Wednesday, February 10, 2010

“Follow the zany antics of our combat surgeons as they cut and stitch their way along the front lines operating as bombs and bullets burst around them; snatching laughs and love between amputations and penicillin.”

M*A*S*H, I’m sure you know all about it. After all, an episode from the TV series is probably playing right this minute on some channel. However, before the long-running series, there was a novel, and in between there was a 1970 Robert Altman film, which is where this little paragraph becomes relevant.

So in wartime setting that is basically Vietnam thinly veiled as Korea (it was released in 1970, after all), a couple of recently drafted doctors arrive at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. And then they proceed to do two things: operate on wounded soldiers while on duty and misbehave in a completely politically incorrect way while off duty. That’s pretty much the plot. Oh yeah, and they play a game of football at the end.

Hawkeye Pierce: Donald Sutherland is our main character, a bespectacled, Boonie-hat wearing doc with a penchant for lady nurses (even though he’s married) and for saying “finest kind.” He also has a trademark whistle for when he’s surprised, or amazed or whatever. Extraordinarily laid back, he starts off his tour by basically stealing a jeep (well, Duke thought he was the driver for it and told him to drive) and, well, he’s awesome. I know I’m speaking blasphemy, but I prefer his Hawkeye Pierce to Alan Alda’s.

Trapper John McIntyre: Elliott Gould is a “chest cutter” surgeon and one of the best. He transfers in to the 4077 and gets bunked with Hawkeye & Duke in “the Swamp,” immediately making a good impression by bringing olives for martinis.

Duke Forrest: Tom Skerritt is Hawkeye’s immediate buddy for the movie and he’s the more lewd of the duo. Essentially, Duke, Hawkeye & Trapper John are our three anti-heroes who are just trying to get by in a place they don’t really want to be.

“Hot Lips” O’Houlihan: Sally Kellerman plays the chief of nurses who’s a firm believer in the Army and following proper protocols. This of course does not sit well with our heroes, who end up pulling a lot of pranks on her in compromising situations. One of which is how she gets the nickname “Hot Lips.”

Major Frank Burns: Robert Duvall is the first roommate Hawkeye & Duke have, and he’s a sanctimonious, self-righteous ass with a holier than thou attitude. He also blames some of the younger staff for patient deaths, so that really gets him on our anti-heroes bad side.

Colonel Henry Blake: Roger Bowen is the commander of the 4077, and he’s mostly an absent-minded, lazy, harmless fool who doesn’t know (or willfully ignores) what’s going on in the camp and usually gets walked on by characters more clever than him.

Father John “Dago Red” Mulcahy: Rene Auberjonois (who’s done a ton of voice over work and was Odo on Deep Space Nine) is the Catholic chaplain of the camp. In contrast to Maj. Burns, he’s a friendly, cheerful and helpful guy, but also out of place because there's not much he can do. The other characters tolerate him fairly well, they just keep him out of the loop for their more naughty antics.

Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly: Gary Burghoff (who was also Radar on the series) is the bespectacled assistant to Col. Blake, and basically the guy who really runs the day-to-day workings of the camp. He finishes the colonel’s sentences, knows all the loopholes, and frequently participates in and makes sure Blake doesn’t know the kind of shenanigans going on behind his back. Radar is badass.

Dr. Oliver Wendell “Spearchucker” Jones: Fred Williamson is a black doctor who transfers to the camp, but that’s not the reason why they get him. He was also an all-star football player, and the 4077 needs him as a ringer for the game at the end against another Army unit.

“Painless” Waldowski: John Schuck plays the staff dentist who’s got a reputation for being well equipped. He kind of loses it when said equipment fails to function properly during an intimate moment, and he becomes despondent, convinces himself he’s suddenly homosexual and then starts thinking suicide. Hawkeye & the gang decide to snap him out of it by indulging his suicide fantasy, throwing an extravagant wake for him (coffin and everything) and giving him a sleeping pill, and then hooking him up with a nurse who’s leaving for home in the morning. I don’t think I could’ve made that up if I tried.

Robert Altman’s visual aesthetic for the movie is a very gritty style with muted colors. It’s a comedy, so that kind of stuff takes precedence, with lots of sight gags and dialog. However, you never lose sight of the fact that this is a military camp during a war; and while you never see any actual combat stuff, the constant barrage of wounded that filter into the hospital and the completely nihilistic tone (and behavior of the staff) makes a very strong statement without being preachy about it. There’s also some boobies.

Novel by Richard Hooker, screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr. (one of the in/famous Hollywood 10 that were blacklisted in the 1950s), which is kind of funny when you think about it, since Hooker’s novel swings to the right and the movie swings to the left. So, really, there’s a M*A*S*H for everybody, dirty communists and dirty fascists alike. Lardner won an Oscar for the screenplay, which is funny as well, since most of the dialog was improvised. The movie is also famously accepted as the first to say “fuck” in a major motion picture. Watch it yourself and try to find it.

Score by Johnny Mandel, which works fine, but M*A*S*H is probably most famous for its moody theme song, “Suicide is Painless” with its extraordinarily bleak lyrics (that they understandably kept out of the TV version). What’s more notable? The lyrics were written by Robert Altman’s then 14-year old son, Mike.

The thing about M*A*S*H is that it’s an incredibly dark black comedy. Sure, none of the main characters are in any real danger, and not a whole lot actually happens, but the comedy comes from trying to cope with the stresses of civilian professionals being drafted and shipped off to a place they don’t want to be and working under very difficult conditions, and they can’t just leave. And these people don’t exactly rise to the occasion through clean living and virtuous acts. Though these questionable ethics lead to some truly wicked comedy. This is probably the best anti-war movie I’ve ever seen, because you never see the cool explosions and lovingly choreographed action scenes, only the bloody harvest that results from it. Honestly, I like it better than the TV series. Totally recommended.

Be aware that this trailer is kinda/sorta/close to being NSFW.

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