Somewhere around 1983, when I was 13, I discovered that my favorite TV show, M*A*S*H, was actually based on a movie that was loosely based on a book. My parents had recently bought our first VCR, a front loading VHS console that didn’t even come with a remote.
I was in love and obsessed with television’s M*A*S*H. It was the catalyst of my early adolescent discovery of humanistic, authority-questioning ideas in American popular culture. As I transitioned into my freshman year of high school in suburban St. Louis – about as Reagan-enthused a place as you could find in America at the time – I also discovered “the 60’s,” or at least a young, often lonely and depressed suburban middle class white teen’s romantic idea of “the 60’s.”
Knowing the cinematic parent of my beloved television show was a critically acclaimed late 60’s anti-war movie, I placed my hope of renting the movie in our neighborhood video rental shop, Mr. Movies. Mr. Movies had a lot of titles from the 60’s and early 70’s, and I devoured them amidst my parents’ general obliviousness about my growing fascination with and yearning for an era I imagined I would have felt at home in and regretted having missed. The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, To Kill a Mockingbird, Planet of the Apes, In the Heat of the Night, Dr. Strangelove, and Hair were repeat rentals. So were 70’s movies about the major social conflicts of the 60’s: Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Harold and Maude.
But I couldn’t rent the original movie M*A*S*H because Mr. Movies only had it in Betamax. Other video rental shops didn’t have it at all. It was agonizing that I could hold in my hands the Beta cassette of the mysterious full-length movie version of my favorite fictional world, but all I could ask the owner every few weeks was “do you think you’ll get a copy in VHS soon?” I did what I could to find out more about the film – I asked my parents, my friends’ parents, and some of my teachers if they’d seen it and what they remembered about it. I gleaned very little.
Then, I found a paperback edition of the Richard Hooker novel/memoir, M*A*S*H, that had inspired Robert Altman’s 1970 film, bought it, and read it. I don’t remember much about it anymore, except that at the time I read it I was puzzled because it didn’t really seem like it had an Alan Alda-esque antiwar-movement soul. I think that in fact it did not – if memory serves, Richard Hooker was a pseudonym for an actual surgeon-veteran who served in Korea and who mainly wanted to write a memoir about the zany absurdist adventures that he and other medical personnel experienced during the war. I think the book did do a lot to portray some of the “futility-of-war” themes that also made it into the movie and the TV show, and it did so by presenting its readers with the insanely contradictory situation of doctors – people trained to heal wounds and prevent death – being put into service doing emergency repair work on healthy young men who, if healed, would often then be sent back out to get blown to bits again or else blow other human beings to bits. But I’m pretty sure it was not taking a political stand against the US decision to fight in Korea, or Vietnam. If I’m wrong, apologies to the author.
Anyway, having read the novel a couple times, all I wanted was to see the frickin’ original movie. I started watching other movies I could get my hands on that included some of its cast members. If I couldn’t see them in the movie M*A*S*H, maybe I could indirectly absorb some of what the movie was like by watching its actors in other stuff. So I rented Ordinary People with Donald Sutherland. I rented Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) with Elliott Gould (if my parents had known what the movie was about they probably wouldn’t have let me rent it). Robert Duvall I knew from Apocalypse Now and The Godfather, and from The Great Santini. I didn’t know who Sally Kellerman was and couldn’t really find movies starring her, but I tried.
The more I fantasized about the film, the more I came to believe the experience I would have viewing it was going to be transformative – that it was going to transport my sensitive-emergent-peacenik soul via some kind of time-portal to the “true spirit of the 60’s.” The big day finally arrived in 1985, not long before my 16th birthday. Mr. Movies had a VHS copy of M*A*S*H.
My first viewing of the movie was, actually, kind of everything I had hoped for. I sat in front of our living room TV, pushed Play on the VCR, and focused with perfect attention. To this day I still remember the first time I saw and heard the 20th Century Fox fanfare conclude, and then the first four wistful guitar notes of the iconic theme song, “Suicide Is Painless,” and the reveal – finally – of what the words to the song were. (I had heard that there were words to it but could not find them.) The movie then swallowed me, whole.
