MASH (1970) – Robert Altman

“And then there was Korea…”

Robert Altman’s classic war comedy, MASH, is the first recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of Apocalypse Now.

The movie remains very funny, and it’s anti-war commentary is just as important today. That being said, this is not the MASH I grew up with. As a child of the seventies, Alan Alda will always be my Hawkeye Pierce. The series was a staple of our family life, something we would share together, even when we were not on the best of terms.

In the film, a thinly veiled representation of the Vietnam war, surgeon Captain Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) are assigned to Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 4077.

There their laid back and disrespectful attitudes serve as a counterpoint to the military structure of the army. Not that there is a lot of it in the unit. The colonel, Henry Blake (Roger Bowen) is oblivious, and it would seem that his corporeal, Radar (Gary Burghoff – the only cast member to transition to the series) knows more about everything than he does.

When Hawkeye’s old schoolmate Trapper John (Elliot Gould) arrives, the duo are unstoppable in taking on authority, even as they stitch up the bloodied bodies, the results of the conflict that is taking place a few short miles away.

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Through a series of vignettes the story guides us through the the incompetence of bureaucracy as well as the anti-war message of the film. There are things that are just damned funny, like getting Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) sectioned, while some sexism and racism is troubling.

It’s of note that everything is clean, dirty, and bloody. Except for that great American ideal, football. The 4077th, betting and conning another team, are in sharp red colours, while their opponents are in blue. And despite the rough and tumble nature of the game, everything looks to remain pristine – as if memories of home keep things perfect.

Altman’s usual method of recording multiple actors dialogue at once, so that they overlap like real conversations is prevalent here. That along with the realisation that a large portion of the film’s dialogue was improvised adds to the anarchic nature of the war and it’s effect.

I had seen this film a couple of times growing up, but this time, as I sat and actually watched it, I enjoyed it more than I had before. The hectic way it appears to be shot, the way Altman crafts his images, as well as cuts together his dialogue makes for a very enjoyable film.

I love seeing Gould and Sutherland stir up troubles as their characters, and understand, more than ever, the commentary that is running through out all of it, the bloody, futility of war.

That is all.

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