M*A*S*H Story Line

From the Gerard Plecki book, Robert Altman

M*A*S*H is probably Robert Altman's funniest film, even though the quality and type of humor are inconsistent. Often in this film the director pushes a joke too far, as in the shower-scene discussion about the dentist, Walt "Painless Pole" Waldowski (John Schuck). On occasions the use of slapstick is overdone, particularly in the opening fight between the black sergeant and the military police, or in the football game. But for the most part, humor in the film is quick, witty, offhand, and completely realistic. One of Altman's goals along these lines seems to be to unsettle the viewer, that is, after getting a laugh, to force a recognition that the joke is possibly not as funny as it may immediately seem.

These attempts to disorient viewers are evident throughout the episodic film. In the opening credits sequence, the sight of the helicopters (without any live sound) leaving the front lines, along with the calming melody of "Suicide is Painless," is captivating and poetic, while the lyrics of the theme song warn of the seriousness of the scene. So as soon as we begin to enjoy the dreamy visuals and lullaby, we are told "the sword of time will pierce our skin, it never hurts when it begins"; "the game of life is hard to play, I'm gonna lose it anyway"; and "I can take or leave it if I please," a sentiment that recurs throughout Altman's films especially in "It Don't Worry Me" from Nashville.

The film actually does not have any conventional plot. The story, with its series of disjointed episodes, approaches the traditions of the picareque novel, although the characters here are doctors and officers, rather than vagabond rogues. With the arrival of two of the doctors, Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerrit), at the beginning of the film, it is obvious that much of the humor will derive from the attempts of the surgeons to establish themselves as renegades - from their constant struggles to disassociate themselves from army protocol and regulations at every possible opportunity.

They quickly assert their independence by ignoring military ranks. Forrest believes that Hawkeye is his driver and tells him to get his bags - he does not discover that Hawkeye is a captain until they meet Lt. Dish (Jo Ann Pflug) and Colonel Henry Blake (Roger Bowen). The atmosphere of the camp is relaxed and informal. Everyone is on a first-name basis; a captain wears private fatigues and tennis shoes, and the conversation in the operating room is strikingly blunt and familiar. At one point in an operation Duke comments, "Man, it looks like the Mississippi River down there" as he operates on the stomach of a patient. When he later needs assistance in an operation, he commandeers the service of the chaplain, Father "Dago Red" Mulcahy (Rene Aberjonois), who is performing Last Rites on a patient, by telling him, "Sorry, but this man's still alive and that one's dead, and that's a fact."

In addition to the problem of being understaffed, Hawkeye and Duke must live and work with the first of the two "regular army clowns" they meet in camp, Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). They discover that Burns is not only a hypocrite and a religious fanatic but is also an incompetent surgeon. They bully Colonel Blake into moving Burns from their tent and demand that he find a chest surgeon. The arrival of the anonymous surgeon provides a very humorous, small moment in the film. Hawkeye seems to recognize the man, and tells him in a slight western drawl, "I don't know your name, stranger, but your face is familiar." They offer the man a martini, to which he agrees, and then tops their offer by asking, "Don't you use olives?" His initiation to their circle is completed when, to their amazement, he removes a jar of olives from his coatpocket, saying, "Yes, but a man can't really savor a martini without an olive, otherwise it just doesn't quite make it." His alliance with Hawkeye and Duke is reaffirmed when he confronts Burns and punches him in the head, after he had seen Burns blaming the orderly Boone (Bud Cort) for the death of a patient.

While the sugeons are playing football, Hawkeye recalls the identity of the newcomer, Captain "Trapper John" McIntyre (Elliot Gould). The team is now complete, and immediately the antics of the threesome escalate, particularly with the entrance of the new head nurse, Major Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Hawkeye is at first attracted to her and is friendly, but when he asks where she is from and she replies, "Well, I like to think of the Army as my home," he is warned that he is encountering an alien perspective. The pace and humor of their conversation in the mess tent heighten when Hawkeye states, "If you have observed anything you would have observed that Major Burns is an idiot." Houlihan feels to the contrary, that "Major Burns is not only a good technical surgeon, he is also a good military surgeon." Hawkeye is stunned; Houlihan is just warming to her topic. She has also observed that everyone refers to Pierce as Hawkeye, and "that kind of informality is inconsistent with maximum efficiency in a military organization." By now Hawkeye's patience has been worn too thin. He tells her, "Oh come off it, Major! You put me right off my fresh fried lobster, do you realize that?" Hawkeye is not just angry with her; he is fed up with the control that the army has exerted over everyone's life, including his own. So, understandably, he describes how he would "normally" have acted and why her remarks have upset him. He relates that "under normal circumstances, you being normally what I call a very attractive woman, I would have invited you back to share my little bed with me and you might posiibly have come - but you really put me off." He therefore concludes that, unfortunately, "you're what we call a regular army clown." Then when Houlihan asks rhetorically, "I wonder how a degenerated person like that could that could have reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps," Dago Red casually answers, "He was drafted." The conversation between the two captains and the reply by the Mulcahy character characterize the irony that the surgeons must be experiencing.

