The Korean War – or perhaps an allegory for the Vietnam War.
‘Only the dead have seen the end of war.’ This is said by the great Greek Philosopher Plato regarding the atrocities of war. Yet the war surgeons – arguably one of the key members of importance in wars appear in this film ‘M.A.S.H’ to be largely unaffected by the devastation of it.
This satirical black comedy directed by the great satirical film director, Robert Altman, depicts a unit of medical personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (abbreviated to M.A.S.H) during the Korean War. It follows three war surgeons; Captains ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce (Donald Sutherland), ‘Duke’ Forrest (Tom Skerritt) and later, “Trapper” John McIntyre (Elliot Gould).
Despite their excellence at the operating table, they are a rebellious, rule – breaking bunch whose pastimes include playing obscene practical jokes, making fun of their colleagues and blackmailing their way to superiority.
Blood and gore are on the operating table.
They work efficiently and proficiently. Sawing off limbs and bone, administrating blood transfusions and mending wounds. They appear detached in their attempt to save lives. Early in the film, we see Hawkeye asking his nurse to scratch his nose as he operates, a clear joke; yet his eyes remain fixated and his hands remains moving.
Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) one of the surgeons stationed at ‘MASH’ blames a young private for the death of one of his patients. Trapper confronts Burns and assaults him with a punch to the face.
It is war. People die. The main characters in M.A.S.H have accepted this fact, yet in order to carry on what they do; to remain sane, they act childishly; without any care in the world.
Now this may make the film seem like some sort of dark downer film but it isn’t. ‘M.A.S.H’ is hilarious from start to end. In fact I think that the underlining darker tone of the film adds to the film’s comedic tone. The film appeals to our deep ‘sadistic’ tendencies, we laugh as we see Hawkeye and Trapper blackmail the hospital’s commander as perhaps somewhere inside us we know that they deserve a little ‘fun’ to keep sane and continue their job.
At this point I have to mention that the film ‘M.A.S.H’ is a war film that is unlike no other. Unlike most films about war, in fact unlike most films, that is no overall arching plot or motive for these characters at all. The film feels episodic, almost like a television show or something. I suppose that is how the film had managed to inspire a television series. Robert Altman is more concerned about the interaction between the characters than a focused plot. Rather than tracking shots and camera dollys, Altman makes use of pans and zooms, often shooting behind windows and glass to give us a feeling like we’re listening in and watching from a distance.
As contradictory as this sounds, Altman wants to remind us that we are spectators in a movie theater, watching these characters and listening in on their conversations. It is by breaking our suspension of belief can he truly convince us that the film’s characters are real people interacting with one another. Of course, his use of overlapping spoken audio to evoke realism also helps to sell the existence of his characters.
‘M.A.S.H’ may be one of the greatest satirical black comedy war films out there and I cannot recommend it enough. It will appeal to both the regular movie goer and to the average cinema goer alike. It stands alongside Kubrick’s hilarious war-room fighting classic. ‘Dr Strangelove’.