The AFI Top 100 Movies: MASH (#56)

MASH (1970)
Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Ring Lardner Jr. (screenplay) and Richard Hooker (novel)

MASH is not a friendly movie. Even though you know you’re watching a comedy, the opening title credits throw you off — the theme song is the legendary “Suicide is Painless,” and over the melancholy tune you see shots of wounded soldiers being lifted out of combat by chopper. It creates a diasrmingly somber mood right out of the gate, and when you first meet the film’s nominal protagonist, Capt. Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), his flagrant disregard of authority reads as cynical near-nihilism as opposed to free-wheeling comic anarchy.

Most of the early scenes drop you right into the chaos of the MASH unit, so there’s a constant stream of conversation at all times. It’s tough to figure out which bit of dialogue you’re meant to follow, or if you’re meant to follow a particular thread at all. If you’re not military minded (I’m certainly not), it’s a little difficult to follow the chain of command in any given scene. It all adds up to twenty or thirty minutes of orchestrated chaos that’s confusing, vaguely upsetting, and impossibly slippery. You can’t really get a bead on it.

Then something happens; at some point in the movie, everything clicks. The humor becomes clear, the rhythms of dialogue tap a beat you can follow, and you finally get to know the characters. After a thick and off-putting opening, MASH becomes something different and fascinating in its own right.

Pierce and his best friend, Trapper John MacIntyre (Gould), are the ringleaders of this circus. They’re excellent surgeons but terrible people, and their bad influence spreads through the entire unit until almost all of them are simply reflections of a trickster spirit that just so happens to be able to heal you. After Pierce and MacIntyre persuade or badger everyone into their way of thinking (or in the case of religious zealot Major Frank Burns, eliminate them entirely), the group forms a vastly dysfunctional unit that’s shockingly inappropriate but a bunch of guys you can root for anyway.

The movie is essentially a series of episodes detailing the evolution of the group. One by one, Pierce and MacIntyre deal with the members of the community, getting to know them and then correcting their perspective. Some folks take a little more work than others, but the effect is almost always the same. You come to an understanding with Pierce, and then he floats away to work on his next project. What you end up with is a true cult of personality that gets broken up by war’s end.

I’m not sure if this is the crux of the novel the movie is based on, but director Robert Altman and his merry band of chaotic actors use the setting to present a different view of war. The soldiers were dirty in both mind and body, and no one knew why in the world they were there. These weren’t noble people driven by a sense of patriotism or purpose. They were just a bunch of guys thrown together to do a job. And they made the most of it, stiff-arming any resistance they were faced with. The senselessness of the war (said to be Korean in the movie though everyone knows it was really about Vietnam) was underscored in hedonistic atmosphere that Hawkeye Pierce cultivates so well. They were an Army medical unit just outside the front lines of a nasty, brutal war — any or all of them could go at any time. Might as well make the most of the life you’ve got before then, right?

What makes the movie fascinating is how you’re never quite sure how to feel about what you’re seeing. Hawkeye and company are incredibly misogynist, self-serving and callous. At the same time, they’re the soldiers who were fighting for our freedom back home. You can’t really approve of what they’re doing (even though it’s frequently hilarious), but you can’t pass moral judgement on them either. These characters are in a war that we’re simply seeing from our own couches. Most of us will never have this experience. Who’s to say what that would do to us?

MASH is a messy, funny, uncomfortable movie. It’s absurd and troubling and because of that, fascinating. It’s certainly not the easiest movie to sit through (at least for me), but I think it had a brave authenticity that resonates today. This, for better or for worse, is the face of America abroad.

Rating: 6/10.

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