The staff of a Korean War field hospital use humor and high jinks to keep their sanity in the face of the horror of war. The film opened January 25, 1970 at the Baronet Theatre in New York.
NEAR SHORE RADIO SHOW ON MASH 3-min lip….
The film went on to receive five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. The film’s only Academy Award that won was for Best Adapted Screenplay. Perhaps the not so subtle antiwar message of the film came in part from the screenwriter, Ring Lardner Jr.
The film’s actions, especially between characters, is “metaphysically cruel.”
Living as they must in the midst of the Korean War, the characters of “MASH” become characters with whom we can identify, possibly even bond, because their methods of coping are authentic, their relationships are grounded upon both their need for connection and their astute awareness that any one of them may not come out of this thing alive.
Putting yourself in that grotesque headspace makes it easier to roll with the idea that MASH knows very well that its surgeons are assholes, and means to suggest that they maintain their sanity, in impossible circumstances, by picking on the weak. But the surgery scenes make it impossible to write the movie off as a relic of a less enlightened age. These guys aren’t nice, but neither is their situation.
Trapper John struggles to save the life of a wounded communist, the nurse protests, “Doctor, this man is a prisoner of war.” “So are you, nurse,” he quickly replies, “You just don’t know it.”
One of the reasons “MASH” is so funny is that it’s so desperate. It is set in a surgical hospital just behind the front lines in Korea, and it is drenched in blood. The surgeons work rapidly and with a gory detachment, sawing off legs and tying up arteries, and making their work possible by pretending they don’t care. And when they are at last out of the operating tent, they devote their lives to remaining sane.
Most comedies want us to laugh at things that aren’t really funny; in this one we laugh precisely because they’re not funny. We laugh, that we may not cry. But none of this philosophy comes close to the insane logic of “MASH,” which is achieved through a peculiar marriage of cinematography, acting, directing, and writing. The movie depends upon timing and tone to be funny. It would have been a failure, if it had been directed like most comedies; but Ring Lardner, Jr., wrote it, I suspect, for exactly the approach Robert Altman used in his direction, and so the angle of a glance or the timing of a pause is funnier than any number of conventional gag.
We can take the unusually high gore-level in “MASH” because it is originally part of the movie’s logic. If the surgeons didn’t have to face the daily list of maimed and mutilated bodies, none of the rest of their lives would make any sense. Gould and Sutherland and the members of their merry band of pranksters are offended because the Army regulars don’t feel deeply enough.
Sexist… chauvinist …misogynist
The trauma that Houlihan experiences, brought to life with emotional force by Kellerman, cannot be laughed off in the way that it might have been in 1970. It was intended as a prank, but today, after the revelations of the #MeToo movement, it reads more like harassment or assault.
MASH” isn’t so much a war film, though an argument could surely be made for it being an anti-war film. Instead, however, “MASH” is about those individuals who live in the war zone by choice or by necessity. It’s about how they survive and how they, ultimately, reflect each one of us.