M*A*S*H (1970)

Dir. Robert Altman. Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman

One could sit around with a couple cocktails and some jazz in the background and have a very pleasant debate about which genre the swell matters more in. Does the swell matter more in drama, where a series of events pile on top of one another until the final moment is irresistible, inevitable, and pure pain? Or does the swell matter more in comedy, where the first laugh is the ripple visible a mile out from the beach and the last one is so grand that you have to jump or else be swallowed up by it? I’m more sympathetic to the latter view, because comedy is a physical medium for the viewer, one where a certain level of exhaustion at the end of the picture (in the sides, abdomen, throat) makes the laughs come stronger and stronger even if the jokes aren’t living up to the standard of the middle of the film. M*A*S*H, which I am absolutely not typing with the asterisks again, is such a movie. The film culminates with a football game which prefigures the direction that most pro sports are currently headed as a product—gambling first, the game itself third or fourth—and the humor actually shifts away from the major characters. Most of the laughs have belonged, or at least been set up for, people like Hawkeye (Sutherland) and Trapper John (Gould) and Duke (Tom Skerritt). The gags belong to the bananas screaming of General Hammond (G. Wood), the clueless cheerleading led by Hot Lips Houlihan (Kellerman), and the dry dissatisfied one-liners of Colonel Blake (Roger Bowen). Kellerman, who has developed a brand new personality for this segment of the picture, actually has some good lines in there. Aside from the nurses chanting “SIXTY-NINE! IS DIVINE!” there’s a good moment where the referee fires a blank and Houlihan gasps, “Oh my God, they shot him!” But on the whole, this section of the film is not where the major comic setpieces align, and it’s not where the film’s anti-authoritarian vibes shine out. There’s a reliance on the rest of the movie to make this funnier, and MASH is a little flat on that count because the movie itself is a little flat on maintaining its comedy. Robert Altman was one of our great directors, but the majority of his films, even the great ones, suffer in some degree from miscalibration. The exceptions, like Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, are unparalleled films. MASH is imperfect much too often, not even from my PC viewing station of five decades on, but just from a perspective of what might actually make this movie funny enough to make the football game worth laughing about.

The film is set in the early 1950s, and its heroes are three doctors who have been drafted into the army and brought rank with them; all of them are captains, a position that gives them significant leeway in what they do. Surely they would be able, with their sheer cheek, be able to get away with some level of mischief even if they were buck privates. But the actual stuff that they manage to pull off requires a security that the lowest-ranking men do not have. The targets that these captains have are primarily the heavy hitters above them in the batting order. Houlihan and Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) are majors, and Houlihan is beaten into submission while Burns is straitjacketed and sent back to the States. Blake, who they manage with the help of the basically omniscient Radar (Gary Burghoff), is dazed to the point of lobotomized, and so there’s not a lot of effort being exerted in bringing him to heel. Indeed, Blake’s enhanced cluelessness (and his propensity for drinking, sleeping around, and so on) makes him something of a useful ally for the Swampmen, a Switzerland where they can deposit their filthy lucre. And of course there’s General Hammond, who is bilked out of his huge wager on the football game when the 4077th plays patience and brings in their ringer, Oliver “Racial Epithet” Jones (Fred Williamson) after drugging the 325th’s ringer.

There are two reasons that the hijinks of the Swampmen are palatable, or at least meant to be somewhat cathartic. The first is that they really do tend to punch up, in terms of the military hierarchy, far more than they punch down. (There are noted exceptions here, but we’ll get there.) The other is that for the intended bourgeois audience of MASH, a wordy satire with visual callbacks to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and the sheen of medical intellectualism hanging over it all, the white captains with their college educations (and Trapper John a Dartmouth alum) are just the right kind of people. One of the first jokes in the film, after “Suicide Is Painless” and the quotes from MacArthur and Eisenhower, is Hawkeye’s interaction with the man running the motor pool. The guy is a little coarse with Hawkeye. He’s Black. Hawkeye turns around after the man leaves to get his driver and mumbles, “Racist,” to himself. It’s a line which still gets a laugh for how unexpected it is, but it’s also impossible to imagine Oliver Jones getting a laugh by saying that like, Vollmer (David Arkin) was racist for a similar statement. It’s not because that couldn’t be funny, but because the film can’t imagine it. It’s safe, MASH finds, for white men of some privilege to make light of the people above them, but this is not a film about the nurses pantsing the doctors, or about how PFC What’s His Name gets the better of Hawkeye or Duke in some game of wits. It’s a film for frat boys to express their frattiness, to show that they are members of a club whose primary ability to enter is in being able to get away with anything. MASH is frequently described as an anti-authoritarian film, but how can it be anti-authoritarian when the guerillas have so much authority already? It’s like saying that The Social Network is an anti-authoritarian film because Phillips Exeter alum and Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg, the son of two doctors, is going up against the Winklevoss twins, whose dad has even more money than Zuck’s dad. That’s a self-evidently ridiculous idea, except, I guess, when it’s about MASH.

