MASH (1970)


Directed by Robert Altman

The military surgeons of MASH act like they’re at summer camp, rather than at war.  Nothing is ever taken too seriously, even as soldiers are rushed through with violent, often fatal injuries.  Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and John McIntyre (Elliot Gould) are so distant from the war, yet they see the brutality of such violence up close.

The film is structured like Animal House.  There is a group of untamed, drinking, partying men (in this case surgeons) who couldn’t care less about rules, etiquette, fidelity or even death.  There is no overarching plot beyond the antics these characters get involved with.  When something is set up, it is quickly or eventually abandoned.  This includes actual lines of dialogue (the voice on the loudspeaker often just gives up halfway through any announcement) as well as the consequences to anyone’s actions.

Before we even know who Hawkeye is, we see him steal a jeep.  The military police follow, but their tire pops, and Hawkeye gets away.  At the very end of the film, someone asks if Hawkeye had stolen a jeep, and another person says he didn’t because he drove up in his own jeep.  There is no further investigation into the matter because that would require time and energy.

The doctors work hard when they need to, but otherwise they drink, sleep, sleep around, play golf and eventually form a football team to hustle another platoon out of thousands of dollars.

Early conflict arises between the team of Hawkeye and McIntyre and the devoutly Christian Frank Burns (Robert Duvall).  Burns yells at a young intern-looking doctor, implying that his mistake killed a patient (untrue), and McIntyre punches Burns, angry that he would blame this kid.  McIntyre is ordered to be arrested, but he shoes the MP away and goes on with his day.

Burns very much does not fit in with the rest of the surgical unit, and when word gets out that he is sleeping with Major Margaret O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), he is embarrassed, angry and ruthlessly mocked, mainly by Hawkeye.  Hawkeye goads Burns into hitting him, and Burns is arrested but he military police.  He doesn’t return and is quickly forgotten.

The story just bounces around among small vignettes that add up to nothing other than an illustration of the ways these characters live, allowing you to decide what the broader takeaways are (anti-war?  anti-everything?).

The military dentists confuses that he’s gay, and he wants to commit suicide.  Hawkeye and the others facilitate his funeral, even holding a last supper for him.  Of course, the dentist doesn’t die though he does go through with it.  McIntyre gives him what must be a sleeping pill, and Hawkeye gets a female Lieutenant to sleep with the dentist, thus confirming his heterosexuality, it seems.  This is all a game to Hawkeye and McIntyre, and once again the story moves onto the next thing.

At one point they play golf in Japan, peep on Major O’Houlihan in the shower and then the final twenty or so minutes follows them as they get a ringer (a former NFL player) to help them hustle and then defeat another military football team.  In fact, Hawkeye and McIntyre are hardly in this sequence.  They show up in the game, only really visible in the huddle, but other than that it’s not about them.  It’s about the group of guys as a whole.

There is no point in the film in which Hawkeye or McIntyre look at anything around them seriously.  They laugh in the face of everything with no consequences to their detachment.  They’re not even prideful.  They’re just content to perform a job assigned to them (they were drafted), and then live as much in the moment as possible afterwards.

The film opens with a dead or dying body airlifted to the medical camp with the song “Suicide is Painless” playing.  It’s a very dark image, of a ravaged corpse and bold allusions to the suicide.

That game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card of some delay
So this is all I have to say
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
I can take or leave it if I please
Already, the film sets itself up as both darkly confrontational and darkly comic.  There is no shying around the death at the center of the film and of the war, but the film never dives into it.  To put it another way, I suppose a lot of war films start with characters aware of the possibility of death and then deeply affected by it (whether them or fellow soldiers) by the end.  In MASH, the characters are already deeply familiar with their own mortality.  They have no illusions about the nature of death at the end of the film, but neither do they at the beginning.  Their relationship to death is unchanged by the war.  This might be because they have previously been doctors and surgeons, already in touch with violence, blood and mortality.  Or maybe it’s because they never have to take up arms in war.  The only time we see or hear a gunshot is during the football game, used to mark the end of the quarter.
So… plenty of war films decry war as violent and senseless.  Full Metal Jacket shows how its characters are effectively killed by and reborn within war, and Saving Private Ryan shows how chaotic war is as well as how its characters died in service of a questionable mission.  MASH doesn’t bother getting into the politics of war because someone like Hawkeye and McIntyre would just get bored with it.  I think the film treats its audience the same way, implying that we already know how stupid war is.  This film came out in 1970, well into the Vietnam War, so I have to assume the movie capitalized on the anti-war sentiment throughout the country.
The whole film is a joke, and as I mentioned earlier, the war feels like summer camp.  I’m still not sure what the bigger point is because there doesn’t seem to be one.  You might be able to discuss Hawkeye and McIntyre as disenchanted, postmodern characters who dabble more in irony, sarcasm, nihilism and alcoholism, and that’s all true.  But the film ends with a mock trailer about the film you just watched, showing a degree of self-referentiality.  The film, then, is just as much about being a film than it is being a war film.
From what I know about Robert Altman, he rejected a lot of traditional filmmaking techniques and structures.  That influences how I viewed the end of the film (as if it’s all some anti-joke), and it also helps explain the improvisatory dialogue and heavily overlapping dialogue.
Another way of rephrasing it, is that there is no effective communication in the film.  Very early on, a general or leader of some kind tries to explain a set of commands to a guy named Radar.  Rather than listening, Radar just talks right over his commander, but the commander doesn’t even seem to notice.  I had no idea what was said, and neither did they yet they left the conversation acting as if they understood each other clearly.
This extends to the lack of consequences I touched on earlier.  When characters are ordered to be arrested, they’re not arrested, when O’Houlihan complains to her commander that she’s being mistreated and referred to in a derogatory way, as Hot Lips, the commander simply calls her Hot Lips and tells her to leave if she’s so pissed.  No one cares, and no one communicates, except only some of them are aware of this inability to communicate.
Those characters, I suppose, are Hawkeye and McIntyre.  They see through the facade of the military, the war, constructed roles, etc.  They do whatever they please, are always in control (they blackmail another general with ease) and they have no illusions about what any of this means (nothing).  Sure, they probably don’t want to be involved in the war, but they’re not complaining either.  They just exist in the easiest way they know how.
The film’s characters find meaning, conversely, in everything they do.  I think a way of looking at nihilism or Nietzsche (from my limited Nietzchen knowledge) is that nothing matters, thus everything matters.  That’s probably wrong, but my point is that Hawkeye and McIntyre try pretty hard at the things they do in this film.  Sure they’re skilled surgeons, but they also go all in on their schemes, ideas, ruses, etc.  They somehow half-ass everything and nothing.  They pursue their drinking the same way they try to win the football game, with a well-orchestrated plan.

I guess my feelings when the film ended, with the trailer about itself, were that Altman was telling us that we probably missed the point with this film.  We watch it and laugh, and maybe there are political undertones, but at the end of the day it’s just a film.  If you overanalyze it, you’re an idiot, because these aren’t real people.  If you under analyze it, well you’re stupid because you only watch it because it’s funny, completely missing the point of the film and what it has to say about people, politics, community, social structures and violence.  So I don’t know what I’m supposed to think about it, but it’s a funny movie.  This might be the most underwhelming way to end this post, kind of like ending a movie with a trailer about the movie.

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