Thursday, January 10, 2013
Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 3/4/07 w/ Additional Edits.
Based on the novel by Richard Hooker, M.A.S.H. is the story about an eccentric group of medical personnel working during the Korean War as they defy the world of the military and all sorts of authority. Directed by Robert Altman and screenplay by Ring Lardner, the film is an exploration into the world of military service and how some deal with their time. With an all-star cast that includes Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Bud Cort, Rene Auberjonois, Tom Skerritt, Fred Williamson, Roger Bowen, John Schuck, and Michael Murphy. M.A.S.H. is an absurd yet chaotic war-comedy from Robert Altman.
It's the Korean War as two surgeons named Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Duke (Tom Skerritt) arrived onto base and steal a jeep to go the M.A.S.H. unit miles away from where the fighting is going on. They meet their superior, Lt. Col. Blake (Roger Bowen) along with Cpl. "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff), Father "Dago Red" Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois), and dentist Capt. "Painless Pole" Waldowski (John Schuck). While Hawkeye and Duke were drafted into the war, they reveal to be just ordinary guys that just want to help people. Unfortunately, they're forced to live in the same tent with the religious, tough Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). Going on with their business in surgery and flirting with nurses including Lt. "Dish" Schneider (Jo Ann Pflug), Hawkeye finds a new partner in arriving surgeon in "Trapper John" McIntyre (Elliott Gould).
Trapper John doesn't like the way things are run, especially when Burns blames the death of a patient on an orderly named Private Boone (Bud Cort). Trapper John responds to Burns' attitude by punching him just as new head nurse Major Margaret O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) arrives. O'Houlihan's arrival only increases Trapper John and Hawkeye's battle against authority. When they learn that O'Houlihan is having an affair with the married Burns, they learn her nickname to be "Hot Lips" as the medical personnel decide to play a prank on them. After getting Burns into the hot seat, John and Hawkeye continue to work on their wily ways while getting help from their Korean assistant Ho-Jon (Kim Atwood). When Hawkeye learns that Painless Pole is dealing with a problem that reveals that he's not a Don Juan, he finds a solution that will help him as the entire personnel including some reluctance from Dago Red, get involved. After another prank that involved Hot Lips, Hot Lips threatens to resign to Col. Blake.
When John and Hawkeye continue their wild ways, they learn that they can go to Japan to help operate on the son of a congressman. Still, dealing with the authority, Hawkeye and John continue to break the rules as they demand for some food and time to play golf and meet women with the building's doctor Capt. "Me Lay" Marston IV (Michael Murphy). Returning from Japan, they learn that General Hammond (G. Wood) wants to challenge Col. Blake for a football match with his unit. The rowdy personnel including Hot Lips decide to get a ringer named Spearchucker (Fred Williamson) for help to win some money. There, the general is forced to see for himself what the M.A.S.H. unit is really all about.
While films about war often show different sides of what goes on and off the battlefield. Robert Altman chooses to go outside of not just the battlefield but the conventions of war films by making not just an anti-war film but also anti-military. There's not a lot of mention of what was going on in the Korean War but rather as an allegory of sorts about Vietnam and its intentions. So, Altman chooses to explore the military in all of its absurdity and find characters that audiences can relate to. Then there's the story or rather... the lack of a story and plot. Still, Altman chooses to make fun of these things and defy authority through the film's central characters and supporting roles.
While the screenplay and story revels on what it was like working in the M.A.S.H. unit, it's really about a few, ordinary men trying to do their jobs and live their life while trying not to be pushed by their authority figures. Conflict is an important part of the film as characters such as Hawkeye and Trapper John duke it out with anyone like the mean Frank Burns who blames patients deaths on interns or Hot Lips for her strict guidelines. Yet, Altman's direction that is filled with chaos, overlapping dialogue between characters, and scenes that included more than two people in a frame. This became known as the Altman style and it feels very real to its audience where everyone from the big lead to a supporting player gets to have their moments. While the film incorporates a lot of style into this war comedy that includes a lot of low-brow humor and a football game in the end. To the casual film goer, it seems like one too many genres in a film yet Altman makes the film consistent through its irreverent humor where as a result, it's a no-holds-barred, witty comedy about war and the little people involved.
