Tuesday Movie Review: M*A*S*H

Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Posted by Alistair.
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Last Friday the American Film Institute (AFI) released a new list of the 100 best American movies as decided by 1,500 people in and around the film business. This list remained relatively faithful to the original list that the AFI released 10 years ago. Toy Story replaced Fantasia and the epic Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring replaced the even more epic Dr. Zhivago, but changes were the exception and not the rule. For the most part, movies that were deemed list-worthy last time made their way onto the new list. Among these was Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H, which was rated America’s 52nd best film on the original list but slipped to 58th best on this new list. High praise is not uncommon for this film, which won an Oscar for best screenplay upon its release, spawned a hit TV series, and is frequently cited by critics and movie goers as one of the best movies ever made.

As best as I can guess, the case for M*A*S*H goes something like the following: men are drafted into a war they don’t want to fight, a pointless war that reinforces the corrupt ideals and hypocritical morals that have turned their society ugly. Instead of following the system’s rules, these men behave like heroes—deconstructing the system from within. With Dadaist fervor they challenge everything their commanding officers insist on. If a “good” soldier should believe in Christ, then Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke will belittle the religious, replace the Bible with pornography, and generally disrupt the tyranny of religion. If a “good” American should be sexless and monogamous, then these boys will be anything but that. And if the American’s highest calling is football, well then, this lot of anti-heroes will beat the blonde, corn-fed bastard at his own game. Oh yes, there is also a plethora of jokes and breasts. It’s like Animal House with a message. Or a hysterical version of Catch-22.

Except that everything about this movie is wrong. Its jokes are largely unfunny and dated. It is spiteful of women, especially those like Nurse Houlihan who are good at their jobs and unattracted to the film’s male leads. These women must suffer brutal and unfunny sexual humiliation at every turn. This film exhibits everything that is wrong with 60s idealism while retaining nothing about it that’s right. There were, nearly all will grant, many things wrong with the morality of America in the 1950s. A lot of this involved distrust and hatred for blacks, gays, and women. M*A*S*H, with a misanthrope’s limited vision, wishes to topple the wrongs of the past. Its solution is that of a moron: since some thoughts in the past have turned out to be less than ideal we must do away with all the ideas held in the past. In the past people treated each other with respect. Not in Altman’s utopia. Everything has been redone, and all moral standards have been adjusted to serve the film’s protagonists (all except a belittling distrust and hatred of blacks, gays, and women).



The characters, having been sexually stifled in the droll atmosphere of America, let loose in the steamy, exotic Korean jungle. The sexual revolution arrives and love is free. As long as it is given freely by the film’s shallow, two-dimensional women. If it is not…well, every revolution demands sacrifice, and Nurse Houlihan pays the price to the entire camp. First when she dares to have sex with a Christian man (the nerve!) and later when the men want to determine whether she is a natural blonde. In the first instance her sex is broadcast on the radio, while in the second the entire camp gathers while the heroes expose her as she showers. Unlike the lovable idiots of Animal House, who fail again and again to score with the opposite sex, the jeering idiots of M*A*S*H, who use sexual humiliation as a weapon, have always turned my blood cold. If it was Altman’s goal to celebrate and capture the mentality that leads to rape, then I believe he succeeded.

What bothers me most about this movie is how much it fails. It would not have been terribly difficult to make us dislike a haughty religious man or a prudish uptight woman. Lord knows, both kinds of people have committed grave sins and done some horrible things. But that's not what M*A*S*H does. Robert Duvall’s character is deemed evil because he tries to teach a Korean kid who hangs out on the base about the Bible. Now, forcing your own religion on another is a pretty heinous albeit common thing, but Duvall doesn’t do this. He plays the scene with a bumbling compassion, a loser merely failing to impart what he himself loves. In another scene, Duvall yells at a nurse for selecting the wrong instrument while a patient dies. This is the closest we come to seeing his supposedly monstrous character. But the audience sees no such thing, we see rather a dedicated doctor lashing out in frustration. Duvall is guilty of cheating on his wife with Nurse Houlihan, as all the camp’s personnel are guilty of infidelity. When Hawkeye points this out to him, and disrespects Nurse Houlihan with insensitive words, he is attacked. It is the one moment in the movie at which I felt like cheering. After the fight, Duvall is dragged off to an insane asylum, and Altman has his petty victory over his own character. Those deemed sane by our normal standards have revealed their true stripes, only they haven’t really because the script is not good enough to show us how this could happen. It can barely even conjure up words of disdain for the class Duvall is supposed to represent.


