Monday, January 9, 2012
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 54
Writer: Ring Lardner Jr. (adaptation), Richard Hooker (novel)
Director: Robert Altman
Star: Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt
When “M*A*S*H” began, I thought that its trio of main characters were cliché variations on high school bullies. By the end of the first act I believed them to be sociopaths. At the midpoint I realized they were plain ‘ole psychopaths and threw up my hands in frustration. I understand, in theory, why this film is supposed to be funny…but it’s not. It’s a black comedy that forgot to add in the comedy.
It tracks a trio of surgeons who operate about three miles from the front lines in the Korean War. They are Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Duke (Tom Skerritt) and Trapper (Elliot Gould)…and all are more or less interchangeable monsters from the start. I suspect that, in any given scene, the dialogue between the trio could be interchanged and no one would have noticed. I have no problems with bastards being at the center of a movie, but there’s a difference between rooting for the bad guy and what happens here.
Look, I get what screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. and director Robert Altman were going for. Because of the genuinely horrifying things these guys see and must deal with every day, they have chosen to turn off their emotions so as not to deal with any of it. This might have been interesting if it had been handled in any sort of mature way (yes, this is a comedy, but the least you can ask of an Altman film is some insight into the human condition). But it isn’t, leaving the viewer to ask “So what? Who cares?” I don’t root for any of them. I don’t care about how they interact with one another or what is driving them.
The film also has a hugely troubling misogynist and homophobic bend to it.
The only major female character is Hot Lips (Sally Kellerman), who is introduced as strict head of Nursing for the company—a sort of Nurse Ratched. But it’s clear from the get-go that she doesn’t have a chance in hell of even developing into an antagonist for the surgeons because they begin to belittle her immediately. She gets the name Hot Lips after someone sneaks a microphone into her tent while she’s having sex, which is bad enough. But then the film becomes inhuman when the guys decide to find out if her carpet matches her blonde drapes, so they gather most of the men in the company to watch as they yank the tent up while she is showering. They all cackle and heckle while she screams, naked and horrified, in front of them. That was supposed to be…funny? I was cringing. And then, inexplicably, after she has sex with Duke for no apparent reason, she turns into a completely mindless cheerleader during the climactic football game. It’s not even the same character, and there is no transitory scene where she begins to root for them. The fact that the movie simply has her shack up with one of the surgeons and then appear brainless for the rest of the movie sickens me.
Then there’s a dentist in the unit (John Schuck) who is wants to kill himself. Apparently he got really drunk one night and couldn’t successfully bed one of the nurses, so he immediately thinks that he’s turned gay. The thought is so horrifying that he immediately asks the surgeons to help him commit suicide. Seriously.
Sutherland, Gould and Skerritt are all excellent actors who have done really good work elsewhere, but the screenplay does them no favors. They smartly choose to underplay their characters and nastiness, but I don’t identify with any of them.
Is any of this funny? Sure, there are fleeting, funny bits throughout. I liked a small moment where Hawkeye had a nurse scratch his nose mid-surgery, and there’s a random ingenious re-creation of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The aforementioned climactic football game was probably the best thing in the movie (I’m guessing because none of the surgeons play a major role in it), and I liked the way the M*A*S*H unit drugged the rival professional baseball player to get him off the field. But all these amount to are silly islands of humor in a vast ocean of nothingness.
I must also say that the film is very well-made. You can tell that there is one hell of a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera, and the way Altman stages scenes and shoots the unit are well-done and memorable.
Honestly, I feel like “M*A*S*H” is one of those movies that meant a lot more in 1970 than it does today. Even though it takes place in the Korean War, it’s “about” the Vietnam War and its anti-war messages come through loud and clear. The film is obviously anti-establishment, and perhaps at the time these leading assholes came off in the same way McMurphy did in 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”—as a rebel without a cause. But today? Despite the fact that we are in a recession and barely out of Iraq, it no longer feels topical. “Platoon” remains searing, as does “Apocalypse Now,” but this seems to have lost its voice somewhere along the way.
I am not a surgeon, nor have I ever been to war, but that shouldn’t matter. Since film became a legitimate medium, its most important, enduring goal is to take the viewer “into” the film and invest them in what they are seeing. To put “us” in “their” shoes. In 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” audiences were so invested they gasped when a bandit pointed his gun at the screen and fired. There’s never a dry eye in the house when the Blind Girl recognizes Chaplin in “City Lights,” and I dare you to listen to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and not get goosebumps all over your body. “M*A*S*H” gives us plenty of well-done shots of jeeps driving through mazes of tents, but they might as well be photographs. I don’t care at all about this story and these characters. A surprise assault could have bombed the hospital an hour in, leaving everyone dead, and I don’t think I would have been phased.
My Score (out of 5): *1/2