I knew MASH purely as a television series for a long time. My father is one of those people who love to sit and watch reruns of old television shows all day after his long day of work. He probably watched every episode of MASH something like twenty times. That theme song is as familiar to me as any other music from my childhood. My father would whistle it when he was in the shower from time to time. It wasn’t until I was getting more into film and I heard about this auteur, Altman, that I noticed a film was the original inspiration for the television series. I asked my dad if he had seen the movie and he griped “That piece of shit?” So for the longest time when I thought of MASH, the film, I thought of that crumpled face my father always makes when he disapproves of something and his dismissal.
While I can see the necessity for this film at the time it was made and I enjoyed quite a bit of it, I feel like I would have had a completely different reaction to it if I had seen it in the seventies and without the knowledge that it became a television series. Having seen several anti-war films that are comedic in nature, I find what this film says about the nature of war to be wickedly tame. What these surgeons do day in and day out is nerve-racking and horrible, but it is nothing compared to actually seeing the day-to-day action. What do regular soldiers do stay calm and sane? Wouldn’t that be a more interesting story than a bunch of privileged surgeons?
The buddy relationship between Hawkeye and Trapper John was quite sweet. You could tell off-screen that Gould and Sutherland were great friends. They had an insular language, both spoken and hinted at through gestures, that made their childish pranks and misogyny more appealing to me. Although I did have a problem with the assumed misogyny. Seeing women nurses as just conquests instead of actual characters and pitting everyone against the straight-laced nurse captain is just a little irksome. I wouldn’t have been so annoyed, if they would have involved a female in one of the plots other than being the one to sexually cure someone. The only nurse that is named is the evil nurse captain, Hot Lips O’Houlihan. She is seen as staunch and idiotic. It seems like Altman was working through some stuff. He seemed to cure even the most ridiculous male character of his annoying traits, but that woman was evil or stupid throughout the whole film.
I also thought the film was a little too long. Did we really need that sequence where they played football? It does illustrate the length that anyone would go to in order to divert his eye from the horrible conflict, but he has three sequences that illustrate that just as easily. It seems by the end that Altman was beating us over the head with his themes. Look war is bad and the people in it are willing to do anything in order to stay sane, but must that be your only driving force for every goddamn scene? If we had seen Hawkeye go home after their adventure in Japan then I would have been satisfied.
Although I had problems with the film, like I do with most of Altman’s work, I did like it. It was an enjoyable two hours but in the end I kind of think the television series accomplished what Altman set out to do and more. It showed the absurdities of war, the lengths people go to in order to stay sane, but above all it developed the characters in ways that were more fascinating than Altman did. I’m sorry Altman, but you were wrong for condemning the series. You should instead take it as a compliment.