Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"MASH" (1970)

Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt
Written by Ring Lardner Jr.
Directed by Robert Altman

Richard Hooker's satirical novel "MASH" gets the feature film treatment, skillfully adapted into this classic comedy film that would spawn a long-running and much-loved TV series of the same name.  The film chronicles the exploits of the doctors of the 4077th MASH (Mobil Army Surgical Hospital) during the height of the Korean War.

Donald Sutherland stars as Captain 'Hawkeye' Pierce, who finds himself bunking with two other surgeons, 'Duke' Forrest (Tom Skerritt) and 'Trapper John' McIntyre (Elliot Gould) of the 4077th.  As the men are faced with the horrific consequences of war carted before them day in and day out, they find unique and colorful ways to deal with the stress.  Whether its teaching Korean boys to make martinis or stealing away to play golf without permission, these men leverage their skills as surgeons to try and get away with more and more ridiculous escapades.

The film is structured somewhat episodically, presenting a number of what are essentially sketches wherein the characters commit a series of zany antics.  The only real running thread through the picture is a series of escalating encounters where the doctors run afoul of the base's head nurse, 'Hot Lips' Houlihan, which eventually leads to an inspection by a visiting General who ultimately dismisses her complaints in favor of staging a football game between the 4077th and his own personal evac unit.

There is also a running juxtaposition between these wacky escapades and the doctors having to perform serious surgeries on wounded soldiers.  It's a sharp contrast watching Hawkeye, Duke and Trapper John in the operating room to suddenly have them turn around and pull of any number of ridiculous stunts, such as settling a bet regarding Hot Lips' natural hair color by staging the collapse of the shower tent.

While a modern film might load up these sequences with standard quirky comedy music or wildly energetic performances, "MASH" is a very understated film, with the humor coming across in a very easy, natural manner, regardless of how dark the subject matter may get.  In one sequence, the base's dentist 'Painless Pole' Waldowski (John Shuck, who would later appear alongside Rene Auberjonois in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" and an episode of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine") aka "The Best 'Equipped' Dentist in the Army' believes that he's actually a homosexual after he fails to become aroused by a large-breasted woman coming on to him.  Dejected, he decides to inform Hawkeye that he plans to commit suicide.  Hawkeye, of course, has a plan to make sure that Painless doesn't commit suicide, involving a fake suicide pill, a "final supper" (hilariously staged to look like the famous painting) and a little female help to convince Painless that it was all just a temporary malfunction.  Of course, suicide is a hard thing to make funny, and yet the ease with which "MASH" turns such dark material into something totally hilarious is indicative of the rest of the film, as well.

The antics of the doctors of the 4077th get more ridiculous and shocking as the film goes on, including drugging and taking pictures of a colonel in bed with a Japanese prostitute in order to blackmail him.  Of course, in a normal, ethical world of military discipline, this sort of behavior would be appalling.  But Hawkeye and Trapper are totally in the right for doing so, and the film manages to take something rather shocking and totally inappropriate and make it absolutely hilarious.  "MASH" promotes a sense of irreverence toward authority, often in the name of a greater good or even simply just for troop morale, that is charming and easy to relate with.

Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as Hawkeye and Trapper share an easy chemistry that's hard to deny.  They're surrounded by other colorful characters such as Colonel Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), the unit's shell-shocked commander who constantly refers to "the black days of Pearl Harbor", Blake's assistant Radar O'Reilly (Gary Burghorff) who seems to have superhuman hearing, Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) a devout religous officer who can't resist a steamy affair with Hot Lips, and Father 'Dago Red' Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois), the unit's overly nervous and naive chaplain.  The cast is given ample opportunity to have fun, with every one of them having a fairly well defined role to play.  Probably the one who fares the worst is Skerritt's Duke, who doesn't seem to have much to do once Trapper John arrives and pairs up with Hawkeye.  It's not that Skerritt's performance is poor in any way, it just feels like partway through the movie, the filmmakers decided to switch gears.

"MASH" doesn't really lead the viewer by the hand through any kind of real story.  As mentioned, its episodic structure basically allows Altman to simply lay out a series of scenes in order to prove a point.  There isn't much of a musical score, and oftentimes scenes might feel entirely pointless or random.  To the attentive and interested viewer, however, all of these little bits add up over time to paint a hilarious picture of life in the 4077th, a unit driven nearly mad by the awful things they see and hear each day.