With the Cannes Film Festival underway, I have been watching some of the past winners of the prestigious Palme d’Or. On Thursday night, Jeff and I watched the winner of the 1970 winner of the Grand Prix (as the Palme was known at the time), Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H.
There are, of course, three versions of M*A*S*H. All three of them deal with the same basic story of Dr. Hawkeye Pierce and his attempts to maintain his sanity while serving as a combat surgeon at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean war. All three of them mix comedy with the tragedy of war. However, each one of them takes their own unique approach to the material.
The one that everyone immediately thinks of is the old television series, which ran for 11 seasons and which can be found on Hulu and on several of the retro stations. The television series starred Alan Alda as Hawkeye. I’ve watched a handful of episodes and, while the episodes that I’ve seen were undeniably well-acted and well-written and they all had their heart in the right place, the show’s deification of Hawkeye can get to be a bit much. Not only is Hawkeye the best surgeon at the 4077th, he’s apparently the best surgeon in all of Korea. In fact, he may be the best surgeon on the entire planet. Not a single thing happens in the camp unless Hawkeye is somehow involved. When a nurse is killed by a landmine in one episode, the focus is not on the other nurses but instead on how Hawkeye feels about it. When bombs are falling too close to the camp, the focus is again only on Hawkeye and how much he hates the war. If you didn’t already know that he hated the war, Hawkeye will let you know. Wish Hawkeye a good morning and he’ll yell at you about how many people are going to be wounder by the end of the day. Even when one agrees with Hawkeye, the character’s self-righteousness can be a bit much.
Less well-known is the first version of M*A*S*H, a short and episodic novel that was published in 1968. The novel was written by Dr. Richard Hornberger, who actually had served in Korea at a M*A*S*H unit and who reportedly based Hawkeye on himself. The book is a rather breezy affair. Reading it, one can definitely tell that it was inspired by someone telling Hornberger, “Your stories about Korea are so funny and interesting, you should write them down!” The book avoids politics, reserving most of its ire for military red tape. Hornberger was a Republican who so disliked Alan Alda’s interpretation of Hawkeye that, when he wrote a sequel to M*A*S*H, he included a scene in which Hawkeye talked about how much he enjoyed beating up hippies.
And then there’s the version that came in between the book and the television series, the 1970 film from Robert Altman. The film retains the book’s episodic structure while also throwing in the anti-war politics that would define the television series. (Though the film was set in the 50s, Altman purposefully made no attempt to be historically accurate because he wanted it to be clear that this film was more about Vietnam than Korea.) From its opening, the film announces its outlook, with shots of helicopters carrying severely wounded (possibly dead) soldiers to the camp while a song called Suicide is Painless plays on the soundtrack. The song was written by director Robert Altman’s fourteen year-old son, Mike. Reportedly, it took Mike five minutes to come up with the lyrics. When the instrumental version of the song was later used as the theme song for the television series, Mike Altman made over a million dollars in royalties.
The film opens with Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) arriving at the 4077th MASH in a stolen jeep and it ends with them getting sent home in the same jeep. Though Duke is set up to be a major character, he soon takes a backseat to another surgeon, the unfortunately nicknamed Trapper John (Elliott Gould). Much as with the television series, the movie centers around Hawkeye and Trapper John’s antics. When they’re not in the operating room, they’re drinking, carousing, and playing pranks that are far more mean-spirited than anything the television versions of the characters would have ever done. (Indeed, the book and movie versions of Hawkeye probably would have hated Alan Alda’s Hawkeye.) Unlike the television version of Hawkeye, the film’s Hawkeye is not the best surgeon in Korea. In fact, he’s not even the best surgeon at the 4077th. (That honor goes to Trapper.) Instead, he’s just one of many doctors on staff. They’re rotated in and then, at the end of their tour, they’re rotated out. Hawkeye loses as many patients as he saves. The film’s doctors are not miracle workers, nor are they crusaders. Instead, they are overworked, neurotic, often exhausted, and frequently bored whenever there aren’t any wounded to deal with. The film emphasizes that the doctors are as professional inside the Operating Room as they’re rambunctious outside of it. Unlike the television series, Hawkeye doesn’t joke while working. He’s usually too busy trying to stop his patients from bleeding to death to tell jokes or to complain about the war that brought them to the OR.
