Posted by Alistair.
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.