Saturday, January 1, 2011

M*A*S*H (1970)


          A brilliant antiwar comedy that turned Robert Altman into an A-list director, cemented the stardom of Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, inspired one of the most beloved series in TV history, and pissed off supporters of America’s involvement in Vietnam without once uttering the word “Vietnam,” M*A*S*H encapsulates almost everything that made the counterculture movies of the ’70s wonderful. Brash, inappropriate, and vulgar, the picture tackles a controversial topic from an unexpected angle, resulting in outrageous comedy setpieces, seamless acting work by a terrific ensemble, and touching moments of unexpected humanity. Plus, even though some of Altman’s excesses are plainly visible, like his tendency toward misogynistic portrayals of attractive women, M*A*S*H is his most accessible movie, displaying all of his clever storytelling techniques without getting sidetracked by his esoteric narrative interests.
          The story, of course, depicts the wild adventures at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, focusing on three gifted peacenik doctors drafted into military service: “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerritt), “Trapper” John McIntyre (Gould), and “Hawkeye” Pierce (Sutherland). To numb themselves against the insanity of war—and the inanity of military bureaucracy—they spend their downtime bedding nurses, downing copious amounts of homemade booze, and violating every imaginable code of conduct. Their primary nemesis is another surgeon, the impossibly straight-laced Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), who preaches a nice god-mother-and-country line even though he’s a having an illicit affair with nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Skerritt's funny and loose, though he gets eclipsed as Gould and Sutherland congeal into a perfect comedy team over the course of their first (and best) film together. Playing broader types, Duvall and Kellerman strike satirical sparks lampooning conservative hypocrisy.
          The supporting cast is deep and democratic, with Rene Auberjonois, Roger Bowen, Bud Cort, Jo Ann Pflug, John Schuck, Fred Wiliamson, and others all getting memorably outrageous things to do, plus the movie includes Gary Burgoff’s first appearance as his indelible character “Radar” O’Reilly, the ESP-equipped company clerk he played during most of the M*A*S*H series’ historic 11-year run.
          Working from Ring Lardner Jr.’s Oscar-nominated script, which in turn was based on a novel by Richard Hooker, Altman presents a string of irreverent scenes, like the football game in which doctors use syringes to dope the opposition, Hawkeye and Trapper’s debauched field trip to Japan, and the famous “Suicide is Painless” sequence that spotlights the franchise’s moody theme song (with lyrics!) while giving a shout-out to the Last Supper. From start to finish, the film achieves a delicate balance by satirizing everything inhuman about the military while at the same time celebrating the sacrifices of honorable men and women, so it’s a deeply felt statement that made waves when the movie was released in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War. Bloody, funny, raunchy, serious, silly, and smart, M*A*S*H set a standard for tonally unpredictable satire that few films have matched since.

M*A*S*H: OUTTA SIGHT

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