Cinematographer Harold E. Stine does excellent work in capturing the surreal, worldly look of the army bases and cities that the M.A.S.H. unit visit. Art directors Arthur Lonergan, Jack Martin Smith, and Michael Friedman also do excellent work in creating the tents and quirky look of the camps as well as some of the Japanese bases and sushi restaurants. Editor Danford B. Greene does excellent work in bringing rhythm and style to the film's editing with some perspective cuts as well as playing to the film's humor. Sound mixers Bernard Freericks and John D. Stack do great work on the sound to convey the atmosphere and mood of the scenes and settings they're in. Composer Johnny Mandel brings a comical film score to the film while the famous song Suicide Is Painless by Mandell and lyrics by then 14-year old Mike Altman is wonderfully funny ballad about one of the film's characters.
Then there's the cast which is very important to any Altman film. Notable small yet memorable performances from G. Wood, Kim Atwood, Indus Arthur as Col. Blake's mistress, Bobby Troup as Staff Sgt. Gorman, Cathleen Cordell as the head nurse in Japanese base, Danny Goldman as Cpt. Murrhardt, Corey Fischer as Cpt. Bandini, and in their film debuts, Fred Williamson as Spearchucker and Bud Cort as an intern. The voice of Sal Viscuso is very memorable for all the information he reveals about what movies are playing and such. Other small performances from Altman regulars Michael Murphy and Rene Auberjonois are wonderfully memorable for the brief scenes they're in while series regular Gary Burghoff is funny as Radar. Jo Ann Pflug is excellent as the nurse Lt. "Dish" Schneider while John Schuck gives a great performance as Painless Pole. Roger Bowen is wonderfully funny as the leading authority figure Lt. Col. Blake with his own quirky ideas about leading a unit.
Though he's known for dramatic roles, Robert Duvall is given to do a bit of comedy as the insane, religious Frank Burns. Duvall is great in willing to play a comic foil who takes himself too seriously and is willing to compromise his own beliefs. Sally Kellerman is wonderfully funny as another comic foil in Hot Lips with her hysterical behavior after her humiliating moments and her cheering as a cheerleader. Kellerman is very funny in the role that is definitely memorable. Tom Skerritt is also great as Duke with his mischievous ways and love for dope and Hot Lips. Donald Sutherland gives a wonderfully laid-back, funny performance as the easy-going Hawkeye who likes to flirt and cause trouble. Altman regular Elliott Gould is also extremely funny as Hawkeye's partner-in-chaos Trapper John with his hatred for authority and willingness to cause chaos. Gould and Sutherland really own the film by just adding memorable moment and one-liners after another.
M.A.S.H. is an off-the-wall yet extremely hilarious film from Robert Altman. Armed with a great ensemble cast and biting themes on war and authority, it is definitely one of the great films about military service. Notably as it isn't afraid to poke fun at the dark side of dealing with death and such. For those new to Robert Altman, this film is definitely one of the best places to start. In the end, M.A.S.H. is an incredibly funny film from Robert Altman.
Robert Altman Films: (The Delinquents) - (The James Dean Story) - Countdown (1968 film) - (That Cold Day in the Park) - (Brewster McCloud) - McCabe & Mrs. Miller - (Images) - (The Long Goodbye) - (Thieves Like Us) - California Split - Nashville - Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson - 3 Women - (A Wedding) - (Quintet) - (A Perfect Couple) - (HealtH) - Popeye - (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) - (Streamers) - (Secret Honor) - (O.C. and Stiggs) - Fool for Love - (Beyond Therapy) - (Aria-Les Boreades) - (Tanner ‘88) - (Vincent & Theo) - The Player - Short Cuts - Pret-a-Porter - (Kansas City) - (The Gingerbread Man) - Cookie’s Fortune - Dr. T & the Women - Gosford Park - The Company (2003 film) - (Tanner on Tanner) - A Prairie Home Companion
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