduct in the movie is rather beastly and cruel, precisely, in fact, the cruelty of the popular kids who run the high school, so to speak (M*A*S*H is kind of a high school movie in disguise — consider the last half hour, which is about a football game).
The two “antics” that stand out in this regard are broadcasting Frank and Hot Lips’ cries of extramarital ecstacy over the PA system and, of course, the big shower scene with Hot Lips. What’s striking about these two scenes is that it’s scarcely possible to think of two more nightmarish pranks — “nightmarish” in the sense of similar to the events of actual nightmares. Being exposed naked in public, having your furtive sex life put on display…. this is powerful, powerful stuff. I suppose that M*A*S*H paradoxically skirts the problem precisely by upping the ante and then being so casual about it. Hawkeye and Trapper and Radar and the gang don’t seem to see anything amiss in this rough humor, so neither do we. But it is very rough stuff, and I think it’s worth pointing out (without condemning the movie) that, while we might like Hawkeye and Trapper and approve of their healthy cynicism and respect for human life etc., they’re kind of dicks.
What here smacks of 1970? As the template for a certain kind of countercultural humor in Hollywood movies, M*A*S*H of course smacks of 1970 quite a bit.
IMDB score: 7.7
My score: 10
Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Ring Lardner, Jr.
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Rene Auberjonois, Michael Murphy
IMDB synopsis: Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. That’s where two young surgeons, Duke and Hawkeye end up during the Korean War. There is no plot as such, but instead a series of episodes during which they put their stamp on the camp including a football game against a larger unit with thousands riding on it, a trip to Tokyo to operate on a congressman’s son and play a little golf, and finding out if the head nurse is a natural blonde.