MASH Film Review
By: Chloe Massoni
Robert Altman’s film, MASH is a black comedy war film set during the Korean War. The story focuses on the doctors in the war, the conditions in which they live, and the manner in which they make their station bearable. After braving the hour and fifty-six minutes of hell, I can tell you this film is a failed attempt at exposing the hardships of being deported as a medical professional, forced to experience the gruesome injuries endured by the young soldiers, in a light, comedic manner. Full disclosure: I was so utterly uninterested by Altman’s creation that I dreaded re-watching the film to write this review.
Donald Sutherland plays Captain Hawkeye Pierce, alongside actor, Tom Skerritt, as Captain Duke Forrest—two womanizing, goofy, frivolous doctors. Robert Duvall takes on the role of Major Frank Burns, a stiff, religious, and traditionalist who is uninterested in the childish humor of his surrounding doctors, and who takes his job very seriously. He commands attention and competency from his co-workers. Nurse Major Margaret O’Houlihan, played by Sally Kellerman, has a similar high-strung personality to Frank. Hawkeye and Duke Forrest nurture their skill of getting under Frank and Margaret’s skin throughout the film, broadcasting an affair between Margaret and Frank around the camp, and nicknaming Margaret “Hot Lips.” The performances are subpar, and are overshadowed by the lack of direction in this movie.
The film is mind-numbingly slow and seems to be without purpose or storyline. The only entertaining parts of the entire movie are the offensive jokes and scenes because they at least provide something memorable to the otherwise dull string of scenes. The jokes are overdramatized, seemingly in an effort to force laughter, probably because Altman needs the cracks to be outstanding in order to drag the audience from one scene to the next due to the obvious lack of plot pushing the storyline forward. While watching the movie I admit that I laughed, but when I got up out of my movie seat I realized how long I had been waiting for the movie to end and how much I did not want to sit through another agonizingly dragging viewing of the film.
If Altman did not intend to produce a movie meant for a liberal audience, then he missed a perfect opportunity to do anything successful with this production. A reformist audience may be offended by the harsh and sexist jokes, but should find this movie comical, as it is so extreme that it mocks the rigid ways of the traditionalists with its offensive jokes.
The young radical audience may enjoy the commentary on the idiocrasy of the actions of those in the military. Altman uses the film as commentary on the military itself, noting that the United States forces people to join against their will, creating a service force that is not professional nor very successful. The doctors traipse around and do things they are not supposed to do because they are not committed to their jobs as they have been forced against their will to be overseas. When Hot Lips asks how such an undignified man, as Hawkeye, could be a doctor in the military, someone replies, “He was drafted.” Distancing the doctors from their patients also serves as commentary as these doctors make jokes and talk while they perform gory operations.
The only doctor that has any pride or interest in his work is Frank, and the other doctors mock the man for his faith, his need for faith, and for his commitment to his work. They cannot understand Frank’s anger with the male nurse who is too ignorant and ditzy to get supplies fast enough for Frank to save a wounded soldier; in fact, Trapper John punches Frank for yelling at the male nurse for his incompetence that cost a soldier his life. You would expect that other doctors would relate to the kind of passion that would lead a doctor to yell at a nurse when a patient dies because the nurse does not do their job properly. This film comments on the lack of passion that these doctors have overseas, maybe because they have no desire to be there and are only there because they are forced to be.
Altman is very successful in his commentary and in the formation of jokes that are consistent in humor type; and though I wish that I could give the director a round of applause for a nice effort, that simply would not be fair to you, my audience, who rely on my reviews to steer you away from two hours of misery in the movie theater. So here is my final message: a few good jokes and a good intention for these jokes do not make an entertaining movie nor one worth seeing, and I can assure you, that this film cannot be described by either of those terms.