In Korea, 1951, the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital receives two new surgeons in the forms of Captain Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Capatin Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt). They aren’t what you’d typically expect from army surgeons, preferring to put a large portion of their efforts into relaxing and goofing off instead of actually getting down to work, which doesn’t sit well with the current head surgeon, Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). Burns, who also shares a tent with the new recruits, is a religious man who abstains from alcohol, so is essentially the polar opposite of the newcomers, so they set about having him removed from the hospital, and he is replaced by the much more fun-loving Captain Trapper McIntyre (Elliott Gould), with whom the guys have many adventures.
This film was recommended to me by Todd from Forgotten Films and the Forgotten Filmcast (the most recent episode of which I was a guest on, and can be found here). Todd apparently watched this film, and also the ensuing TV show, as a child, but this is my first experience with anything M*A*S*H related, save the occasional rant from Adam Carolla about how these army officers, who are all supposedly in the 1950s, somehow have the haircuts and moustaches of men from the 1970s. Having been alive in neither time period I have no problems with this. Knowing very little about this film, I was expecting quite a broad comedy that just happened to be set at an army hospital, but in fact this deals with many serious issues mixed in with the hilarity.In fact, so expectant was I of ensuing comedy that I completely misinterpreted the opening shot. It begins with a helicopter taking off, with a man lying either side of it. I thought these men had somehow fallen asleep on platforms tied to a helicopter’s landing gear, and they either wake up terrified in mid-flight, or thoroughly confused upon landing somewhere else. In fact, these were two injured men, strapped to gurneys and being transported to the hospital for treatment. I suppose there should have been some clue given with the highly depressing song Suicide is Painless playing over the top (of which the lyrics were written by director Robert Altman’s then fourteen-year old son, which is a little concerning).I’m familiar with some other Altman films, so the first conversation we’re privy to wherein two character yell over the top of one another was not a surprise, I’m used to it. However, whereas normally Altman uses the over-talking to demonstrate how everyday conversations usually take place, here it’s used for comedic purposes, with a commanding officer attempting to relay orders to a subordinate who is busy yelling right back at him, so the orders are never carried out, or even heard.Speaking of the comedy, there’s a lot of fun to be had here, particularly with the butting of heads between the fun-loving trio and the more stick-up-the-butt straight arrows they have to contend with. In particular, Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye was great. His character is someone who on the surface seems quite lazy, but in reality is always planning his way around his next jape. He has a miraculous way of telling the truth to get out of a sticky situation, in a manner that really shouldn’t work, but somehow does. For example, upon arriving at the camp he steals a jeep and takes it on a joyride with Duke, who is more interested in getting drunk and chasing the ladies (all of whom are inexplicably gorgeous). When Hawkeye is called upon stealing the vehicle, he claims that he didn’t steal it, because it’s parked outside. This infallible logic is accepted, and everyone goes about their day. It’s ludicrous, but I got a kick out of it. What I couldn’t get behind, however, was how much of a bully the three leads seemed to be, especially towards the characters of Burns and the new Head Nurse, Major O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), who attains herself the rather unfortunate nickname of “Hot Lips” during a sex prank that was probably a source of inspiration for the American Pie franchise. The guys initially take an instant disliking to Burns on the basis of him being a devout Christian who prays every night, and see this as reason enough to do all they can to have him kicked out of the hospital. I found this kind of behaviour to be horrible, and it made me dislike the leads quite a lot. Granted, later in the film we, and they, find out more about Burns that makes their actions more understandable, but seeing as they didn’t know that information at the time it can’t really be taken into account. O’Houlihan suffers at their hands even more though, by virture of being a woman, who is therefore prone to all sorts of sexist acts, the most notable of which sees her stranded naked in front of the entire camp and, when she tries to complain to the senior officer, he pays no interest whatsoever, reducing her to tears. I couldn’t help but feel very sorry for this woman who was just trying to do her job to the best of her ability, but found herself stuck in a situation she couldn’t escape from. I understand this is a comedy, and jokes tend to be at the expense of someone, but here they were at times aimed in a very cruel direction, and the guys are cheats and liars to boot, with Trapper and Hawkeye blagging their way into a visit to Japan that they admit they didn’t need to take, but wanted to because it meant they could play golf instead of attending to the wounded. This was exacerbated by their arrival in Japan, where they meet a fellow surgeon who, instead of using his spare time to play golf, moonlights at a local Japanese children’s hospital, helping out those in need. This comparison just made me dislike the leads all the more. Narrative-wise this is very episodic in nature, with only the barest over-arching plot strand providing even the slightest hinting at a three-act structure. It’s very much a case of lurching from one exploit to the next, taking on things like a shower-related bet, a massive American football game and the plans of a well-endowed dentist to commit suicide after he fails to get it up with a girl, so decides he must be gay, and he’d rather kill himself than admit that to the folks back home. Like I said, some of this is ludicrous and ridiculous, but there were enough funny moments to carry me through. I particularly liked the loudspeaker system, perpetually correcting itself mid-announcement. And it got to do the closing credits too!
Choose Film 7/10