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From the Vaults: 'MASH' (1970)

December 13, 2010 |  1:58 am

Mashposter I loathe war movies. I also loathe hospital movies, and movies with predominantly male stars (really, who wants to sit and watch a bunch of men running around?) And I really loathe movies with long football scenes. Yet then we have Robert Altman's "MASH," and it is one of my favorite movies. I watch it every fall, mostly for the football scene.

The story, such as it is, opens with surgeons Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Duke (Tom Skerritt) arriving at their Mobile Army Surgical Hospital near the Korean War front lines; they amble into the mess hall, where they're greeted by a cacophony of overlapping dialogue as they ogle the beautiful Lt. Dish (Jo Ann Pflug). Then they get to work. And that's pretty much the movie: They work, and they goof around trying to stay sane. Their antics are silly but the movie's never cute -- there's always an edge.

Duke and Hawkeye are soon joined by heart surgeon Trapper John (Elliott Gould), and the three set about taking down their twin nemeses: Bible-thumping Maj. Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and bureaucracy-loving Maj. Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). I love the moment when Frank is praying out loud while the others drink martinis, and he earnestly asks God to protect the soldiers and the commander in chief; Duke and Hawkeye both start and lower their glasses in genuine shock. It's a massive faux pas to them, I think, to suggest that God has anything to do with the hideous things that are happening at the front.

The movie's not quite antireligious -- Rene Auberjonois plays the affable chaplain Dago, who's kind of in his own serene little world but who's much more practical than Frank. There's a wonderful bit where Duke interrupts him as he performs last rites in a hopelessly understaffed operating room: "Dago! I want you over here to hold this retraction. Now! ... I'm sorry, Dago, but this man is still alive and that other man is dead, and that's a fact." In a field hospital, God just has to wait.


Mashdinner Houlihan, of course, eventually gets saddled with the nickname "Hot Lips." Sex is definitely the preferred way to unwind, and it sits a bit uneasy to the modern viewer that Hot Lips has to be publicly and sexually humiliated in front of the entire camp -- twice -- before she finally loosens up. The women are nurses, after all, and most of them don't get to call the shots in camp. But most of them are enjoying themselves too: It's impossible to forget the swoony grin on Dish's face after her night with Painless (John Schuck), "the best-equipped dentist in the Army."

And why do I love the football scene so much? It's just a brilliant little self-contained cartoon about war. Both sides play dirty, people get hurt, innocent bystanders get knocked over, and it's all because two rival commanding officers have a high-stakes bet going. It's also the only sequence that shows actual fighting and gunshots (Hot Lips: "My God, they've shot him!" Col. Blake: "Houlihan, you incredible nincompoop, it's the end of the quarter"). I love the player who's smoking a joint and just directs a woozy smile right at the camera. It's a wonderful moment of wry self-awareness.

I'm leaving so much out, but you all know why this movie is famous -- the brilliantly overlapping dialogue (which made a hash of Ring Lardner Jr.'s screenplay, though he won an Oscar for it anyway), the totally nonsubtle anti-Vietnam-War message, the gruesomely bloody operating scenes.

And I love this movie too for the things it leaves out, the way it lets you fill in the massive emotional gaps yourself. There's a fab bit when Blake (Roger Bowen) is walking with his nurse girlfriend and she says "Nice jacket. Is it new?" and he replies, "Yes, my, ah, it was sent to me." The camera lingers on her face, resolutely declining to be hurt. The moment's echoed at the movie's end, when Duke learns he's free to go home and he can only see Hot Lips' eyes, huge and shattered, above her surgical mask. Oh, wow, do I love this movie. I might go home and watch it again.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Above: The MASH crew at Painless' last supper, in the scene that features the "Suicide Is Painless" title song. (Don't worry; Painless will attain, ahem, resurrection with help from Dish.)