Indeed, the film version of M*A*S*H communicates its anti-war message not through indignant speeches but instead through bloody imagery. The operating room scenes don’t shy away from showing the ugliness of war and they are occasionally so visceral that they almost seem to shame the audience for have laughed just a few minutes earlier. One of the film’s more famous (and controversial) sequences features Hawkeye driving Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) to insanity by crudely taunting him about his affair with head nurse Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Burns attacks Hawkeye, a response that actually seems rather justified even if it is played for laughs. A scene of Burns being driven out of the camp in straitjacket is followed by a close-up of a geyser of blood erupting from a wounded soldier’s throat. It’s a jarring transition but one that makes a stronger anti-war statement than any self-righteous monologue would have. While Hawkeye and Trapper are taunting Burns and Margaret, soldiers are still being sent off to die.
The humor in M*A*S*H is often brutally misogynistic. Margaret is described as being “a damn good nurse” but is continually humiliated because she believes in maintaining military discipline. One can disagree with her emphasis on following all of the proper regulations while also realizing the Hawkeye and Trapper’s treatment of her is unreasonably cruel. The scene where Trapper and Hawkeye expose her while she’s taking a shower is especially difficult to watch and there’s no way to justify their actions. It’s frat boy humor, the type of stuff that you would expect from a bunch of former college football players, which is what we’re told Hawkeye and Trapper are. (That, of course, is another huge difference between the film and television versions of the characters.) That said, it’s debatable whether or not were supposed to find either Hawkeye or Trapper to be heroic or even likable. As a director, Robert Altman shied away from making films with unambiguous heroes or villains. Just as Margaret could be a “damn good nurse” and a “regular army clown” at the same time, Hawkeye can be both a dedicated doctor and a bit of a jerk.
After 90 minutes of bloody operating room scenes and Trapper and Hawkeye making crude jokes, M*A*S*H suddenly becomes a sports film as the the 4077th plays a football game against their rivals, the 325th Evac Hospital. The change of tone can be a bit jarring but it’s perhaps the most important sequence in the film. For a few hours, the doctors bring “the American way of life” to Korea and the end result is a game that’s played for money and which is only won through cheating and deception. (Future blaxploitation star Fred Williamson made his film debut as the ringer who the 4077th recruits for the game.) For all of the broad comedy of the game, it’s followed by a shot of the doctors playing poker while a dead soldier is transported out of the camp, wrapped in a white sheet. Football may provided a distraction. The money may have provided an incentive. But the war continued and people still died.
Much of M*A*S*H‘s humor has aged terribly but the performances still hold up and the anti-war message is potent today. Though Sutherland and Gould are undeniably the stars of the film, M*A*S*H is a true ensemble film, full of the overlapping dialogue and the small character performances that Robert Altman’s films were known for. One reason why the film works is because it is an immersive experience, the viewer truly does feel as if they’ve been dropped in the middle of an operating field hospital. Though Hawkeye and Trapper may be at the center of the action, every character, from the camp’s colonel to the lowliest private, seems to have their own story playing out. This a film where paying attention to the little things happening in the background is often more rewarding than paying attention to the main action. I particularly liked the performances of David Arkin as the obsequies Staff Sergeant Vollmer and Bud Cort as Pvt. Warren Boone. Boone, especially, seems to have an interesting story going on in the background. The viewer just has to keep an eye out for him. Also be sure to keep an eye out for Rene Auberjonois, who reportedly improvised one of the film’s best-known lines when, after Margaret demands to know how Hawkeye reached a position of authority in the army medical corps, he deadpanned, “He was drafted.”
One of the first major studio films to be openly critical of the military and the war in Vietnam, M*A*S*H won the Palme d’Or, defeating films like Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and The Strawberry Statement. Unlike many Palme winners, it was also a box office success in the United States. Though controversial, it received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. However, unlike the Cannes jury, the Academy decided to honor a different film about war, Patton.