Just as the film fails to make its villains unsympathetic, it utterly neglects to present its characters as likable. We are told, by the heroes themselves, that they are dedicated hard working surgeons who will stand up for everything that’s right. This moral dedication is exhibited in the operating room, in the form of making jokes while being up to the elbows in blood. No amount of blood or carnage can take the spring out of their step, or out of their libidos for that matter, as the men continue to flirt and sexually harass the nurses even at the grimmest moments of their patients' lives. There is a single moment in which the heroes act nobly. They insist on performing surgery on an ill local woman despite the chagrin of their commanding officer. Unfortunately they go on to spoil their good deed seconds later, by drugging the officer in question, stripping him naked, placing him amongst Korean whores, and blackmailing him with the photos.

The film finally loses faith in all of its own preaching and decides to limp out with a twenty minute slapstick football game. Nurse Houlihan dresses as a dirty, stupid cheerleader and acts the part. M*A*S*H lacks the strength of its own convictions. Its bad guys aren’t bad; its good guys aren’t good. It pretends to be a film about war, but is too confused to put a coherent message across or even support its own characters and ideas in the end. Some of the jokes are funny and it puts forth a good case for not putting people in the army who do not want to be there and don’t know what they are doing. Perhaps it took bravery to make an anti-war movie at the time (though even this is doubtful, as this movie came out after much of the peace movement had already happened and it lacked the chutzpah to actually talk about Vietnam itself). Other than that it fails catastrophically. Its script is weak, its story nonexistent, and although the acting is good, most of it contradicts what the script itself is attempting to tell us about the characters. It is, perhaps, the most overrated movie in existence. It is utterly undeserving of its praise by AFI or anyone else.


Robert Altman is a talented director who destroys all of his projects with his petty and contemptible loathing of other people. All of the characters in his films are brilliant exemplars of all that is rotten in the human spirit, but he has no clue as to what about the human spirit might be redeemable. For this reason M*A*S*H makes a lousy Animal House. And an even worse Catch-22.

Update: Picture of Loretta Swit replaced with one of Sally Kellerman. Thanks to JD Watson for pointing out this mistake.

18 comments:

loner said...

My guess is that the reviewer never read the novel upon which M*A*S*H is based.

The M*A*S*H series began with the novel, M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors written by Richard Hooker [a pseudonym] based on his own experience serving as a surgeon at MASH unit 8055. The novel was originally published in 1968 and was followed by several sequels. It's been decades since I read it. My recollection is that Hooker loved the movie and hated the television series. Altman hated the television series.

M*A*S*H is 38th on my list of favorite movies...Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges) 1941, Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa) 1951, M*A*S*H (Robert Altman) 1970, Tom Jones (Tony Richardson) 1963, Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks) 1973....I don't have a list of all the thousands of movies I've seen, but I do keep a list of 100 with the only requirement for eligibility being that the movie has been in release for at least ten years.

I'm not a huge Altman fan, but I think some of his movies are great, a good many interesting and some terrible. Obviously, I think M*A*S*H one of the great ones.

loner said...

Young Frankenstein was released in 1974. Typing error.

Knucklehead said...

I never found M*A*S*H enjoyable. Now I know why.

If you want to forget how bad M*A*S*H was, sit down and watch Running With Scissors. I'd really like to hear a pro tell me WTF that movie is trying to accomplish. What a piece...

loner said...

knuck—

I'd really like to hear a pro tell me WTF that movie is trying to accomplish.

Why?

Rick Ballard said...

Loner,

Is M*A*S*H higher than Nashville on your list?

I found Ring Lardner Jr.'s caricatures in M*A*S*H a bit 'crayon on butcher paper'ish. Good propaganda shouldn't require big arrows to make the point. Altman did a pretty good job with what he had to work with Nashville is aging better (IMO).

richard mcenroe said...

Another tidbit. M*A*S*H was supposedly the debut of Altman's famous "improvisational style."

Horse radish. I've read the Ring Lardner, Jr. script. Everything in that movie was on the paper. All Altman did was edit it out of sequence to give it a random effect, resulting in several visuals that make no sense.

chuck said...

