MASH (1970)

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I watched M*A*S*H the TV show the whole time it was on the air (years), and I loved it. I loved the people, I loved the humor and the pathos, the whole bit. The last episode, one of the most watched final episodes ever, still mists me up. So, upon renting Robert Altman’s film that inspired the show, I expected…something special. Granted, it’s hard accepting Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye after years of new episodes and reruns of Alan Alda. I was prepared for that. TV shows built from film premises have the advantage of hundreds of hours of story line to build rich, lovable characters, whereas a movie has 2 hours to cram in plot, character, change, and some jokes. I was prepared for that. I was not prepared to dislike the film as much as I did, and I can only be grateful to whomever was the brilliant producer who saw the potential for one of the best-loved series
within this mess of dullness and mean-spirited randomness.

Robert Altman has never been known for a quick-cutting style of filmmaking, and for a while his style really works for the milieu of a mobile army surgical hospital – chaos, lots of cross-dialogue, barely acknowledged witticisms, etc. Part of the reward of watching a Robert Altman film is absorbing the reality-style he is going for and keeping up with all the asides and whatnot – but part of the pain of watching a Robert Altman film is when he forgets to inject anything like story arc or interest. Maybe it was a watershed for the time in which it was made (apparently that watershed thing was going around in the ’70’s) but still. Notable for me was the screen debut of Bud Cort (aka Harold who loves Maude) and the unsettling lyrics to “Suicide is Painless,” wisely used word-free for the TV theme. But I did snooze through the surreal football game.

MASH suffers from the latter. The hijinks are much more malicious, so I don’t like my main characters as much. The Heavies, Hoolihan and Frank, are too unlivable to even care that they are victimized by these pranks. The war seems to be an afterthought – I never felt a sense of danger or presence, and the human drama implicit in field surgery on kids killing strangers for their country was dropped like a Watergate tape in a magnet factory. Had I never seen the television show, I would have HATED this film – having a supernatural sense of the characters (from their post-film lives) was all that kept me interested.

The most telling moment was when the credits (such as they are – a quickly spurted verbal list of the actors and cuts of their faces, in the announcer’s voice, a strange meta-fictional touch) finally came, I was so relieved, like I had finished a grueling exam. Immediately thereafter was a 5 minute reel of clips from the last episode of the TV show – I watched as my familiar TV friends re-enacted what was essentially the last scene of the movie – and I bawled like a baby. Even typing about it now I am getting misty. What does that tell me? It tells me that I am damn lucky someone liked this movie better than I did. It tells me how important it is to have characters that matter to you, that interact with some reason, and how important it is that I care for the people on screen. It tells me that Robert Altman can run a camera a long time and give an extremely naturalistic feel to a scene, but (also evidenced by other films) he doesn’t know enough about people for my taste.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 1/25/70
Time in minutes 116
Director Robert Altman
Studio 20th Century Fox