Monday 3 November 2014

Movie Review: MASH (1970)

An inept war satire, MASH is dominated by self-satisfied narcissists saluting themselves.

In the Korean War, three doctors are serving at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital: Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Trapper John (Elliott Gould) and Duke (Tom Skerritt) have no regard for authority and get their kicks by making fun of everyone around them. Favourite targets include a nurse they nickname Hot Lips (Sally Kellerman) and religious surgeon Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). Hawkeye and his friends also pretend to help a gay man who wants to kill himself, and conspire to rig a football match. The hospital's commander, Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), is neither interested nor capable of controlling the surgeons.

With the deeply unpopular Vietnam War (clearly the intended target of the film, despite the Korean War setting) rumbling on and the anti-war movement blossoming, MASH attempts to tap into the cultural moment. It's a ghastly exercise in smug satire, neither funny nor smart, just stale.

The opening song "Suicide Is Painless" sets the scene for a film that will take cheap shots at any target. Women, religion, gays, blacks, sports, nurses, and of course the military are all fair game, as the Ring Lardner, Jr. script aims its archaic canon at any and all topics that can possibly be found near the battlefield. 

Doctors behaving badly when all around them suffer are far from funny, with MASH trying to say that war is hell, the doctors are conscripted against their will, and therefore all rules can be broken. It doesn't wash. Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke arrive at the front carrying misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-religious attitudes. Director Robert Altman does not bother to portray them as transformed into jerks due to war; they are natural born jerks.

The film is episodic, lacking in any actual plot, and ever more desperate to find the next laugh. The hijinks are intercut with serious scenes of the surgeons patching up wounded soldiers in the field hospital, the tension of saving lives a a flimsy excuse for abject behavior. 

Pre-occupied with poor taste, MASH reacts to tragedy with an idiot's embarrassing guffaw.

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