The movie may have been set in Korea, but Robert Altman clearly had Vietnam in mind when he made this satire of the American military.


Everett Collection/20th Century Fox Film Corp. Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould in MASH, 1970.

The movie (and the novel on which it was based) may have been set in Korea, but Robert Altman clearly had Vietnam in mind when he made this satire of the American military from a screenplay by former Hollywood Ten member, Ring Lardner.

The challenge of MASH is to make an audience laugh in a situation as inherently unfunny as a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, 3 miles from the Korean front. It produces some snorts and yacks (after all, Ring Lardner, Jr. had a hand in the dialogue), but overall I found it dolorous.

That, it turned out, was not because of the basic activity. I had expected to be tested by the blood and gristle of catastrophic wounds, but the injured men are kept so remote from the action (one never gets a clear sight of a face) and the ruptured flesh is so obviously pork that anyone who can maintain his poise in a butcher shop will take those scenes in stride. The doctors most prominently on the scene are said to be brilliant practitioners, but they fumble about in half-eviscerated cavities with such immunity to the implications of their work that I could not believe the implications.

So MASH is not about battlefield medicine; it is about three allegedly quickwitted young men who, because of their stipulated professional indispensability, can make an ass of the Army. But comedy is fairly hard work, and the picture shows few signs that anyone was willing to give it the necessary attention. The young men in question (played by Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Tom Skeritt) are not very inventive iconoclasts. They mock religion, authority and the dignity of women in terms so banal that I felt I was attending skit night in a fraternity house. (They never, it so happens, mock the presence of the U.S. Army in Asia.) And their butts—a milktoast commanding officer dedicated to concupiscence and fly-tying, a gung-ho Regular Army nurse, incongruously blonde and proportioned, and a religious creep of lascivious bent (sexual japes, you will surmise are the principal matter of the scenario)—are not worth sharp weapons. My heart sank when, in the opening scene, two MPs and a transportation sergeant fall into a heap of confusion while attempting to pursue two of the heroes, and that pileup did indeed set the level.

The looks of the cast promise more spirit than the film engenders. Sutherland approaches being an Americanized Jonathan Miller (he has studied the flailing and the half-skip of the master), and I recalled how dejected the Beyond the Fringe cast appeared when in later seasons its members turned up in lesser inventions. Robert Altman, the director, is impeded, perhaps, by a script drawn from what must have been a sorry novel. He throws in some golf, he permits his wags to attach pulleys to the nurses’ shower tent, he stores beer in the blood refrigerator, he manipulates a football game by administering a hypodermic to the opposing star during a scrimmage. This assumption that if I’m tickled I will laugh, withers my throat. One device that did seem to me pertinently funny may have been Mr. Altman’s invention: whenever a conference is held or an order is issued, all those present speak at once and then dash off in bursts of uninformed zeal.

Otherwise, I looked in vain for pertinence or surprise. Nor was I shocked: without some maturity (if not by the participants, at least by the managers), irreverence is merely brash. And when a man, newly arrived at combat headquarters is handed a martini, reaches into his pocket for a bottle of olives, you are confronted with someone’s dog-eared joke book; you are not in the presence of wit. War is risible only to the very toughminded; this is a callow bunch.

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