Let’s Talk About… ‘MASH’ (1970)

Film #37 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

M*A*S*H (1970) – Aspen/20th Century Fox

Director: Robert Altman

Stars: Donald Sutherland; Elliott Gould; Tom Skerritt; Sally Kellerman; Robert Duvall

When the AFI movie choices were made available, I picked MASH because of my familiarity with the film and my love of history. Pitt Johnstown 2000 –Freshman year of college-  my American History professor showed movies for extra credit on Wednesday evenings. Unsure of my grade at this point in the semester (Spoiler Alert : I ended up with an A), I decided to see Pork Chop Hill, The Best Years of Our Lives, and MASH.

Today, we will discuss Film #56 on the Top 100 AFI movie List – MASH.

Robert Altman sets the tone of the film with the opening montage set to the song, “Suicide is Painless”. Helicopter flies overhead and lands, dropping off wounded soldiers into the waiting arms of nurses and doctors. Helicopter takes off into the sky.  Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Sherman is attributed with the quote “War is Hell” and the opening credits are a testament to the savagery of battle.

We are introduced to Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest as they arrive for their assignment to the 4077th MASH unit. Hawkeye arrives first, waiting until his jeep driver is ready to take him over to camp. Next is Duke. Duke, thinking Hawkeye is the driver, asks Hawkeye to take care of his belongings. Hawkeye, doing as he is told, loads the bags in the back, gets in the driver’s seat, and off they go. Military Police give chase after the jeep but are unable to catch them.  This opening scene after the credits sets the comedic tone for the rest of the film.

The days at the 4077th are very long ones and vary from one minute to the next- some days nothing seems to be happening at all, then we see the doctors and nurses treating wounded soldiers with no end in sight.  Hawkeye and Duke like to enjoy their free time enjoying martinis and catching up on rest. New arrival Trapper John McIntyre finishes the triumvirate between Duke and Hawkeye that will carry the rest of the film.

MASH tackles a lot of serious issues in the film, but it’s the use of comedy that helps make the viewer digest it. A good example of this is the part featuring “Painless” Waldowski. He is contemplating suicide after he is unable to perform with a woman. They hold a Last Supper for Painless and give him the Black Pill. The Black Pill does not kill him, instead knocking him out. Hawkeye asks Lt. Dish for a “tender act of mercy” (SEX) to help Painless. The next day, Painless is a new man and he’s ready to take on the world.

MASH depicts the brutal reality of war and how to survive it. Hawkeye, Duke, and Trapper John are surgically skilled and do their best work in the operating theater and like to let loose with booze, debauchery, and other crazy shenanigans.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is Col. Frank Burns; Frank blames Pvt. Boone for the death of a soldier, taking out his frustrations out on the private, even though in reality, the soldier was too far gone to be saved.  Pvt. Boone ends up breaking down and blaming himself. Trapper John sees this all unfold and punches Burns in the face. This episode is the beginning of a spiral for Burns which ends with him being escorted off the base camp in a straitjacket.  The stress of war was getting to Col. Burns but he did not take corrective actions alleviating it.

When people discuss their favorite war time comedies, the first answer everyone gives is either Catch-22 or Dr. Strangelove. I believe that MASH deserves the same accolades and recognition these films receive. MASH’s episodic structure keeps the viewer on their toes, the laughs come fast and furious like a machine gun, and the ensemble cast is damn near perfect together.

For those that have never seen MASH, think of National Lampoon’s Animal House– but instead of college, it’s the armed forces. The difference – Animal House is a bit lowbrow and cartoonish. MASH finds the right balance of humor and pathos in real life, everyday situations. These two films would make an excellent double feature nonetheless.

MASH was definitely a film of its time and era. Released in 1970 during the height of the Vietnam War, it was a hit with test audiences and raked in 80 million dollars at the box office. This is one of the classics that was released at the right time. Some of the jokes and plot points would not be acceptable in today’s day and age (for example, Blazing Saddles). MASH would eventually be spun off to television in 1972, lasting 11 seasons, ending its run in 1983. MASH (the TV series) is still in syndication today. (Currently airing on METV.)

If you need a few laughs to counter the winter blahs, pop MASH into the old DVD player ( or steam it on your television), crack open a Pabst Blue Ribbon, sit back and relax, and salute the 4077th for their service.