M*A*S*H is an immersive and frankly weird movie.
When I was 15, I only knew that it was unlike any other movie I’d ever seen, though I lacked a lot of the cinematic arts language to describe it that I would come to learn years later. There is just so much going on in the frame, and the characters who are supposed to be the focus of our attention are sometimes partially obscured by other things going on or are otherwise off-center, making the viewer feel like they are there and are eavesdropping, but that their vantage point is based on their being “located” in a spot within the setting that isn’t ideal for observing but works well enough to mostly follow the action that has caught their attention. This visual style is the film’s primary mode, but sometimes it shifts into a conventional closeup, and the effect is that it intensifies our feelings of identification with the subject of the closeup. As a teen and a virgin to this cinematic style, the movie was really “natural” seeming to me, entrancing, textured, and enveloping. And I had gone into the experience of watching it for the first time wanting to be transported, so it hit home big with me.
In terms of plot and main characters, there’s a lot that the TV series inherits from the movie. As the film critics Mike and Joel Massie (a.k.a. “The Massie Twins”) put it, “Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) … brings a buoyant sarcasm and prankster morale to the group of soldiers” at the 4077th mobile army surgical hospital. Levity is clearly a mental deflection for the horrors of warfare.” Another film critic, Noah Gittell, calls M*A*S*H a “…subversive anti-war comedy [that] avoided sentimentality and teachable moments in favor of cruel pranks and a more hardened cynicism.”
Hawkeye is the focal point for a small group of doctors and other personnel – almost entirely male with some women bringing a mildly groupie energy – who find solace in irreverence, alcohol, sexual infidelity, and ridiculing almost anyone who takes traditional forms of authority seriously. The movie’s plot is a series of skits, juxtaposing hi-jinx humor with “…scenes of graphic surgery, where crimson-soaked sheets and shiny surgical instruments are flourished with sounds of bone-sawing and monotonic, fumbling microphone announcements – and fast-talking, hilariously jokey observations,” as the Massie Twins aptly describe it.
More than any film I had ever seen before, the dialogue sounded like real people talking. Nobody seemed like they were acting. The movie’s abrupt jumps from slapstick or sexual humor to grisly bloody surgery on maimed young soldiers gave me a kind of emotional whiplash — I had never seen that done before on screen, except in the much more sanitized way that the TV show made those kinds of scene shifts to similar effect. But the difference was huge. TV M*A*S*H achieved some of that emotional jolting effect by using a sitcom laughter track during most of its scenes but then silencing the canned laughter during scenes in the operating room. Altman’s film had no laugh track. The film’s humor was much coarser, meaner, uglier, and cynical than was possible on a prime time CBS sitcom of the 70s and 80s. The arterial bleeding, the sawing through bones, and the hopeless moans of the wounded depicted in the film still make me flinch and look away now.
I wouldn’t learn until I was in my 20’s who Robert Altman was, or how he made a name for himself as a director who pioneered a particular style of film-making using ensemble casts in very unusual and fascinating settings, layering in lots of attention to visual details, and enveloping moviegoers in a soundscape of natural chatter and snippets of conversation as we enter or float through semi-chaotic crowded spaces. There’s often a ton of different things going on in the frame in his movies, and it’s easy to miss a few words of dialogue here and there because competing conversations or other sounds (like helicopter blades chopping) overlap with each other.
When I finally saw some of Altman’s other movies, like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and noticed the same techniques as well as some of the same cast members in the ensembles of those films, I began to have a better appreciation for the different cinematic choices and techniques he used.
Altman’s brew of cinematic techniques combined to create an atmosphere that depicted societal authorities as liars deserving to be undermined and ridiculed. It did it by confronting viewers with unvarnished and unglamorous images of wounded and dead soldiers juxtaposed with doctors scrambling to do what the movie calls “meatball surgery” under constantly tenuous conditions. Soldiers who are dying are crying, disoriented, and scared, not stoic in their final moments. Sometimes the dead receive the proper rites and rituals of death, but sometimes they don’t. The surgeons remain professionally detached, because how else could you cope with the onslaughts of desperate wounded and the rushed and shoddy surgical work forced upon them by circumstance, but that trauma and stress has to find an outlet somewhere, and that’s where partying, pranking, heavy drinking, screwing, and thumbing one’s nose at authority all come into play.
