Directed By: Robert Altman
Written By: Ring Lardner Jr. (based on the novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman
The genius of MASH’s humour isn’t wit or satire or timing, it’s something more existential. It’s why humour is being used at all. Surely a mobile army surgical hospital at the height of the Korean War isn’t the place for juvenile jokes and practical pranks? But really, what better place for it?
Robert Altman’s film is low on plot, instead it’s occupied with people and place, the doctors and nurses who everyday treat a revolving door of dying soldiers. Particularly, the film is focussed on the hijinks they resort to as a means of filling in the time.
There’s a high-school quality to the way the men and women navigate the 4077th hospital. They play football, they tackle each other, congregate in the cafeteria, orchestrate pranks, and bully. They’re often cruel and conceited, there are cliques and outsiders. They’re mean, but the key is, for these people, it’s not a matter of being desensitised, it’s a matter of wanting to be.
Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliot Gould) are the chief jocks of the yard. They’re the masterminds, and Sutherland and Gould have brilliant chemistry, sharply playing off one another and meeting their troubles with such a blazon temerity that one can’t help but tip their hat to them. The squares of the yard are Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), and Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). They’re the uptight Majors, the overly proficient leaders who crave discipline and perfection, and are promptly targeted for it. Sure, they’re more professional than their colleagues, but what’s professionalism worth during war? They check their lists and type their letters and are meticulous, but in their proficiency they reduce the situation to something mathematical rather than human, and that’s more callous than any amount of practical joking. Hawkeye and Trapper aren’t the noblest heroes, in all honesty they’re quite mean-spirited and nasty (they’re company doesn’t strike me as the most desirable), but at least they wear the toll of the situation, their comedic cruelty a manifestation of accumulating dread.
The film always sports a brave face. For all of its sombre undertones MASH is unquestionably a comedy, and a funny one at that. We see a hilarious restaging of the last supper, we see Hawkeye and Trapper play golf in a colonel’s office, cars are stolen, microphones are placed under Margaret’s bed so her love making to Frank can be broadcast to the entire camp, there’s an announcer, who in a running gag, stumbles over every conceivable word. This is a film which wants us to laugh. There is never a weepy outburst, no one ever collapses under the weight of the war or abandons their humour and questions humanity. Frank and Margaret crack under their victimisation, but the immorality of the war is left in the background.
Where it finds its dramatic anchorage, then, is in how matter of fact Altman is in his depiction of the happenings of a surgical hospital. For every prank or elaborate scheme there’s an image of reddened surgical gloves and the sound of saws tickling exposed bone with skin pegged back by needles and scalpels. Crucially though, it never dawns on us as being graphic. There is a moment where a jugular fountains like something out of Peckinpah’s bloodied handbook, which would usually shock or at least coax a wince, but we have been so amazingly transported to this world of understated grief without us having ever been aware of it, that we see it exactly as Hawkeye does, just another wound that needs stitching.
Altman largely strips the film back to the diegetic, save for its now iconic song Suicide is Painless (co-written by Altman’s 14 year old son which would be as at home in The Graduate as it is on the Korean battlefields), and it reminds us that although the film’s gags aren’t all homeruns, for all their goofiness, they’re honest and human in their origin.
The men at 4077 M.A.S.H are often sexist and nihilistic in their quest to make each other laugh, but the truth is it doesn’t matter. Altman allows us to question, to experience. What would we do if we were them? What else could you do, if not resort to humour at all costs? And putting us there with them, that’s humanism.