War Movie Mondays: ‘M*A*S*H’

This week’s pick is the 1970 comedy classic M*A*S*H, from acclaimed director Robert Altman. M*A*S*H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) was adapted by screen writer Ring Lardner, Jr. and based on the hit novel from Richard Hooker about three military surgeons who are stationed three miles from the front lines during the Korean War. The film stars Donald Sutherland (Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce), Elliott Gould (Capt. John Francis Xavier “Trapper John” McIntyre), and Tom Skerritt (Capt. Augustus Bedford “Duke” Forrest).

Rounding out the supporting cast is Robert Duvall (Maj. Frank Burns), Sally Kellerman (Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan), Roger Bowen (Lt. Col. Henry Blake), Rene Auberjonois (Father John Patrick “Dago Red” Mulcahy), and Gary Burghoff as (Cpl. Walter “Radar” O’Reilly) who would later reprise his role in the hit television series which ran from 1972-83.

The release of M*A*S*H came at a very critical time when America was entering a new decade and the war in Vietnam was still raging on. M*A*S*H‘s dark humor and side-splitting dialogue is an allegorical look at Korea, yet reflected the country’s attitudes about Vietnam which was igniting riots in cities and on college campuses throughout the country. The three characters of Hawkeye, Trapper, and Duke are rebellious, womanizing, rule breakers who are conscripted into the army, yet quickly prove to their commanding officer Col. Blake that they’re the best surgeons in the whole U.S. Army.

Robert Altman directs with incredible precision and uses many of his trademarks such as his jump cut edits, scenes which contain multiple conversations which overlap with others, and numerous zoom in shots. If I had to pick some of my favorite scenes it would be impossible, because so many scenes in the film are amazing and make me die laughing every time I see them.

One of those scenes is in the beginning of the film where Hawkeye first arrives at the front. He and Duke meet at a depot where they commandeer a jeep from a surly black sergeant who treats the high ranking Hawkeye with insubordination. Hawkeye proceeds to put on his Captain bars while whistling and muttering under his breath, “racist”.

Before they even report to Col. Blake, they enter the mess hall of the 4077 MASH unit and proceed to have breakfast, while flirting with the attractive nursing staff. Col. Blake informs Hawkeye that the jeep that they’ve arrived in was reported stolen. Hawkeye proceeds to tell the Col. that its all just a terrible misunderstanding “Oh no sir, there’s the jeep right over there.” Blake believes Capt. Hawkeye and has Cpl. Radar change the serial numbers on the jeep and that both Hawkeye and Duke are to report for duty as soon as the casualties begin being flown in from the helicopter ambulances.

Many of the comedic scenes are interrupted with gory scenes of combat victims suffering from an assortment ranging from blown off limbs, to arterial neck wounds. Even with death and carnage around them, the doctors still remain their comedic selves while trying to survive the insanity of the war. Trapper John’s entrance to the film helps bring the three personalities together. Sutherland, Skerritt, and Gould have absolute brilliant chemistry with one another and it shows in the many scenes where it seems as if all of them are about to bust out laughing at any moment. I’ve always wondered how many takes Altman and the cast had to do before everyone could regain their ability to get back into their roles?

One of these scenes occurs in the tent in which Hawkeye and Duke have taken over after they have had the religious and inept Maj. Burns removed by Col. Blake. The reserved and travel weary Trapper John responds to polite conversation with his new bunk mates in one or two word responses. The puzzled Duke wonders why he should not know where he hales from? Hawkeye can’t place it but he knows that he has met the good doctor McIntyre before.

Hawkeye suggests that the three of them enjoy a nice martini. Trapper asks if there are any olives. Duke informs him that “Where the hell do you think you are?” Trapper then pulls out a glass jar of olives from his jacket to put one in his martini. Both Hawkeye and Duke look on with slack jawed amazement plastered on their faces. A hilarious scene!

M*A*S*H is the perfect blend of a satirical comedy, mixed with a terrific drama. I would compare it’s dark humor to that of the brilliant work of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove. M*A*S*H has an absolutely brilliant cast of characters who are all vying for the best screen time. It is a film that never gets old and is a film that can be appreciated with every viewing. It definitely ranks among my top ten favorite films of all time, and Altman’s directing is just sheer genius.

Some fun interesting facts about the film was that it became one of 2oth Century Fox’s highest grossing films for that year (grossing over eighty-two million dollars worldwide). It was nominated for five 1970 Academy Awards and took home one Oscar for Best Screenplay. In 1996, it was deemed “culturally significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry, and that it was also the first film in history to ever use the “F” word.

M*A*S*H is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray disc from 20th Century Fox Home Video and can also be rented via Netflix.

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