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.