This movie swerves along a semi-chaotic path featuring moments of absurdity, sarcasm, and stress-releasing revelry alongside moments of direct confrontation with the literal blood and guts brutality of war. But from time to time along the path, it presents us with poignant moments that are hard to forget, like the scene from which the stills below are taken.
Scenes like this made me want to make films. I wanted to be the next Robert Altman. I wanted to make beautiful, complex, anti-authority films with a deep sense of realism and humanity.
You know how sometimes when you’re younger and you really really love something, and then you get older and you find out that there were actually some terrible things about that thing you loved? And that you need to face them? Well, that pretty much describes when went on to happen to my relationship with M*A*S*H. Because…
M*A*S*H is a movie with horrible misogyny, and it took a former girlfriend of mine to open my eyes to that fact.
I’m not proud that 15 to 21-year-old me was completely oblivious to the unrelenting sexism and misogyny of M*A*S*H, not to mention its casual racism. But in my junior year of college, during spring break, my then girlfriend and I were channel surfing and it so happened that M*A*S*H was going to start in a few minutes. “Ooh – we’ve never watched it together – let’s do it!” I said excitedly. “No way,” she said, and I was surprised. She was an actress and a serious student of film history, so if anything I figured she regarded the movie as one of the greats. “Why not?” I asked. “That movie treats women like shit. I have no desire to see it ever again.” I stopped to think about it. And all at once I saw what I was too ignorant and unconsciously influenced by sexism to realize as a young teen, and too privileged and unconcerned to have been upset by as a 21-year-old (even though I saw myself as a feminist and an ally).
Above: Hawkeye and Duke accost a nurse they’ve never met before (Lt. Leslie, played by Indus Arthur) as she passes by on the way to the shower tent. Duke grabs her elbow and holds on as she tries to pass. “Unhand me, sir,” she finally says. As Duke and Hawkeye get acquainted with the 4077th, the film shows them both making an inventory of the nurses, already giving thought to how to bed them. Duke is more brash and clumsy than the smoothly subtle Hawkeye, but both are playing the same game. The scene these two stills comes from uses the decentered observer’s perspective I wrote about earlier. The camera follows the trajectory of the nurse, and the action gets obscured at times by signs and by the shadows that the camouflage netting casts. The dialogue is also hard to hear. You can tell that both men are making a pass at her, but the only words you can hear easily are “unhand me, sir” followed by Duke calling after her by telling her his name. The full dialogue actually starts with Hawkeye’s ploy for her attention. He holds his helmet out like he’s asking for alms and says, “I’m collecting for my blind brother who can’t afford the trip to Korea.” Duke then takes her elbow and steers her away from Hawkeye, saying “Don’t you trust that man. He’s a mad dog. He’ll do anything.” Then comes Lt. Leslie’s “Unhand me, sir.”
I’m not going to do a full inventory of everything M*A*S*H does with female characters that is degrading and humiliating. As Noah Gittell put it in an essay in The Guardian on the movie’s treatment of women, M*A*S*H features “…a strong anti-establishment sentiment, the foregrounding of morally ambiguous protagonists, and, unfortunately, a deep and unexamined misogyny.” I’ll limit my focus here to the movie’s main female character, Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). She basically gets emotionally, psychologically, and sexually dismembered and dismantled through scorn, ridicule, humiliation, and sexual assault as the film progresses.
