In terms of cultural impact, the film M*A*S*H has to rank pretty high, if only because the television series that it inspired was both long-lasting and critically acclaimed (and its finale held the record for highest viewership for many years). With only Gary Burghoff as Radar reprising his role out of the major characters, the public’s impressions of Hawkeye, Trapper John, etc., are mostly those of the show, and not the movie.
I grew up with the show, catching it in reruns as a teenager. I knew of the movie by Robert Altman, of course — it would be difficult not to — but it was more as a piece of trivia than anything else. Having finally caught the movie the other night, I think the show holds up better.
It has to be noted that this isn’t necessarily a knock on the film, as the show really was good enough that even a solid film would conceivably come up short. But I have to admit to disappointment that the film didn’t connect with me in the same way. This is, after all, a comedy that was an Academy Award Best Picture nominee, and which had significant critical acclaim, and resides on a few of the AFI’s top 100 lists (including #7 on their list of comedies.) It’s not like it’s a film that was simply forgotten except by the television executives who decided it would make a decent series premise. I’m not sure what to blame the dichotomy on. Perhaps it’s because I did see the show first, or perhaps the film is dated in a way that the show somehow wasn’t. Or perhaps it really isn’t quite as good. For whatever reason, though, I didn’t find it to be as deep or as funny as a typical episode of the television series.
When it comes to emotional depth, there isn’t much to the film. There’s a basic awareness that the antics of the 4077 are largely the result of trying to keep their sanity in the face of the terrible injuries they have to work with every day, but this is only lightly touched upon. Beyond one instance in which Trapper John (Elliott Gould) decks Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) for blaming his failure to save a patient on a younger assistant, they aren’t shown to be dealing with much difficulty as far as the surgery or the war is concerned. In fact, the ward is shown little enough that it almost feels like an afterthought to show the surgeons performing surgery, and the main reminder that this is a mobile army hospital is all the army green on the uniforms and tents. Unlike the series, where many episodes brought the war to the forefront, it doesn’t feel much like they’re in a war here. Nobody seems afraid, everyone seems to be going about their business as if it’s life as usual, with being drafted into the M*A*S*H just being a minor inconvenience and change of setting. And at the end, nobody has learned anything or grown significantly; Duke and Hawkeye ride out the way they rode in, without preamble. It’s a series of vignettes more than a narrative, and the ending could have been inserted at nearly any earlier point in the movie without it feeling any more out of place.
The reason to watch the film, then, is the humor. Hawkeye and Duke (Donald Sutherland and Tom Skerritt) are a couple of mavericks who come into the 4077 and start causing havoc to divert themselves, especially once they find kindred spirit (and Hawkeye’s old friend) Trapper John. The trio — and it’s difficult to say there’s any distinction in their personalities in the film — spend most of their time hassling the pretentious Frank Burns and strict Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Houlihan, incidentally, is the one character who does get a bit of development, gradually loosening up once the boys’ harassment finally pushes her to the breaking point. The pranks they pull include a few laugh out loud moments, but most of the humor is dark and dry. It’s probably more realistic than the bombastic humor of Stripes (1981), but it’s also less likely to produce a full laugh. It’s the kind of film you share a wry grin with, and I think that is largely intentional. I must also say I appreciated the interjections of the P.A. system, both with the jokes and with the movie announcements, which not only gave a bit of flavor to the day-to-day operations of the camp, but also provided a terrific way to close out the film.
In the final assessment, M*A*S*H is a film that I can appreciate, but cannot say I truly loved it. For whatever reason it didn’t connect with me as well as its succeeding television series did. I cared more about Alan Alda’s Hawkeye than I did about Donald Sutherland’s, and I laughed at him more as well.