"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 4, 2011

"M*A*S*H" (1970) by Robert Altman (Film review)

M*A*S*H means "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital," and that is the place where during the Korean war two young surgeons, Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) meet each other. They use surrealistic humor to keep their sanity in the face of the horrors of war. The film consists of a series of loose episodes and ends when Hawkeye and Duke leave the hospital.

I only knew the TV series and saw the film now for the first time. I must say it is much more subversive than the TV series (with different actors and actrices - strange, by the way, to see M*A*S*H without Alan Alda!). Made in 1970, this is not so much a film about the Korean war as about the war in Vietnam. The surrealism reminded me of Catch-22, as well as of the under-cooled humor and nonsense conversations of Easy Rider. It is not a real anti-war film, but rather an exercise in black-humor showing how war causes the worst in human beings to come out - instead of making them heroes. Fun is also made of the true believers in military rules, religious phony Major Burns (Robert Duval) and stiff but sexy head nurse "hot lips" Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). When these two moralists make secretly love, Haweye and Duke hook up the PA system so that the whole camp can listen in.

That is the level of other pranks as well: exposing "hot lips" in the shower by hoisting up the tent from around her, drugging a general and photographing him in sex club, enacting the Last Supper for a buddie who contemplates suicide because he thinks he is impotent, and an inter-army football game with heavy betting that outstays its welcome. And in between juvenile jokes we have grueling scenes of surgery, with lots of tomato juice.

One thing that struck me is that this film which has the reputation of being so free and liberal, is in fact painfully sexist when seen with the eyes of today.

It is also a typical late sixties film, laid-back, discursive, not going anywhere. You don't feel their experience has made a difference to them when Hawkeye and Duke return to the U.S. The rather abrupt ending in fact makes everything they have been through seem all the more pointless.

That is also the film's problem: I didn't feel involved and only smiled at all the nonsense going on. And immediately forgot about it.