Next up: The Big Chill. The only sympathetic character had a cameo role, the rest of them were self absorbed, dull, and childish. The film should have been named Ugly People.

I also find Lord of the Rings displacing Dr. Zhivago pretty bizarre. The latter at least had the virtue of being based on real events.

BTW, these days about 1/3 of South Koreans are Christian, many of them evangelicals.

Rick Ballard said...

Chuck,

What in the world do Koreans have to do with M*A*S*H? Sure, a few of them had bit parts, but they weren't part of the real story.

chuck said...

Rick,

I was referring to "Robert Duvall’s character is deemed evil because he tries to teach a Korean kid who hangs out on the base about the Bible."

loner said...

rick—

It is. Much as I like Nashville, I've never been all that impressed with its music (sort of the Dreamgirls complaint that movies about the music industry should have good music) and I was annoyed that there was no "outlaw" singer of the Cash/Kristofferson/Jennings variety in the mix. The political aspects do still amuse.

Lardner was none too happy as I recall with what Altman did with his screenplay. Maybe I'll see if I can track down the novel at this late date.

Over a year ago, MHA and I exchanged a string of e-mails while he was trying to get me to contibute movie reviews to this site after I'd given up on commenting on Sneaky Feet's review of another Altman movie I like, The Long Goodbye.

If I wanted to do a review of M*A*S*H I would have, but I'm going to reproduce some of my words from that series of e-mails just to give you a sense of where I'm coming from with regard to Altman. There are a group of his movies that over the years I've seen quite often and discussed numerous times. From the e-mails:

The main argument of my aborted Robert Altman post was that it is possible to look at his great post-M*A*S*H '70s films (in my view they are McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson) as focusing on many of the same observations/complaints about the forces that form "public opinion" (short term) and create "historical narrative" (long term) as are often expressed by the bloggers at YARGB. "Highlights" included a discussion of McCabe and his past (supposed or otherwise), why The Long Goodbye opens and closes with a "Golden Age" rendition of "Hooray for Hollywood," the blend to lack of separable of the political and the entertaining in Nashville and, well, there is so much going on regarding the shaping of public opinion and historical narrative in Buffalo Bill that it's nearly impossible to
maintain a line of reasoning unless Sitting Bull (as that historical personage is presented in the movie) is being discussed.

I got lost in my many, many thoughts concerning Buffalo Bill and in trying to explain why I don't see Altman as hating humanity though he certainly has no high regard for its self-love: Mahatma Ghandi (when asked what he thought of Western Civilization): "I think that it would be a very good idea."

I also wanted to answer some of the criticisms of The Long Goodbye that I read while looking through the imdb.com user reviews to which Sneakyfeet referred. I began with this:

"You have a somewhat peculiar sense of humor," he said.
"Not peculiar," I said. "Just uninhibited."


...

"I'm afraid I don't like your manner," he said, using the edge of his voice.
"I've had complaints about it," I said. "But nothing seems to do any good."


—Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

That is meant to counter the argument that Chandler's Marlowe, transported into the '70s, wouldn't have borne any resemblance to the character played by Elliott Gould in the movie. I was going to conclude with this passage from The Long Goodbye (I keep my transcriptions):

"Know something?" he asked suddenly, and his voice suddenly seemed much more clear. "I had a male secretary once. Used to dictate to him. Let him go. He bothered me sitting there waiting for me to create. Mistake. Ought to have kept him. Word would have gotten around I was a homo. The clever boys that write book reviews because they can't write anything else would have caught on and started giving me the buildup. Have to take care of their own, you know. They're all queers, every damn one of them. The queer is the artistic arbiter of our age, chum. The pervert is the top guy now."
"That so? Always been around, hasn't he?"
He wasn't looking at me. He was just talking. But he heard what I said.
"Sure, thousands of years. And especially in all the great ages of art. Athens, Rome, the Renaissance, the Elizabethan Age, the Romantic Movement in France—loaded with them. Queers all over the place. Ever read The Golden Bough? No, too long for you. Shorter version though. Ought to read it. Proves our sexual habits are pure conventions like—wearing a black tie with a dinner jacket. Me. I'm a sex writer, but with frills and straight."
He looked up at me and sneered. "You know something? I'm a liar. My heroes are eight feet tall and my heroines have callouses on their bottoms from lying in bed with their knees up. Lace and ruffles, swords and coaches, elegance and leisure, duels and gallant death. All lies. They used perfume instead of soap, their teeth rotted because
they never cleaned them, their fingernails smelled of stale gravy. The nobility of France urinated against the walls in the marble corridors of Versailles, and when you finally got several sets of underclothes off the lovely marquise the first thing you noticed was that she needed a bath. I ought to write it that way."

