When we think about M*A*S*H, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the television show that ran from 1972 to 1983. There is good reason for this being what most would remember about the title. The final episode is still the most watched television show in American history. It is a record that has stood for forty years now. What those same people forget, and the memory becomes fuzzier as time goes on, is that the hit series would not have been possible without the movie of the same name, which came out in 1970. The American Film Institute (AFI) lists it as the fifty-fourth greatest American film of all time. Yet again, we have a movie made during the 1970s that I do not understand why people enjoy, unless I choose to assume the worst in people. Like its cinematic cousins from the decade, it deals with serious issues, but playing it for laughs. It is what one would label a “dark comedy,” though I hesitate to use either of those words. It is also a tricky one to review because, as another shared characteristic of the era, it has basically no plot. In fact, it ends almost exactly as it begins, with the principal players having learned little from their experiences. I get it, though. It is supposed to underscore the absurdity of war, a concept with which I can at least agree. At the same time, I could have done without a lot of the images witnessed therein.
Bear in mind what I said about the beginning and end of M*A*S*H when I conclude this synopsis. It is 1951 and Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce Jr. (Donald Sutherland) is newly arrived on the Korean Peninsula during the war of the same name. He has come to serve as an army surgeon in the eponymous unit, more formally known as the 4077th. This can also be said for Captain “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerritt). Getting there at the same time, they commandeer a jeep and head for their base of operations only miles from the frontlines. You can already tell that they have a disregard for military protocol. This is exacerbated by their bunkmate and fellow doctor, Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). Due to the irreverence of the times (more about this later), he is depicted as a crazy Christian, praying for hours on end in their living quarters and blaming others for when his patients die. Duke and Hawkeye succeed in arranging for Major Burns’ transfer with their pushover commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Braymore Blake (Roger Bowen). Yet, it is another new addition to the 4077th, Captain John Francis “Trapper John” McIntyre (Elliott Gould), who cannot stand Major Burns. When Trapper John witnesses Major Burns blame an assistant for the death of one of the soldiers in his care, Trapper John gives Major Burns a hard right cross. This act is witnessed by one more late comer, the head nurse Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). If you do not mind, I will continue to refer to her by her rank. She gets this inappropriate nickname when she is caught having relations with Major Burns, the sound of which is broadcast all over the camp. It immediately ruins the reputation she had been building as to wanting to restore military order. Because it fails, Duke, Hawkeye, and Trapper John essentially run the unit as they see fit, though they appear to be good at their jobs as army surgeons. It might be the only thing they take seriously. This includes when the unit’s dentist, Captain Walter “The Painless Pole” Waldowski (John Schuck), comes out to Hawkeye as gay. Feeling like he cannot take the pressure, he asks the medical doctors to help him to commit suicide. In doing so, they have an elaborate ceremony. I will comment further on this in the next paragraph, for good reason. In the meantime, know that they do not actually assist him in killing himself. Instead, they give him a pill and arrange for the married nurse, Lieutenant Maria “Dish” Schneider (Jo Ann Pflug), to sleep with him, thus “curing” him of his “affliction.” Hey, do not hate this Catholic. I am simply reporting what happens in the movie. Remarkably, Trapper John’s skills are well known, and his presence is requested in Tokyo to operate on the child of an American Congressman. He brings Hawkeye along with, and they have a brief interlude in Japan that does nothing to advance the story. Because this movie is what it is, it could not resist tossing in a Japanese whorehouse at which they stay. Not long after they return to Korea, their base is visited by Brigadier Charlie Hammond (G. Wood). He comes to investigate the allegations of improprieties leveled by Major Houlihan that finally make it to his desk. He comes away with a bet on a football game between the 4077th and General Hammond’s command. So, yeah, we leave behind the usual routine of operating on wounded soldiers for a legitimate gridiron match complete with all the equipment, uniforms, and referees. Making matters worse is the ringer the 4077th has brought in to win the bet made between Lieutenant Colonel Blake and General Hammond. I am not going to repeat his nickname as it is a racial slur, but he is played by Fred Williamson. Anyway, they win the game and the money and go back to their base. Not long thereafter, Duke and Hawkeye get their orders to go home. Thus, they leave as they arrived and the film ends.
Another point to keep in mind about M*A*S*H is that while it is set during the Korean War, it is more about the ongoing struggle in Vietnam happening as the movie was filmed. The kind of shenanigans you see here would not have been tolerated in the military of the early 1950s, and I am sure the same would have been true a decade later. This kind of irreverence is not only reserved for the way the military and the war are viewed, but also for a character that I did not mention in the previous paragraph: Father John Patrick Francis “Dago Red” Mulcahy (René Auberjonois). He is the chaplain assigned to the unit. To the film’s credit, they show Father Mulcahy going about the kinds of duties you would expect of a member of the clergy in such a position. He also seems powerless in the face of the vice that he sees around him. Interestingly, if you want a real-life comparison, look no further than Father Emil Joseph Kapaun. Perhaps I should instead have said “contrast” because Father Kapaun has little in common with Father Mulcahy other than the fact of their priesthood. Father Mulcahy shrinks from confrontation, even allowing himself to take part in the ceremony the doctors do for the Painless Pole, which he believes is going to lead to the mortal sin of suicide. Father Kapaun served on the frontlines, even earning a Bronze Star for bravery. He was later captured and died a martyr in captivity continuing to carry out his ministry as best he could. Because of this, he is on the path to sainthood. While I have seen worse characters than Father Mulcahy, I have also seen better. I know this is a comedy, and an unfortunate sign of the times, but it is as distasteful as the rest.
Speaking of distasteful, one of the more famous aspects of the M*A*S*H television show was the theme song. It makes for a handy bit of trivia to know that the name of the tune is “Suicide is Painless.” In the film version, you get to hear the lyrics. With words like “it brings on many changes” and “it doesn’t hurt when it begins,” it is little wonder that the words were left off when it came to the broader American public. I would prefer that you not only leave out the song, but the rest of the movie as well.