Wednesday, October 30, 2013

MASH (Aspen Productions, Ingo Preminger Productions, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1970)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, as part of their three-month “Film Odyssey” series, Turner Classic Movies ran the film MASH — and yes, that’s the title spelling in the credits: all caps but with no punctuation marks between the letters (TCM’s schedule listed it as M-A-S-H and a lot of sources have it with asterisks between the letters, M*A*S*H, but that was the nomenclature for the TV show, not the film. MASH was based on a novel written by Richard Hooker about his service with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (which is what the initials mean) during the Korean war, and 20th Century-Fox put it in production in 1969 (it was released a year later but the Zeitgeist is really the 1960’s, not either the 1950’s when it takes place or the 1970’s when it was released) with a script by old Leftist Ring Lardner, Jr. (one of the original Hollywood 10) and direction by a then 44-year-old director named Robert Altman, who’d done a lot of TV work and made a few films but hadn’t really established himself as a major director until the blockbuster hit status of MASH catapulted him to the A-list. I hadn’t seen MASH since the 1970’s — I caught it theatrically in its initial release and then I’m pretty sure I saw it at a revival screening at the original UC Theatre in Berkeley, the foundation of the Landmark chain — and Charles also hadn’t seen it in decades, though he became convinced that he must have seen a network TV screening that cut down the sheer gore of the operating-room sequences (a surprising amount of MASH is essentially medical porn).

The film gained a reputation for its matter-of-fact denunciation not only of war but of the stupidities of military ritual generally, and its depiction of people who are up to their noses in trying to clean up the messes combat has made of their fellow soldiers’ bodies and use black humor to relieve the stresses of literally having other people’s lives in their hands. It’s an odd movie to watch today because well after the film completed its original release, MASH was turned into a TV show that ran 11 years (twice as long as major combat operations in the Korean War — I put it that way because, as Charles pointed out to be last night, the Korean War is technically still going on; all that officially happened in 1953 was a cease-fire between the U.S. and North Korea, which are still at least on paper in a state of war with each other) and the series took a considerably gentler, less satirical and more warm point of view towards the material. In that it was actually closer than the movie to the spirit of Richard Hooker’s book, which I read some time after I saw the movie and was similar in terms of the big incidents (though one marvelous tale from Hooker’s novel — the MASH unit’s Korean houseboy, Ho-Jon, wants to get the money to emigrate to the U.S. and go to college, and in order to collect the money the doctors tour him around Korea, proclaim him to be the Second Coming of Jesus, and take in enough from credulous Koreans to give him the nest egg he needs for U.S. immigration and education — isn’t in the film, albeit the TV writers did a dramatization of it later) but was considerably lighter in tone. Seen in 2013, MASH doesn’t seem that innovative — one can tell what electrified audiences about it in 1970 (and why it was a bigger grosser than two other more prestigious and highly publicized war films, Catch-22 and Patton), but it’s badly dated, especially in its appalling sexism.

For all the Left-leaning politics of the rest of the movie — particularly its condemnation of war as stupid and pointless (rather than destructive and evil — we hardly meet anyone who’s actually seen action against the enemy except as slabs of meat on the MASH unit’s operating tables) and the obvious Korea = Viet Nam parallels both Altman and Lardner were clearly keen to make — its treatment of women as sex objects is appalling. The character of Margaret O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), nicknamed “Hot Lips” midway through the movie, becomes the butt of the film’s biggest and most notorious jokes precisely because she doesn’t leap into bed with the three anti-social, anti-Army leads — Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland, giving a much darker, almost slacker-ish reading of the role that will jolt anyone who hasn’t seen this film before and comes to the character thinking of the more homey, friendly Alan Alda!), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould, taking the first step forward in his career that would finally get him out from under the shadow of his former status as Mr. Barbra Streisand); she tries to uphold military discipline and do so in a self-assertive proto-feminist way, and for that the filmmakers slam her by having her fall in love, or at least lust, with the martinet Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), to which the anti-social heroes we’re supposed to love as delightful, roguish scamps respond by wiring their quarters and broadcasting their sexual activities over the camp’s P.A. system, then pulling the curtain off her shower so she’s revealed in the altogether to the entire unit. The whole idea of women as nothing more than toys for men to play with — and to pass around to each other when they’re done with them — seems pretty appalling and reactionary today, marring a film that in its other respects seems to be making a progressive, albeit rather cynical, statement about war and what it does to people.

Indeed, the relentless darkness of MASH is the oddest thing about it ­— a decade later this property wouldn’t have sold unless the filmmakers had lightened up the way their counterparts on TV did — the film in general, and Donald Sutherland’s performance in particular, should be required viewing for anyone who thinks “mumblecore” is a new phenomenon. And the sexism of MASH wasn’t confined to what went on the screen, either; according to an “trivia” poster, Robert Altman and his editor, Danforth P. Greene, put up nude pinups of women on the walls of the editing room. Some “suit” at 20th Century-Fox saw them and sent a memo stating that from then on there were to be no pictures of naked women on the walls of editing rooms — and Altman responded by having the memo recorded and used in the movie as one of the announcements over the MASH’s P.A. system. MASH also anticipates Altman’s later movies in its patchwork story and multiple plot lines — and like a lot of Altman’s works it’s a film more appealing in its parts than as a whole, though for me the big sequence at the end (the football game in which the MASH unit beats a team from an airborne unit) has always seemed a bit “fake,” not only because of the use of John Philip Sousa’s Washington Post march but because the uniforms seem not only too clean but too elaborate (and, as an “goofs” poster, the helmets are from 1969 rather than 1951, when the film supposedly takes place). MASH was interesting to see again — it’s like running into an old friend and finding he’s not quite as you remember him but it’s still nice to have him around for a change — but, though I wouldn’t say it’s an overrated film, there are parts of it (especially its treatment of women — this is a film that makes you realize why there had to be a feminist movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s) that date very badly.