'M*A*S*H' Review: "Hand Me That Scalpel Hot Lips"
Though the thousands of you readers may recognize the title from the award-winning and cult classic comedy series, this review concerns the movie adaptation of the book that inspired the hit television series. Helmed by legendary director Robert Altman, M*A*S*H is a diamond amongst Altman’s filmography. A collection – if I might add – that is a jewel unto itself. Centered around the hilarious antics of the so-called Mobile Army Surgical Hospital or MASH unit, the film is a buffet of black humor, colorful characters, unforgettable adventures and, more subtly, a psychological examination on dealing with the stress of war.
M*A*S*H, be it the show, movie or novel, is principally known as a comedy. There is no denying that the pranks, gags and distractions riddled throughout all three is a source for hours of laughs. Altman’s mastery of dry wit and humor based more on the absence of a punchline rather than the inclusion is what makes the jokes in M*A*S*H. His dedication to the several running gags throughout the film payoff immensely at the right moments. For instance, the radio speaker who consistently fails at announcing messages correctly or the assistant to the Colonel, Radar, who is always predicting the Colonel’s orders as he announces them. Though in description they may seem minor their on-screen delivery is what makes them. Again, the lack of an attempt at humor is why they’re so funny in the first place, making the film a true testament to the value of understated esprit.
Under a weaker cast however, the same level of razor sharp wit couldn’t be guaranteed. Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould star as the main protagonists Hawkeye and Trapper respectively. Self-described “cutters” (surgeons), the pair are the most important of the ensemble picture. When not hacking away at the leg of a soon-to-be amputee or removing shrapnel from arteries, they involve themselves in the pursuit of finer thing; martinis, poker or endless sexual romps. Sutherland never fails to impress me in his flexibility as an actor, he embodies the rapier-like wit of Hawkeye so comfortably that it’s hard to believe that isn’t Sutherland just being himself. Similarly, Gould plays the chest cutter Trapper with unbelievable ease. Not to understate the rest of the cast, Robert Duvall, Tom Skerritt and Sally Kellerman all fit the roles of their characters nicely. Never once can you question the authenticity of their actions because of their skilled portrayal.
The almost unbelievable antics that occur during the film may detract some audiences from its dedication to the environment. The MASH unit is only miles away from the Korean frontline and amongst the dozens of bodies rolled through the camp during the movie, some of the ridiculous stunts pulled by the medical staff can seem slightly unrealistic. This however, is where M*A*S*H truly shines from other comedies centered around war. The understated humor is only one piece of that argument, the deeper metaphor in M*A*S*H however is another beast entirely. In the film you’ll see Hawkeye, Trapper, Duke and many others downplay just about every serious situation. In the operation room amidst blood and countless amphetamines the surgeons will crack jokes just the same as they would in a bar.
Specifically, the characters of Sutherland and Gould make it their duty above all else to keep that spirit of apparent carelessness alive. Therein lies the true message that writer Ring Lardner Jr is trying to deliver. That the nature of war is so violent and devoid of all life and meaning that it becomes the duty of the participants in such a conflict to fill that hole, or at the very least ignore it. Trapper and Hawkeye aren’t just jokers trying to fish for a few laughs, they are giving themselves the reason to keep working in such a horrific setting. Drafted as medical doctors they had no choice but to help the injured on the warfront, the least they can do during their time abroad is to keep a little sanity through humor and fun. M*A*S*H never spells out the toll of wartime stress on a soldier’s mind anywhere in the movie, but the fun and games mixed with the tense atmosphere of the operating room make a clear enough contrast.
In its pursuit to be an intelligent and unique comedy, M*A*S*H became something much more. Aside from its generation spanning humor with the immensely popular T.V show, the film is a shining example of clever humor, fantastic acting and a black comedy film that successfully balances the line between analytical and down-right hilarious. I’ve seen maybe a few episodes of the show here and there, but if as a whole it is anything like the movie, I’ll be sure to watch it. Like a well-made martini, M*A*S*H is dry and delicious and leaves you hungering for more.