We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.
By Kim Hollis
April 15, 2010
Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.
In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.
#54 : MASH
I guess I should make it clear from the outset of this column that I was a fan of the television series M*A*S*H. My parents were watching it when I was too young to understand the show, but as I grew along with the series (and it entered syndication in subsequent years), I became very attached to the characters who populated the 4077th. Hawkeye, Trapper John, Major Burns, Radar, Hotlips, Klinger, Henry Blake, Colonel Potter, Father Mulcahey and Charles Winchester III were all as familiar to me as a pair of comfy sneakers. The character Henry Blake hailed from my own hometown (as did the man who played him, McLean Stevenson) and to this day I'm pretty knowledgeable about the other characters' backgrounds as well. The show was funny while still maintaining a sense of gravitas about its subject matter, and even though Hawkeye and Trapper/BJ (depending upon the season) were goofs whose antics were a little over-the-top, they were also top-notch physicians and generally good men.
Thus, it was with mixed emotions that I finally watched Robert Altman's MASH, the film that inspired the series. Truth is, I really like Altman a significant amount (I go against the norm by calling Popeye a particular favorite), but had never seen MASH. Part of the reason is accessibility, part of the reason goes back to motivation. I was never particularly compelled to see people besides Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, Stevenson, Loretta Swit and Larry Linville in the key roles, despite the fact that they were originated elsewhere.
Essentially, my fears were well-founded. Despite my best efforts to go into MASH objectively, I found myself bothered by the consistent mean-spiritedness of the proceedings, and comparing the film's approach to the show's didn't do it any favors. Did the show soften things to the point that the harsh realities portrayed in the film are too much for me? Perhaps. Is it fair for me to judge one versus the other? Probably not. Nonetheless, the heart wants what the heart wants, and apparently I like my Hawkeye Pierce to have some humanity along with his acerbity.
There were a lot of things I did enjoy, though, and I feel compelled to point those out before I seem overly hypercritical. I always love the organized chaos that dominates Altman's movies, and it's absolutely present in MASH as well. Because multiple conversations can be occurring at once, there's a lot to take in, and often times true appreciation of his work comes with repeated viewings. If you miss a key comment muttered under someone's breath (this happens frequently in Popeye) you might come away disenchanted. So despite the fact that my enjoyment level was low, I do wonder if I'd find more to enjoy on a second and third opportunity to watch the film.
Although there was apparently a considerable amount of conflict on the set during the filming of MASH, I do have to say that I believe that Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould played perfectly into that chaos I just mentioned. The appear to be very comfortable in the roles, with off-the-cuff comments coming very naturally. The barbs come sharp and fast, particularly in their short-lived interaction with Robert Duvall's Major Burns. Dialogue sounds like it's being fired from a cannon. For the grueling circumstances our protagonists are up against, the violence and harshness of the conversation is just right.
The film features a number of other noteworthy performances, including a meek Rene Auberjonois as Father Mulcahy, Tom Skerritt (unrecognizable except for his voice) as Captain "Duke" Forrest, and John Schuck as the, ahem, well-endowed dentist Painless. When Painless suffers an unusual crisis, the situation could have become ludicrous, but instead, it's deftly handled and slyly hilarious.
Also critical to the film is Gary Burghoff, who played Radar O'Reilly and is the only member of the movie cast to become a regular member of the television series, reprising his role. He's primarily in the movie to provide some silly comic relief wherein he knows everything the Colonel is going to say before he says it, and obviously is a much more deeply developed character on the TV show. He is always on the fringe of Hawkeye and Trapper John's subversive activities, though, and considering that this was one of his first roles, he's really quite good.
The solid performances and entertaining pandemonium just weren't enough to make me truly enjoy MASH, though. I kept yearning to know more about the characters and cringing at the cruelty that made up the bulk of Hawkeye and Trapper John's exploits. In fact, it's very difficult to reconcile the fact that they'd be so dedicated to the craft of saving people when outside of the operating room they're completely consumed with mean-spirited pranks and destroying the people they hate. Perhaps if I'd watched the film without ever having seen an episode of M*A*S*H, I would have found more value in its viewpoints and appreciated it on its own merits, but admittedly, this was an impossible task. I wanted more from the movie, and my disappointment was heightened because I expected more from Altman. In the end, I was so conflicted about MASH that I had trouble writing this column. I hate to bash a movie that I know I watched so subjectively. All I can do is move on to the next film on the list and try to get the bad taste out of my mouth.