She enters the movie in full dress uniform, accompanying Lt. Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen) on a tour of the OR, and the first thing we observe about her is that she is ill-at-ease with some of the informal communication norms among the doctors, nurses, and technicians there. Hawkeye hits on her the first time they have a chance to talk, when she joins him as he is enjoying some fried lobster in the mess tent. But Margaret isn’t interested in flirting. She overlooks the come-on partly because she is looking for an officer – a military peer – that she can confide in about her discomfort with what is clearly a less militarily formal culture than what she’s used to. Does she seem like a prig with an overenthusiastic love for military procedures? Yes. But she also tells Hawkeye something interesting about herself – that she feels like the army is her home – which could have been an entry point into a conversation in which Hawkeye asked to hear more of her story. Think about it – Margaret is a major in the US Army in the early 1950s – not something a lot of women could have achieved, certainly not easily – but Hawkeye and the film itself don’t seem interested to know her story.
Instead, Hawkeye is intensely put off by her military piety, so much so that he tells her off. When he does, he mixes some rank sexism in with his anti-authority smack-down.
Hawkeye: Oh, come off it, Major! You put me right off my fresh-fried lobster. Do you realize that? I’m going to go – go back to my bed. I’m going to put away the best pint of a bottle of scotch, and under normal circumstances – you being normally what I would call a very attractive woman – I would have invited you to come back with me and share my little bed with me, and you might possibly have come.
Margaret: (starts to say something but can’t seem to find the words)
Hawkeye: But you really put me off. I mean – you – you’re what we call a regular army clown.
From there it’s all downhill. As Noah Gittell observes, “Perhaps unable to tolerate the combination of [Margaret’s] good looks and lack of submissiveness, the boys make her the target of their misplaced anger.”
Eventually, Margaret gets together with Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), who shares her dislike of the laxity of military discipline and decorum. Her attraction to Frank, a holier-than-thou religious Christian whom the movie has already established as an object of ridicule, sets our expectation for her to be ridiculed as well. In one of the movie’s more famous scenes, a bunch of the “non-uptight” people on the base – the “cool kids” – gather together amidst a fast-moving rumor that Margaret and Frank are apparently getting it on in her tent. They quickly put together a plan to sneak a microphone into Margaret’s tent and amplify the sounds of their lovemaking on the camp PA system. The entire camp hears Margaret say, “Oh Frank, kiss my hot lips,” which then becomes the basis of the nickname, “Hot Lips,” that Hawkeye and Trapper John (Elliott Gould) use to her face to re-humiliate her relentlessly. It’s an incredible cruel prank that is tantamount to a pre-internet version of revenge porn. People with malice towards Margaret and/or Frank make a public display of their private sexual encounter without their consent. That’s a criminal sex offense. And it’s not the last one targeting Margaret.
Above left: Col. Henry Blake introduces Maj. and Chief Nurse Margaret Houlihan to the crew in the O.R. Clockwise: Hawkeye and Margaret’s first conversation in the mess tent. Next: Again in the mess tent, this time while a party is going on celebrating Trapper’s appointment as chief surgeon. Margaret reacts to Trapper calling out that he wants her brought to him for sex by the crowd, calling her “the sultry bitch with the fire in her eyes.” Last: Lt. Dish (yes, really) trying to subtly fend off Duke’s clumsy attempt to hit on her by making her engagement and wedding rings visible.
Later, Hawkeye, Trapper, and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt playing a character that didn’t migrate over to the TV show) assemble a bunch of the 4077th’s personnel in lawn chairs outside the women’s shower tent. They rig one of the tent walls so that they can pull a rope and raise it up like a curtain, and while Margaret is showering, they suddenly raise the tent wall, exposing her fully naked and lathered in soap. Realizing what’s happened, Margaret starts screaming in horror and trying to cover her body with her arms, while the audience gathered applauds, whistles, and laughs at her. When she manages to flee the shower tent and put on a robe, she runs to Lt. Col. Henry Blake’s tent and bursts in, crying and traumatized. Henry, it turns out, is in bed with one of the female nurses, both of them seeming to be enjoying post-coital serenity. She demands that Henry do something about the constant harassment targeting her, and she threatens to resign her commission if he won’t act. He blithely tells her to go ahead and resign if she wants. He doesn’t care.