"Why don't you?"
He chuckled. "Sure, and live in a five-room house in Compton—if I was that lucky."

Somehow that seems to sum it all up. It was published in 1953.

Later e-mail:

Altman did a lot of television between 1955 and 1965. His depictions of violence might (just a guess) have been so graphic in his initial feature films because for so long the real carnage caused by violence couldn't be depicted and it also might have been that he wanted viewers of the time to be shocked because in a lot of previous westerns and crime dramas acts of violence came and went with dizzying regularity without having much of an effect on the other characters or on the audience. Open your eyes!...or not. Forewarned these days is forearmed. Things were a bit different then.

Last e-mail:

My wife and I watched M*A*S*H on Saturday. In the extras Altman talks about the request from on high that he cut all the surgical scenes and in effect says that cutting those scenes would have left a weak comedy. Perhaps it is this dialogue that caused me to note for the first time in a long time just how bloody those scenes are, but you know, I think he's right. All that blood somehow explains/excuses/justifies everything else.

Anyway, enough from me. Best.

Rick Ballard said...

Chuck - sorry. Clumsy irony on my part.

Thanks, Loner. Now I have something additional to ponder. Given that I'm not half way through the Woodrow Wilson comparison I think my summer is booked.

Buddy Larsen said...

The shooting of the kid, on the bridge in the snow nearby the cathouse in McCabe & Mrs Miller, sticks in my mind as one of the most bring-it-on-home murder scenes in moviedom.

jd watson said...

MHA -
Why the photo of Loretta Swit when it was Sally Kellerman who played "Hotlips" in the movie?

MeaninglessHotAir said...

jd watson,

Thanks for pointing that out.

It's not my review, it's Alistair's, so I wasn't really up on which actors got swapped out in the transition to TV, and then I didn't have much time to look around and do it right.

Sorry about that.

Col. B. Bunny said...

Don't forget Ring Lardner's communism:

"During the Spanish Civil War, Lardner moved steadily left in his political thinking, and helped raise funds for the Republican cause. He joined the Communist Party and became involved in organizing anti-fascist demonstrations." IMDB.

The disdain for American values in the script and the movie had everything to do with the fact that Lardner had his lips surgically attached to Stalin's ass and little to do with the minor failings of American society, though no doubt Lardner was in a state of perpetual meltdown over segregated water fountains and normal society's aversion to elevating sodomy to a sacrament.

Assuming all the 4,733 lynchings in the period between 1882 and 1959 (Wikipedia) were blacks, that was a yearly lynching average of 61. In the roughly 70-year history of the Soviet Union, Lardner's pals killed, beat, shot, starved, irradiated, froze, or otherwise eradicated 66,000,000 Russians (Solzhenitsyn), or 2,583 per DAY. The worst was probably over by the mid 50s, so the daily figure is even higher. Even so, the unadjusted kill rate in the U.S.S.R. was 15,456 times higher than that of the U.S.

Fans of "Mash" should keep Larner's sychophancy and inexcusable stupidity in mind to temper their enthusiasm for this "classic" movie.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

col. b. bunny,

But what you don't understand is that Westerners--Americans in particular--must be held to higher standards than mere Russians.

Col. B. Bunny said...

Meaningless,

You got me there. I always forget that rule.

You remind me of that great idea some fellow had back in the '80s when the Sovs were still in business. (Actually they're still in business but let's not go THERE.)

"No promise of socialism is remembered and no defect of capitalism is forgotten."

Buddy Larsen said...

I believe you guys have got "MASH" pretty well pegged. I remember it made me queasy even then, when I was young and nothing if not politically blind.

It was the smart-ass sarcastic attitude to the Korean War, I guess, for even in 1970, I had enough sense to know who had invaded whom, and with whom we had ironclad treaties, and that the UN was also in the fight--on the same side as the USA!

Then the TV series, with the repulsive supreme candy-ass smart-ass "new man" Alan Alda, was to me unwatchable.