directed by Robert Altman
(20th Century Fox, 1970)

For a lot of people, Hawkeye Pierce will always be Alan Alda and "Hot Lips" Houlihan will be Loretta Swit.

If your knowledge of M*A*S*H is limited to the television series -- which boasted an excellent 11-year run, by the way -- you're missing the point. While the series created its own voice and the actors defined their own characters, a huge chunk of the M*A*S*H mythos lies in the movie, directed in chaotic style by Robert Altman and starring a raft of unknown actors who went on to become Hollywood heavyhitters.

It's irreverent. It's sacrilegious. More importantly, it's fun.

M*A*S*H starred a young Donald Sutherland as Capt. "Hawkeye" Pierce, Elliott Gould as "Trapper John" McIntyre and Tom Skerritt as Capt. "Duke" Forrest. The trio of wisecracking, heavy-drinking Army surgeons is the centerpiece of the film, but this ensemble picture wouldn't have made its mark without a host of other strong performances.

Among the excellent cast are Sally Kellerman as Major "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan, Robert Duvall as Major Frank Burns, Roger Bowen as Lt. Colonel Henry Blake, Rene Auberjonois as Father John Patrick Mulcahy, David Arkin as Staff Sgt. Vollmer (as well as the incredibly witty P.A. announcer), John Schuck as Capt. "Painless Pole" Waldowski, Jo Ann Pflug as Lt. "Dish" Schneider, Fred Williamson as Capt. "Spearchucker" Jones, Kim Atwood as Ho-Jon, Bud Cort as Pvt. Boone and, of course, Gary Burghoff as Cpl. "Radar" O'Reilly (a role he would reprise for TV).

It might seem hard for a director to keep so many people from muddying the picture, but Atwood encourages it. After giving the actors free rein to improvise during rehearsal (to the outrage of scriptwriter Ring Lardner Jr.), he allowed lines to overlap and step on each other. It can make comprehension a chore at times, but it also sounds real -- and it guarantees that each time you watch it, you hear something new.

M*A*S*H is not a carefully plotted movie so much as a series of brief vignettes set three miles from the front lines during the Korean War. The surgeons crack wise as the war goes on around them, and they still find time for golf, football, sex, poker and a whole lot of gin.

The P.A. announcements, lifted from war-time transcipts and manuals, are a marvelously creative means of segueing from scene to scene.

The final result is a delicious anti-war comedy mixed with starkly realistic, at times graphically gory scenes in the operating room. For instance, who can forget Hawkeye getting his nose scratched by a nurse while sawing through the bone of a wounded soldier?

It's never gratuitously violent, however; the only gunshots in this war movie are fired by a football referee.

M*A*S*H is a melange of surgery, sex, suicide and insanity. It makes you laugh at war while shining a very bright light on the madness inherent in a bloody conflict where doctors put soldiers back together so they can fight again.

Altman changed movie history with this one. Anyone who hasn't seen it should set aside two hours to watch a cinematic masterpiece.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 5 October 2002

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