Deconstructing MASH (1970)

My friend Ryan- whose opinions I value as much or more than anyone else about movies- was recently singing the praises of the comedy in MASH (1970) to me when I was putting together my comedy flowchart. I’m ashamed to admit that as he was praising MASH, all I could remember from the first time I saw it was the overlapping dialogue and the Last Supper scene. In other words, I needed to re-watch it. Thanks to the fine folks at the Wildey Theater, I had my chance to re-watch it this past weekend, and on the big screen no less.

There are four major aspects that stood out to me during the re-watch, and there’s one major theme. That theme is that MASH is a counterculture classic. It represents the ethos of the late 1960s and early 1970s youth perfectly. And that’s true of the film both from a technical standpoint and from a thematic standpoint.

The first major aspect is of course the irreverence. MASH is to comedies as The Wild Bunch is to westerns, demolishing the corny Hayes Code morality of the prior three decades with a sly grin. There are no sacred cows whatsoever. Religion is mocked a great deal, most notably in two scenes. The first is the hilarious rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers” while Frank Burns kneels to pray, and the second is the entire Painless sequence. The second features the legendary Last Supper scene, followed by Painless rising from the dead, so to speak, only after a nurse has sex with him. That second part also speaks to the satire of sexuality. In addition to using the nurse to rouse Painless from his faux death, there’s also the memorable and riotous scene in which Radar slips the camp speaker under Burns’ bed during his tryst with Houlihan. Military hero worship takes it on the chin from director Robert Altman as well. These people are anything but heroic, at least not in the traditional sense. They honor the faux dead Painless with porn and booze. Later, we see members of the 325th smoking pot. Burns and Houlihan serve as the archetypes for the traditional military hero… and are made to look ridiculous at every turn of the film. Other counterculture issues addressed by Altman include race and drug use.

The second major aspect that demanded notice was the pacing. Altman employed several recurring bits that gave MASH a heartbeat. Chief among them was Hawkeye’s incessant whistling, a tune and pitch that Donald Sutherland (as Hawkeye) matched each time it was used. The PA system was used to signify transitions and add a dollop of humor, usually in reference to the hokey war films of past generations. And then there’s the surgery. Altman never let you forget what really happens during war, with bloody surgery tent scenes used as mile markers throughout the film. Throughout the film, it beats serious, and then it beats chaotic. Rinse, repeat.

“I wish they wouldn’t land those things here while we’re playing golf.”

In between all of those pacing mile markers was the third major aspect- the pure chaos. It manifests itself most notably in the overlapping dialogue, which adds a dose of realism to the film. People aren’t going to stop talking because someone else is talking in surgery. The film’s protagonists relish in beating up the rules, regardless of who establishes those rules. From a technical standpoint, Altman composed and edited the film chaotically to enhance the effect (I’ll touch on this a little more later).

All of those aspects segue nicely into the fourth and final aspect that I noticed- the surrealism. It grabs the audience immediately in the early (aforementioned) “Onward Christian Soldiers” scene. It’s used to great effect in the Last Supper sequence, as an entire group of army surgeons naturally fall right into the odd, unnatural behavior of mimicking the Last Supper, and Painless’ res/erection. When Houlihan’s tent is lifted mid-shower, exposing her true hair color, she storms into Colonel Blake’s office and threatens to resign her commission. Blake doesn’t give a damn, as he’s lying in bed with a blonde nurse, drinking wine. Again, this is presented as perfectly natural when it’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect in a military film of any sort.

To further the jarring effect of his deconstruction of classic military films, Altman reaches deep into the French New Wave bag of tricks. At various intervals, character discourse disappears completely and the audience is left only with the reactions of the characters to deduce what’s going on. The overhead shot that leads into the film and the initial tracking shot through the surgical tent are both very long. When Trapper and Hawkeye go to Japan, they’re seen speaking mock Japanese and their mouths are out of sync with the dialogue, presumably a humorous nod to poorly dubbed Japanese cinema. And the finale pokes at the fourth wall with a curtain call, via the PA system again, that announces the cast by name.

Ryan was right. Altman created a hilarious film, one with no reverence whatsoever for the social conventions of America in the late 1960s and early 70s. When I was a kid, I never understood why the VHS cover had a peace sign with a great set of legs. And now as an adult, I get it. Altman created the perfect counterculture film, strapping his comedy to the rotting corpse of hokey military heroism that had dominated the silver screen for some 30+ years. He earned points and laughs with nearly everything the counterculture held so dear. And that’s precisely why it’s a classic.


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15 responses to “Deconstructing MASH (1970)

  1. A great classic of counterculture as you stated but also a strong social critic on the Vietnam War and its casualties. Altman always liked to provoke his audience to think and interpelled the conformists.
    I might have to revisit M*A*S*H since you brought those memories back!