Margaret, who by now has twice been sexually assaulted through non-consensual public exposure of her naked body and of her private sexual activity, eventually ends up being considered “one of the gang” of the “cool kids” of the base, whose natural leaders are Hawkeye and Trapper John. The way that happens is first through her going to bed with Duke Forrest, close friend and tent-mate of Hawkeye and Trapper. Duke took part in the unending campaign of harassment, sexual exposure, and ridicule of Margaret, but apparently what we’re meant to think has happened is that she has finally figured out that if she would just “lose the stick up her ass” then she too could be part of the gang. Including bedding down with one of the cool guys, not pious rule-followers like buzzkill Frank Burns.
[M*A*S*H’s] protagonists treat women with the same disrespect that their fathers did, and it portended a troubling future. Squint at M*A*S*H, and you can see National Lampoon’s Animal House, which would come eight years later.”“M*A*S*H at 50: the Robert Altman comedy that revels in cruel misogyny” by Noah Gittel, The Guardian, 1/22/20
The transformation of Margaret from regular army asshole deserving of misogyny and ridicule to attractive and relaxed beautiful woman willing to go with the flow and tempo set by Hawkeye’s gang takes its final form during the very strange mini-movie-within-the-movie that is the football game scene near the end of M*A*S*H. I have more to say about this scene below, but basically, a general who heads a Marine medical evac unit has put together a football team that includes a couple former NFL pros who’ve been drafted. Some other big army honchos also have teams, and they organize occasional games and bet some serious money on them. The general urges Henry to organize a team at the 4077th, and long story short is that they do, and they plan a match against the general’s team. Hawkeye also plots a scheme to make some money on the game by putting in a transfer request for a brain surgeon who also happens to be a former NFL star – and the only major Black character in the movie – but I’ll get into that later. The 4077th’s football team also has a cheer leading squad, led by – you guessed it – the completely reformed and now desirable Margaret Houlihan.
The entire football game scene, which runs nearly 14 minutes and is probably the subject of many film majors’ college theses, is frankly bizarre and is the one part of the movie that I always thought maybe just doesn’t really work. But putting that aside for the moment, the football game is where we basically get Margaret 2.0, who is from the film’s point of view way better than Margaret 1.0, and she’s basically been lobotomized. The person who entered the film as the incoming Chief Nurse responsible for saving lives in the worst kind of ER imaginable – who as a woman in the early 50’s has attained the rank of Major and outranks Hawkeye, Trapper, and Duke – concludes the film leading asinine cheers that are played for laughs because they sometimes reveal her lack of understanding of some of the rules of football. When the referee fires a blank from his pistol to mark the end of the 3rd quarter (as was done in those times), Margaret exclaims in horror “my God, they’ve shot someone,” to which Henry Blake replies with contempt, “Margaret you blithering idiot, that’s the end of the quarter.” Even though Margaret is cool now, from the point of view of the film, she still deserves some ridicule. In truth, Margaret 2.0 is a blithering idiot. There’s nothing left of the woman we met in her first scene, or of the person who sat across from Hawkeye in the mess tent, introduced herself, and when asked where she hailed from began her story by describing how she has felt like the army is her home for some time. The uptight bitch who deserved to be sexually, intellectually, and hierarchically dismantled has been broken and tamed, and now she’s literally become a cheerleader, and a stupid one at that.
This movie is intensely sexist and racist, and at the same time…
…it is at times brilliant, cinematically pioneering, sensitive, humane, existentialist, and moving. It also includes internal contradictions, counter-trends to some of its toxic values. There are characters, moments, and threads in M*A*S*H that express anti-racist values, that ridicule patriarchal values and machismo, and that question hierarchies in general. I would love to be able to say that the movie even includes some countervailing elements that disparage misogyny and sexism, but I honestly can’t think of any. So with that one very important caveat, I’ll just observe that M*A*S*H is an intentionally cacophonous film, full of overlapping conversations and scenes in which horror, boredom, humor, and innocence sometimes share the frame in different juxtapositions. It’s kind of consistent with the movie’s commitment to intentional cacophony that it includes scenes as rankly racist as Hawkeye and Trapper talking in faux-Japanese gibberish to each other while being driven around Tokyo in a US Army jeep by a disgruntled white G.I., and yet it also includes Hawkeye and Trapper breaking army rules to do an unauthorized medical procedure for a Japanese-American multi-racial infant despite the transparently racist objections of the commanding officer they have to defy at the time. M*A*S*H‘s only major Black character is called “Spearchucker” Jones, which is simultaneously played for laughs as a racist joke and presented by Jones in a way that confidently and self-respectfully ridicules and undermines the racism involved in the nickname. Spearchucker is a brain surgeon, and his calm skill in delicate surgery alongside his gifts on the playing field serve to ridicule the ingrown racism that Duke Forrest confesses to harboring as a southern white boy.
