By Kim Hollis
April 15, 2010
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.