  2. Agree! We just saw “Annie” with John Shuck as Mr. Warbucks last week. The play was good, but I spent the whole time being totally geeked-out over seeing Painless in person!

  3. Great review. I envy you that you got to see it on the big screen.

    • I’m really glad I did. My big-screen viewing is going to go through the roof in the next two weeks thanks to a local French film festival.

  4. I think I need to rewatch this one. Its been many years and I dont think I appreciated it! Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. It has been too long since I saw this film.

    This is a great dissection John. Thanks for reminding me why i lovd the film

  6. I LOVE MASH, but I didn’t appreciate it the first time I saw it. I didn’t hate it, but years of watching Alan Alda and the gang had brainwashed me into thinking there was really only One True 4077, and that did not involve Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, funny as they may be. They were ancestors, predecessors, mere inspiration.

    But it’s funny, I rewatched both the movie and the TV show last summer and found my tastes had shifted. I now prefer the movie and as much as I’ll always love the TV show, it now seemed…watered-down. Less meaningful. Dare I say…hokey?

    (In the best, most lovingly possible sense, of course).

    But I do think both had a powerful impact on What War Stories Should Be and How They Must Be Told. War was deadly, serious, traumatizing, horrific, yes, of course, but war stories needn’t always be told with a rising score and eight-minute monologues.

    (Aw, now, don’t look at me like that, Gettysburg. You know I LOVE your eight-minute monologues…)

    Great critique, John. I really enjoyed it.

    • I know EXACTLY what you mean. I had the same experience. When I was a kid, the TV show was something I could watch late at night in syndication, and the movie was that boring thing for adults. Then you become an adult and watch it, and the TV show pales in comparison. And that’s a shame, because within the medium of TV, it’s a damned good show. But it lacked the cajones of the film.

      It’s almost too bad MASH, the TV show, wasn’t made today so it could air on HBOwtime with nudity and swearing and better highjinx.

  7. Schteveo

    as a Boomer, counter-culture follower, old hippie and Cold War VETERAN, let me say your statement about “hokey military heroism” offends me some.

    I guess I can never figure out just why ‘counter-culture’ to most people under about 35 or 40 means Anti-American. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real truth, going back to the days of Viet Nam and anti-war folks isn’t quite that cut and dried.

    During the anti-war days, there was a split in HOW things should be done to stop the war and bring our brothers and sisters home from S.E. Asia. The anti-war hippies, wanted the war to end by forcing the gov’t via non-violent manners, like Ghandi and Dr. King taught, think hippies. The anti-war, anti-American crowd wanted to BLOW UP the military – industrial complex, and destroy America to set things around to their way of thinking, think college radicals this time.

    The easiest ways to think of this and get it straight is like this. In August 1969, the peaceful, anti-war hippies went to Woodstock. They listened to music, got high as kites and played in the mud.

    In that same month, members of the SDS were returning from Cuba, where they’d met with Officials from North Viet Nam. Those officials gave the SDS moral support and some of THEM say they also got money, training, maybe even explosives from North Viet Nam. They also discussed tactics that could be used to undermine and overthrow the U.S. Government.

    John, counter-culture used to mean NOT following the norm, not Anti-American.

    It meant having long hair instead of dad’s crew cut, it even meant listening to different music than the average person your age did in some circles, it meant not getting a 9 to 5, factory / office job, not living in suburbia, not eating meat loaf on every Tuesday night, it meant maybe even becoming a Buddhist or Atheist instead of going to the church Mom and Dad attended when you were kids.

    It meant COUNTER to, or instead of, the regular culture of most Americans.

    If it hadn’t been for some of that hokey stuff, you might not be enjoying the freedom you have right NOW to write this blog, innocuous as it may seem. So, enjoy the flicks, enjoy talking and writing about them, but also recognize that a number ‘hokey militaristic heroes’, somewhere over the last 240 odd years, gave their lives to give YOU the Freedoms to openly express your disdain OF those people.

  8. I feel there’s much more religious symbolism to MASH than you let on. Painless represents Christ, certainly. He also appears– for no other good reason– in the first and last scenes (the alpha and the omega). But remember the last glimpse we have of Major Burns? Expelled from the unit, we see him through flames. Burns represents Lucifer cast into hell– for his hypocrisy. God the Father is Col. Blake: aloof, disengaged, but ultimately in control. Radar (ignore the sappy Radar from the series and study the Radar of the film) is the Holy Spirit: he knows the will of the “father” even before it is articulated, and moves about the camp to implement that will. Blake and Radar too are “the alpha and the omega” appearing in the first and last scenes. Hot Lips; I’m not so sure about. Mary Magdalene? The football game represents the Biblical final contest/war between good and evil that brings about the end of time. And leaving military service and returning home represents death and going to “heaven.”

  9. And one more thing: Goddamn Army.

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