Basically, when M*A*S*H wants to be complicated, it succeeds. It may or may not succeed enough or in a way that satisfies many contemporary viewers concerns about different forms of oppression and systemic injustice, but on issues like race, militarism, social hierarchy, and even patriarchal power, M*A*S*H sets out to be complicated, ironic, and at times self-undermining, and it succeeds. But not with its take on women.
Above: M*A*S*H may have the most detailed, recurring, and artful use of partially obscured or visually de-centered subjects of any film I’ve ever seen.
Some viewers might want to add queer folk to the list of demographic groups about which M*A*S*H seems to only have one persistent and uninterrupted negative discourse, and they may be right. Painless Pole (a character I haven’t discussed so far) is a straight, cis-gendered man around whom a comedic sub-plot is built in which he becomes afraid that he is gay, and facing that reality seems so awful that he wants to commit suicide. Hawkeye suspects that Painless isn’t gay, but is suffering from some kind of psychological breakdown due to the insane stresses of the situation they are all struggling to navigate. The whole sub-plot certainly deals with 1950’s homophobia, but it’s hard to say for sure that it affirms any of that homophobia. Hawkeye appears uncomfortable initially at the thought that Painless might really be gay, but he also seems not so much to care about social mores about sexual orientation as to try to figure out why his instincts are telling him that something about Painless’s story doesn’t add up. Hawkeye learns about Painless’s distress from Father Mulkahey, who awkwardly conveys to Hawkeye that it would be good if he would check in on Painless, though he can’t divulge the reason because he learned about it during confession. Hawkeye is the go-to person for people who are cracking up – he accepts all kinds of “deviance” and is good at putting others at ease. He also distrusts religious authority, so he has more leeway to help Painless than Father Mulkahey. In fact, the young priest understands that and in an odd way he pastorally refers Painless to Hawkeye, who isn’t constrained by the priest’s limitations on topics like homosexuality or suicide.
So, like I said, M*A*S*H finds lots of ways – often through humor – to carry on an intentional complex cacophony on many major social values issues, extending a lot of sympathy to the characters in whom these social values issues arise. It does this in many ways, but just not with women. At all.
What hurts especially for me about confronting M*A*S*H ‘s shadow side at this stage of my life is that M*A*S*H is the movie that first made me want to make films. Film-making was the first thing I ever really desperately wanted to do as an enthusiastic teenager, largely because of this movie.
M*A*S*H showed me that films could use unconventional cinematic and sound editing techniques to give the viewer a “fly on the wall” sense of being present during an experience that feels surprisingly real. It showed me that the viewer doesn’t need to be able to clearly hear every spoken word of dialogue or see everything going on in the frame at once to continue to feel immersed in the world of the film. It showed me that instead of a standard plot, a film can string together an uneven series of skits and intense moments, and use contrasts between those settings to make moral, political, or emotional statements without being preachy or didactic. It showed me that anti-heroes and morally ambiguous protagonists can lead us as viewers through a world we might find very strange, but through their flawed humanity they can make us feel like we are sharing in the experience they’re having in the movie. And M*A*S*H showed me that semi-chaotic layering – within the soundscape and the content of the visual frame – can create a feeling of verisimilitude and contribute to a sense of a disorganized social system that is simmering with tensions.
