AFI #54: M*A*S*H

In my lifetime there have only been a few situation comedies that rank among the greats — Seinfeld, Cheers, Taxi and one of the best ever, M*A*S*H. The characters were unforgettable and the writing superb. Hawkeye, Trapper, Radar, Colonel Blake, Frank Burns and of course Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. The television show was a fixture for me growing up and to this day I can’t move on when I stumble across an old episode on cable. Which is why it’s so hard for me to love the film version from which the TV show spawned. I like the film, but I don’t love it like I do the TV version. Disagree if you like, but this is my blog!

That being said, the film version of M*A*S*H has a lot going for it. To begin with, the writing is brilliant. Ring Lardner Jr. won an Academy Award for the screenplay, which by the way was based on the book by Richard Hooker. Lardner delivered some memorable words, most of which were uttered by the sardonic Hawkeye and the lead troll Trapper. It’s a non-stop delight of wit and humor, and that in and of itself makes the film worthy of its place on the AFI list. But of course the lines had to be uttered by great actors and Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould were wonderful as Hawkeye and Trapper. I definitely like Alda’s Hawkeye better, but Gould’s Trapper kills Wayne Rogers’ version. Gould steals the film for my money and he was never better than in M*A*S*H.

The other thing that was cool about the film version versus the TV show was that the film was made in 1970 and since it was rated R it got away with a lot more vulgarity than the television version. Could you imagine an African American character being named “Spearchucker Jones” on TV? Or this exchange between Hawkeye and Frank:

Hawkeye Pierce: Morning, Frank. Heard from your wife? A bunch of the boys asked me to, uh, ask you, Frank, what Hot Lips was like in the sack. You know, was she…
Frank Burns: Mind your own business.
Hawkeye Pierce: No Frank, you know, is she better than self-abuse? Does that…does that big ass of hers move around a lot, Frank or does it sort of lie there flaccid? What would you say about that?

Classic. Hawkeye and Trapper are two of the great characters ever written and both the TV show and the film prove this point.

I do have one complaint about the film, though. Why can’t Robert Altman allow one actor to speak at a time? He drives me crazy with his “stream of consciousness” dialogue treatment. It may be realistic, but it’s hard to follow. I felt the same way about Altman’s Nashville which I reviewed earlier in this countdown. Damn Altman is overrated (except for The Player).

Next on the AFI list are back-to-back De Niro favorites: Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter.

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3 thoughts on “AFI #54: M*A*S*H

  1. Len, we may have to revoke your blog privileges–at least the ones relating to movie reviews–after this latest abomination.

    You did get it right, IMHO, about Gould being the far superior Trapper John and Sutherland and Gould together being dynamite. But to talk about M*A*S*H without the incredible performance by Robert Duvall as the hypocritical Frank Burns is sad.

    Most sad though is the bizarre love the American people have for the misbegotten, mismanaged abomination that was the TV show (and, ironically, the book). The TV show was nothing but a mishMASH of watered down, too-little-too-late platitudes with nothing but the admittedly well-delivered wisecracking style of Alda and the inimitable Radar O’Reilly. In short, the TV MASH is to the movie MASH what the sappy Happy Days was to the delightful American Graffiti — a pathetic, treacly bit of blancmange aimed at middle American Christians.

    The TV show has none of the bite and take-no-prisoners attitude of Altman’s masterpiece. The movie takes on mainstream Christianity with a vengeance, from the masterful title theme (“Suicide is painless”–portraying Christ’s death as a suicide which causes no pain to someone who is actually God, using the graphic metaphors of the Last Supper tableau and “Painless,” the best equipped dentist in the army who arises the next day like Jesus…feeling no pain) to the incessant prayerful mumblings of Frank Burns who spouts Christianity while blaming an orderly for the death of his patient and carrying on with the head nurse. (no pun intended).

    The movie, meanwhile, also takes on the senselessness of war while mocking the “regular army” mentality and the idea that there can be such a thing as “good military medicine.” The movie’s ultra-graphic operating room scenes are gory on purpose to awaken a lively sense of the horrors of wartime medicine.

    The TV show? Well at best it takes on military bumbling and some day to day hypocrisies of upper management. The TV show brought nothing to the table but “those wacky wisecracking military cut-ups with little patience for management incompetence.”

    As for the trademark Altman sound-on-sound technique, it’s an tremendously innovative technique that captures, for the most part successfully (IMHO), the welter and buzz of real life, denying the theatrical convention that dialogue takes place with one person talking and then another person responding — with some overlap (when skillfully directed). I’m not sure I want all my movies to have that as a basic cinematic format but in the hands of the then-seasoned Altman, it’s a cinematic coup.

    And the sound design of the movie synchs wonderfully with Altman’s often dizzying overhead camera movements portraying Camp Swampy as a true jury-rigged outpost of a temporary hospital town.

    After MASH the movie we could never look at wartime medicine or wartime Christianity the same.

    “How do you want your eggs?” and “Send us at least one nurse who can work in close without getting her tits in the way.” “You can’t really savor a martini without an olive, otherwise it just doesn’t quite make it.”

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