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Classic Pick: M*A*S*H


If all you know about M*A*S*H is the long-running Korean War sitcom of the same name, then you’re in for a bit of a surprise. Robert Altman and his crew of actors were there first, starting off on the premise of a mobile army hospital during the Korean War populated by a gang of crazed surgeons, doe-eyed nurses, and the bureaucracy of army life. They produced a hysterical anti-war black comedy, the likes of which were never approached in the series that followed.

Donald Sutherland is Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce, who starts out the film by stealing a jeep and driving to the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the company of fellow surgeon “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerrit). There the two doctors meet their team, including Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), Corporal Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), and Colonel Henry Blake (Roger Bowen). The team isn’t complete without the arrival of Captain “Trapper” John MacIntyre though, in the form of Elliott Gould, at that time one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

What follows is a loose series of events and vignettes that are not intended to form any real central plot beyond the vagaries of life in an army hospital, but include Trapper and Hawkeye running rampant in Japan, the persecution and nervous breakdown of Frank Burns, and a major suicide attempt – culminating in an epic football game between two M*A*S*H units. Wry commentary, black humor, and slapstick comedy pepper the film, as the war takes its toll on the mental faculties of everyone involved.

Like many of Robert Altman’s best works, you have to pay very close attention to M*A*S*H to make anything of it. The actors almost never overemphasize their lines even for salient plot points, giving the impression of real conversations between real people instead of scripted dialogue. The film takes place in Korea but is obviously about Vietnam, its anti-war, anti-establishment undercurrents more pronounced and viciously funny than the smoother, nicer television show that came after. While you may recognize the theme song “Suicide Is Painless,” now you get to hear the lyrics. Yup, you’ll probably not look at M*A*S*H the same way again.