Friday, December 9, 2011

Suicide is Painless

Film: M*A*S*H
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I wasn’t that conscious of movies when I was two or three years old, which is how old I was when M*A*S*H was released. As a kid, the most relevant thing with that name was the television show, the one that ran for three times longer than the war upon which it was based. I spent a lot of evenings watching the show, and as I got older and the show was eventually retired, I watched a lot of reruns. What that means is that I have a particular view of M*A*S*H, and it’s a view that doesn’t really jibe with the film.

This isn’t to say that the film isn’t great, though, because it is. It’s a very unusual film, though, for a number of reasons. It’s also very much an Altman film in that the cast is freakin’ huge and there are tons of characters to keep track of during the course of the film. However, as a person who is so familiar with the television versions of many of these characters, it’s impossible for me to tell if the film is difficult to follow. I know almost all of the main characters, so in a real sense, I know what to expect of them.

Essentially, we have a group of doctors in a mobile Army surgical hospital (hence the initials) a few miles from the front in Korea. They patch up soldiers when they come in wounded, and otherwise spend their time trying to forget that they are in Korea. They drink, play pranks on each other, and chase nurses with reckless abandon.

The doctors that we become acquainted with first are Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerrit, almost unrecognizable without the trademark mustache). They are the new surgeons at the 4077th hospital, and the minute they arrive, they begin to turn the camp upside down, getting things running the way they like them. This task is made easier because their commander, Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), is a pushover. It’s made more difficult because their bunkmate, Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), is a by-the-book officer and deeply religious. Things are compounded in both directions with the arrival of Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould), who sides with our degenerate doctor heroes, and a new head nurse named “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).

Essentially, M*A*S*H is completely without a plot. There are events that happen, and we see the camp personnel deal with these issues. We deal with the issues of the doctors not being up to military muster, with the fact that the camp dentist, “Painless” Waldowski (immediately recognizable character actor John Schuck) wants to commit suicide because he believes he has turned gay, and a surprise trip for Trapper and Hawkeye to Japan. Everything eventually culminates in a football game with another military outfit, complemented on the 4077th’s side with a ringer—an ex-professional football player-turned-neurosurgeon named Oliver “Spearchucker” Jones (Fred Williamson), given that nickname not because of his skin color, but because he used to throw the javelin.

M*A*S*H isn’t about a story, or getting through a particular plot or series of events. Instead, it’s about surviving the insanity of war, and the irony of being a medical doctor in a place of death and destruction. In fact, one of the reasons that there is so much humor in the film is because it is a natural contrast to the pain and misery of war. The other reason is that extreme situations like war often bring this sort of behavior and attitude out in the people trapped in the middle of it. We laugh so that we are not sickened by it. This is also why a lot of the humor here is so dark and so cruel. That’s the only reason for the broadcasting of Frank’s tryst with Hot Lips, and why the shower is rigged to collapse when Hot Lips enters it.

The film also works because the operating room scenes are both brutal and banal. Men are on the table with horrible wounds, and while we don’t specifically see any body parts or grue (or at least not too much), there’s an ocean of blood, and the doctors and nurses are up to their elbows in it. At the same time, the doctors and nurses discuss average, everyday topics, almost as if they are fixing toasters.

Altman is a difficult director for me to get behind, often because there is so much to pay attention to in his films. There are often so many characters that it can be tough to keep everyone straight. M*A*S*H does not suffer from this though, although that may only be because I know these characters so well. This is a hell of a film, and one that has aged surprisingly well, a fact that may be due to the influence of television as well.

Why to watch M*A*S*H: It spawned a true American cultural landmark.
Why not to watch: There really isn’t much of a plot.


  1. I watched this film years ago (probably too young to really get it) and I remember I found it jarring simply because they weren't the same people I was used to - I had it firmly in my mind that Hawkeye was Alan Alda and no one else! I think it'd be a good idea for me to give this film another go though - I've seen clips of the different pranks and such and I definitely enjoyed them!

  2. It is worth another look--it's pretty funny, especially if your sense of humor runs to the dark. But yeah, if you're expecting to see characters like Klinger and B.J. Honeycutt and Colonel Potter and Charles Emerson're out of luck.

  3. This was the first Altman I attempted during my recent Altman DOTM. I wasn't a big fan - mostly because of the fact that there was no plot, and that it felt like an out-of-control mess. It was funny, sure, but I still preferred the early seasons of the show that I used to watch with my mother. I also questioned how timeless the film was. Scenes like 'Suicide is Painless' is iconic, but a lot of the jokes don't have the same relevance now. Nice write up. I'll give it another shot eventually, but not my fav. Altman.

  4. I think the chaos is intentional. My guess is that the idea Altman wanted to bring across here was the chaos of war, which is why everyone talks over each other.

    I like this film, but I like The Player a lot more.

  5. I saw this film when it was released (the first of many viewings). I was a bit too young to be in the audience , but I had already read the book without parental guidance and I was a film buff even at eleven. My parents allowed me to accompany my older brother, four year my senior (yeah, he was too young as well). Much of it went over my head, but I LOVED the chaos, and the Sutherland/Gould performances so much, it was about 3 years before I allowed myself to get into the TV show. I did not like Alan Alda's looks and I didn't believe he could pull off Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce. I love the whole faked suicide bit and Johnny Mandel's song "Suicide Is Painless". Whenever the TV show started, the lyrics would dance through my head. I heard somewhere, maybe in the bonus features that Altman purposely kept the reference to Korea at a minimum, and designed the production building a resemblance to Viet Nam.

  6. I actually have the audio "Suicide Scene" on my MP3 player and occassionally give it a listen.

  7. The idea that Altman wanted people to think that this could be Vietnam is absolutely true. The title that pops up at the beginning proclaiming this Korea along with the quote from MacArthur are there at the behest of the studio.

    I was exposed to the television show first, so I have no problem with Alda as Hawkeye. The television show is obviously cleaned up from the film, and relationships are vastly different. It's a different, related vision of the same basic idea: war is hell, and we survive as best we can.

  8. I actually never saw this until after the TV show ended. I remember being surprised because I had never realized that the theme to the TV show had lyrics and that they were about suicide. Other than that, and the rigged shower scene, I honestly don't remember much else about the movie, so I guess it didn't make much of an impression on me.

  9. I knew the TV show long before I saw the movie. Though I enjoyed the TV show...there some things I just never got. Mainly, I couldn't figure out what people liked about Alan Alda played him he was the most obnoxious guy on the planet. But then I saw Sutherland's Hawkeye and realized that was the way the character was meant to be. I like the series...but the movie will always be the true M*A*S*H for me.

  10. Well, if you were my mother, you liked Hawkeye because he was a good surgeon and saved peoples' lives.

    I do find it amusing that on television, they happily did away with Hawkeye's marriage so that his womanizing would be a little more tolerable.

  11. Altman defintely would take up a lot of spaces on my top 100. Mash, Brewster Mcloud, The Player. And Nashville would be in my top ten. Though it isn't for everybody.

  12. I haven't decided yet if I like him. I've tried to watch both Nashville and Short Cuts and haven't gotten through them yet.

  13. I think we are pretty much on the same page here. MASH has indeed aged surprisingly well.