The Swampmen are not meant to be perfect, or even all that admirable. For example, I don’t think we’re necessarily supposed to think that Hawkeye has some progressive ideas about race; that line at the beginning proves that he’s not a saint. We know that Duke is definitely racist even by the standards of the 1970s, and seeing as he picks up with Houlihan where Burns left off (and how he fades out of the movie as Trapper John takes more screentime), I don’t think we’re ever supposed to find Duke all that impressive. All three of them are not to be trusted around women, which the film primarily treats as a compliment but which I don’t think we’re supposed to look at as if their pastime is unblemished. I’ve seen the film get hammered a few times because it basically lets Ho-Jon (Kim Atwood) get swallowed up by the South Korean army after Hawkeye tries one thing to avoid his induction. Hawkeye feels bad that his ruse was caught by the Korean doctor, and then Ho-Jon basically disappears from the story. I don’t think this is a heartless gesture on the part of the film, because what it most reminds me of is the scenes where the doctors and nurses are in surgery and there’s blood and guts everywhere. This is a reality of war, that nice young gofers get swallowed up no matter who tries to intercede for them. If anything, this sequence shows us Hawkeye’s god complex, and more of that soft racism that so many nice white Northerners are guilty of. Ho-Jon is so obviously unfit based on his blood pressure and pulse that it backfires; it’s obvious he’s tampered with something. Yet Hawkeye appears to believe, up until the moment Ho-Jon is caught, that this witless ruse will befuddle the Korean doctors. There’s something knowing in Sutherland’s line reading of “Oh, man!” which is over the top, calling attention to how the taker gets took.

What we are meant to do, through thick and thin, is like them. In 1970, if you’re also a white-collar professional who hates your snooty boss, then yes, they’ll be likeable figures. In 2021, it’s hard not to see them as people who are basically just your snooty boss’s immediate inferiors who swallow horse pills of Joe Rogan on their commute. One might like them individually, but it’s hard to imagine wanting to spend any more time around them than one’s job would require. As the Internet would say, they are “bad men.” I’m not immune to funny and mean-spirited. I happen to find that scene where Frank’s loud and obsequious prayer gets turned into a campwide chorus of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” to be totally hilarious, as is Duke’s inquiry as to the genesis of Frank’s religious mania. But it’s really hard to watch this movie denigrate women over and over again, because it’s hard to know what any of them ever did to deserve that punishment. Houlihan is punished for turning down Hawkeye over breakfast one morning and preferring Frank to him. I suppose one joke at her expense would further the film’s thesis that the Swampmen are jackasses. The stuff about rigging the showers to reveal her naked and then her hysterical march and rant to Blake while he sits in bed with some other woman is meant to be funny, though, and I’m not sure I can find a way into understanding how that’s meant to be the case.

What’s funny about MASH is not really about the Swampmen all that much, although it’s hard to deny the charisma that Sutherland and Gould and even Skerritt can scare up. This film is funniest when the camera is focused on something in the background as opposed to the foreground. This is what makes those incredible Blake-Radar conversations so wonderful; they almost never happen right in front of us, but happen only as a garbled narration for whatever’s supposed to go on next. The Waldowski (John Schuck) stuff doesn’t hold up now either, but the initial introduction we get to the guy is by watching a bunch of people peering into a shower tent where his enormous organ is visible in that dripping cathedral. Watching everyone pile up in a line is genuinely funny, and the offhand treatment of it makes us wish for something that silly later on, when he’s moaning about his latent homosexuality and Hawkeye is finding a hot enough nurse to turn him straight and then go home satisfied.

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