Hawkeye's attitude also conveys the anarchic temperament the surgeons adopt in order to adjust to their situation. The tone of the film, and the actions and attitudes of the surgeons, emulate the style, the behaviors, and the motivations seen in several Marx Brothers films. The attitude toward war is nearly identical in M*A*S*H and Duck Soup: Korea is the same "Land of the Spree and Home of the Knave" for the surgeons that Freedonia is for Rufus T. Firefly. As far as the army is concerned, the surgeons seem to agree with the philosophy of Professor Wagstaff, in Horse Feathers, who sings, "Whatever it is, I'm against it." Hawkeye and Trapper John alternately show the same sarcasm and lechery that Groucho Marx displays in countless films. After being named chief surgeon, Trapper dresses in an Uncle Sam outfit while he is carried around the tent with everyone singing "Hail to the Chief" - a scene reminiscent of the "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" melee in Animal Crackers. Trapper spots Margaret Houlihan and yells, "No. No food. I want sex. Bring me some sex. That one there, the sultry bitch with the fire in her eyes. Take her clothes off and bring her to me." Perhaps his diction is less subtle, but otherwise there is little difference between his attitude toward Houlihan in M*A*S*H and the approach of Otis B. Driftwood to Mrs. Claypool in A Night at the Opera - they both intend to use and then discard those women.

Meanwhile, Altman portrays Burns as a total hypocrite. For example, he and Margaret complain how those activities are bad for "army morale." Margaret sympathizes, saying, "It's the disrespect for you, that's what I can't forgive them." Bent on self-destruction, Frank Burns replies with unintended irony, "Oh, I'm used to it." Apparently this is not the first time he has earned disrespectful treatment from a bunch of "godless buffoons," one of whom is Radar O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff), the quiet, resourceful company clerk. With his help the surgeons lead an attack on the pretensions they find in abundance in the personalities of Frank and Margaret. For example, Frank and "Hot Lips" need to justify their sexual attraction for each other. Frank suggests, "God meant us to find each other," to which Margaret responds, while throwing open her blouse, "His Will be done." Earlier, on the other hand, when Hawkeye is going to bed with Lieutenant Dish, she just states, "I love my husband," to which Hawkeye truthfully explains, "I love my wife too. If she was here I'd be with her," and "Love has nothing to do with this." His philisophy makes the rationalization of Margaret and Frank appear even more sacrilegious.

Obviously, then, the viewer knows exactly who is going to come out ahead in the Burns and Hawkeye conflict. Over breakfast Hawkeye teases and baits Burns about his brief affair with Hot Lips, asking him, "Heard from your wife lately?" and "Is she better than self-abuse?" and finally, "Does she lie there kind of quiet, or does she go 'oh-oh-oh?" Spitting out his beakfast, Burns yells, "Keep your filthy mouth to yourself," and then he jumps Hawkeye. Trapper of course adds fuel to the fire, shouting, "Watch out for your goodies, Hawkeye, that man is a sex maniac, I don't think Hot Lips satisfied him!" So the pitiable Burns is removed from camp. Altman quickly stops the scene from becoming too remorseful, or from allowing the viewer to think that Hawkeye and Trapper were too cruel in their treatment of the man, by having Duke immediately confront Henry Blake, saying, "Colonel, fair is fair. If I nail Hot Lips and puch Hawkeye, can I go home?" Thus the surgeons end up doing Burns a favor by getting him out of Korea.

Once Burns is gone, the film becomes even more loosely episodic than it has been, consisting of six major sequences: the Last Supper; the Hot Lips shower scene; the drafting of Ho-Jon (Kim Atwood); the trip to Tokyo; the football game; and the departure of Hawkeye and Duke. The episodes provide succinct examples of the treatment of religion, war, sex, and hypocrisy in the film as the surgeons continue to outrage tradition.

The Last Supper sequence is perhaps the most outrageous bit in M*A*S*H, but the object of the satire here is not religion, as one would suspect, but it is instead war films per se. The subtext in this episode, in which the Painless Pole attempts suicide, is that war films never mock the religious beliefs or rituals of soldiers. Faith and religion are always vindicated, as in The Fighting 69th or in the films mentioned in the loudspeaker announcements of M*A*S*H - When Willie Comes Marching Home or The Glory Brigade. This is also why the introduction to Frank Burns is bizarre and unsettling, when he mentions to Hawkey and Duke, "The list grows longer every day - now I have your souls to pray for." Altman's ethics are more situational than antireligious. Dago Red, for example, is a figure of parody not just because he is a priest, but because he is simply a nice man trying to deal with the insanity and immorality around him by ignoring it. So he pretends he does not find the underwear of Lieutenant Dish on the ground, and he thinks that the broadcast lovemaking of Burns and Houlihan is in fact an episode of the radio show "The Battling Bickersons." He is therefore also content with absolving Painless from the "intention" of committing suicide and with giving a solemn blessing to the jeep that Hawkeye will drive when he leaves the unit.

