Robert Altman’s Korean War dark comedy, MASH, jumps between outrageous actions, hit-or-miss comedy, and a questionable football game that is as out-of-place as it is juvenile. Of course, most of the script could also be classified as juvenile. MASH clearly broke away from standard, read: serious, war movies. Patton was released the same year and is as opposite MASH as Pabst Blue Ribbon is from 12-year Glenlivet. PBR, it could be argued, makes for super fun times. MASH could be looked on as a situational comedy that lead the way for the outright antics of John Landis’ Animal House eight years later. However the backdrop of the war around cannot be ignored, as much as the script would like.
Set in the earlier years of the Korean War, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital is home to Captains Hawkeye Pierce, Duke Forrest and Trapper John. All three crack surgeons. All three lousy soldiers. They are assholes but likeable assholes who retain a fraternity style of boyish freedom, upsetting the rank and file all the way, yet are damn good at their job heeding their primary vow as doctors.
War is hell. The doctors have no problem in raising hell as a self-prescribed treatment to deal with the daily carnage. In line with his actors, Altman focuses more on their pranks and jokes than surgical drama.
Altman is a master of creating movies with large, intricate casts, weaving together the narrative with background frivolity. MASH was one of his earliest feature movies and he was still building his craft. This one? The editing appears like it was cut in a MASH operating room. Many jokes are not allowed to breathe. The set-up and punchline occurring like the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire in the distance. No fermenting, like Larry David would do later. Or even the TV show that this movie spawned. However, when the humor does work, like when Trapper and Hawkeye travel to Japan, it goes off like an atomic bomb.
Some of the inconsistent humor is a result of massive ad-libbing. Time and happenstance of the era are also huge considering factors. MASH presented a vanguard, a bold new direction for film that, along with the heist movie Kelly’s Heroes also released the same year, made for a strong one-two punch to the Kissinger. Fifty years on, much of the comedy is machoistic and sadly dated. MASH’s profane early existence has since been overshadowed with the blatant and the banal.
Yet, the movie’s charm is still present. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould are alpha males who not only beat their own drums but want you to join the band. Roger Bowen and Rene Auberjonois play the perfect foils – and deserved more screen time.
The characters – those crazy characters – drive the narrative. MASH was dying for a stronger plot to allow those rogues to thrive.
MASH is a series of fun asides and half-baked comedy bits edited into a two-hour revue of social commentary. Of course, the Deadpool movies could be the modern-day equivalent whose relevance in fifty years’ time has yet to be proven. And hopefully will not. Of course, Deadpool did not have a tedious football game to play out in a final act.