Okay, now to say something about the weird 14-minute long football game in this movie
The long football game scene that dominates the last segment of the movie starts out seeming like it’s being played entirely as slapstick comedy. But as the screwball zaniness of the scene plays out, images of injured players start to resemble the images of the wounded soldiers being hurried from the choppers to the M*A*S*H unit’s O.R. The entire football game – including the league that these generals have set up and the betting pools they run in conjunction with the games – is part of how the army personnel keep trying to escape the horrible absurdities of the war and its bloody consequences. But as the injured players start to resemble the wounded from the war, the escapist intentions of the football games give way to the ubiquitous presence of the worst of the war.
Does the football scene work well – as a strange, long scene in an already oddly episodic and non-linear story? Kinda. I think so. But I’m not sure. It’s definitely unexpected, suddenly causing the viewer to feel like they’ve been transported to a different movie. And yet, there’s a lot to enjoy in this scene, and it is part of what makes the film unique.
Final thought: M*A*S*H is an anti-war movie that aims its attacks against three targets: war, phoniness, and women who have authority or stick to the rules
In leading the pack of the “cool kids” on the base, Hawkeye serves as a kind of healer / asshole, perhaps a bit in the tradition of Holden Caulfield. In fact, the studio pitch of the film might have been something like: “it’s Catch-22 with a now grown-up Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye who has become a surgeon, and it’s all happening in an American army hospital during the Korean War.” The horrible costs of war are everywhere present, but they are more of a frequently intruding nightmare than a narrative focus. The absurdity and deserved ridicule of phoniness is the theme around which the movie’s main strung-together sub-plots revolve.
Phoniness in M*A*S*H includes sanctimonious, hypocritical, or patriotic posturing. M*A*S*H seeks to ridicule politicians responsible for the war, pompous generals and their many sycophants, religious zealots, white southern overt racists, and women in command who are sticklers for following the rules. The liberation it seeks from these various kinds of “phoniness” is real, but it is limited to being in service of supporting the talented surgeons who are the antiheroes of the film. They are men with privilege and talent who just want to live “authentically” and use their impressive skills to do well for themselves and for the world at large.
In fact, this film is so focused on the experiences of talented male doctors as they struggle to maintain sanity under absurd and horrible conditions that it doesn’t have any major or minor speaking characters who are among the wounded GI’s. We don’t know their stories or how the war tests their own abilities to stay sane. Also, for a movie about the Korean war, it is odd that there are no Korean soldiers from the North or South among the wounded, and only the occasional villager on the side of the road in the background of a few scenes. We almost never see any Koreans. There is Ho-Jon, the teenage local boy who works as a servant/valet for Frank Burns and later Hawkeye and his gang, and there is a sub-plot that centers a failed attempt by the American doctors to prevent Ho-Jon from being drafted into the South Korean army. But otherwise, the film doesn’t bring us into the lives of the Americans or Koreans actually fighting on the battlefield,, nor does it dive into the lives of Korean civilians doing their best to keep feeding their families as the war consumes their country.
TV M*A*S*H was different in this regard. It included lots of agonizing and tragic narratives focused on the experiences of wounded soldiers, and the medical staffs’ growing revulsion for war as they interact with them and sometimes bury them. And while the TV show had its own problems with racism, it did include characters and story lines involving Korean soldiers and civilians that were among some of its best moments. Finally, TV’s M*A*S*H started with replicating much of the misogyny surrounding Major Houlihan that was so central to the film, but over the course of its 13 year run, the show’s producers, writers, and cast chose to shift Houlihan’s character from the butt of jokes to a serious, dedicated, overworked and intense head nurse on the base. The show dropped the “Hot Lips” nickname after several seasons, and went with “Margaret” instead.
That about wraps up my thoughts for now on M*A*S*H . It’s a film that is brilliant and moving at the same time that it is deeply offensive in multiple ways. I’m kinda used to that, though. As a Reconstructionist rabbi, I work with ancient sacred texts that are both spiritually astounding and horribly cruel, both inspiring and misogynistic. I take these kinds of texts seriously but not literally, and I can only engage them responsibly if I’m willing to understand and object to misogyny and other forms of injustice or cruelty that may be part of the mix.