The surgeons have a field day with their ludicrously serious patient Painless, who feels compelled to kill himself because of his occasional impotence - he fears he is becoming a homosexual. So they invent their black capsule ("it worked for Hitler and Eva Braun"), and conduct an irreverent eulogy before setting him in his coffin. The language of this send-off for Painless is filled with tongue-in-cheek military cliches. For example, Duke intones, "You know, I've got an idea that maybe it's not such a final farewell after all. I think maybe ol' Walt's goin' on to the unknown and do a little recon work for us all." Hawkeye then adds, "Nobody ordered Walt to go on this mission - he volunteered, certain death, "that's what we award our finest medals for, that's what being a soldier is all about." But after hearing the theme song, "Suicide is Painless," the viewer is left with essentially a downbeat situation - everyone has filed past the corpse and the coffin is carried out of the tent. Altman again rescues the scene from its own sobriety with the conversation between Hawkeye and Lieutenant Dish, when he convinces her to be of some service to Walt by performing a "simple act of charity."

This process of following a big joke with a letdown and ending with a less somber but still thought-provoking conclusion is repeated in the Hot Lips shower scene. The timing and execution of the stunt are funnier than the content, which is the physical exposition of Hot Lips to the camp. Although her reaction is overblown, Hot Lips makes some serious and truthful charges in Colonel Blake's tent. The staging of the scene, with Blake in bed drinking champagne with a nurse, lessens the tension, which is further deflated when Blake calls her bluff about resigning her commision.

On the occasion when Ho-Jon is inducted into the Korean Army, the technique of the director is self-reflexive. Altman films Hawkeye, who is shocked by the loss of his friend, from the point of view of a female journalist, while she films him standing in his jeep, with her 16mm Bell and Howell camera. She asks if he wants to say hello to his mother, and the scene ends as abruptly as it began, with Hawkeye saying, "Hi, Dad" into her camera as she is driven past him. It is the most human and personal moment for Hawkeye in the entire film, and it clearly establishes him as the central, thoughtful, and lonely protagonist of M*A*S*H.

The next event for Hawkeye and Trapper is their trip to Tokyo, and it is perhaps the funniest and best-sustained comic sequence in the film. Trapper receives an invitation to operate in Tokyo while he and Hawkeye are practicing their golf game, using the helicopter landing pad as the driving range. The scene begins with a stunning overhead shot; once he hears the news, Trapper takes Hawkeye by the arm and says, "How often can you go to Tokyo with your golf clubs? C'mon, Shirley." In the very next shot they are being driven to the Tokyo hospital by an exasperated sergeant They push their way into the operating room, with Trapper issuing non-stop orders, demanding "at least one nurse who knows who to work in close without getting her tits in the way." During the operation Hawkeye is surprised to find that the anesthetist is Me Lay Marston (Michael Murphy), an old friend of his, but Hawkeye does not recognize him (once again) until Johnson banters, "So why don't you save your rapierlike wit for the clam diggers back home, Hawkeye?" After the operation, between geisha houses and "screwing Kabuki dancers," the "pros from Dover" illegally operate to save the life of a Japanese infant. The foppish base colonel declares, "This time I will not be intimidated," thus informing the viewer that this is exactly what is going to occur. Johnson anesthetizes the colonel, and with his help Hawkeye and Trapper quickly blackmail him. Having saved two lives they arrive back at the 4077th wearing new golf clothes and operate immediately while still in spiked shoes.

Altman begins the "symbolic" football game sarcastically enough. General Hammond (G. Wood) tellls Henry that an intersquad football game is "the best way of keeping the American way of life going in Asia." The game itself is rather cliched, featuring the cameo appearances of Fran Tarkenton, Ben Davidson, and Jack Concannon, along with the M*A*S*H "ringer," Captain Oliver Wendell "Spearchucker" Jones (Fred Williamson). Hot Lips is now a team player, having had an affair with Duke, and she leads cheers with an amusing naivete: at the sound of the halftime gun she screams, "My God, they shot him!" The sequence however is overly long, and the humor is mostly surface and slapstick, heavy-handed at that.

For a film of such complexities, loose ideas, and fragile humor, Altman handles the ending extremely effectively. The flash forward of Duke arriving in the United States, the mixed feelings of Hawkeye - elation and sadness, about leaving his friends - are underplayed, not too sentimental. When Hawkeye tells Duke they can leave, for instance, another surgeon who is assisting Duke in the operating room asks plaintively, "Do you mind if we get out of this guy's brain first?" As they depart, the colonel asks Radar if they stole the jeep. Radar's response, "No sir, that's the one they came in," recalls the skewed logic the M*A*S*H world, to which Hawkeye was a major contributor - a logic that is emphasized again in the final public-address announcement, "Tonight's movie has been M*A*S*H. Follow the zany antics of our combat surgeons ... snatching love and laughter between amputations and penicillin."

© Copyright 1985 by G. K. Hall and Company

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