War is hell and the doctors aren’t much nicer in Robert Altman’s MASH

War is hell and the doctors aren’t much nicer in Robert Altman’s MASH

Some friends recently had quite a spirited debate about MASH—the 1970 Altman film, not the long-running TV series (which is technically M*A*S*H). It happened to split along gender lines: Both women were appalled by what they perceived as the film’s rampant misogyny and celebration of bullies, while both men argued that the characters’ awful behavior, while undeniable, should be filed under War Is Hell. Not having seen MASH myself in over 20 years, I took a fresh look, and found myself agreeing with both sides. Parts of the film are difficult to watch today, even adjusting for the context and the era. At the same time, though, it is fair to ask—though nobody in the podcast episode put it quite this bluntly—whether it makes sense to prioritize outrage about women being treated like sex objects, or about homosexuality being presented as a reason for suicide (with no objection from anyone onscreen), over outrage about young men being killed for no good reason. Obscenity leads to obscenity.

William Goldman once made a similar point about Good Morning, Vietnam, which he noted would have been taken much less seriously had it been Good Morning, Chicago, the story of a rebellious DJ not spinning records in a war zone. As I recall (been almost 30 years now for that one), even the Vietnam version was fairly banal. MASH, by contrast, couldn’t exist without its protagonists being combat surgeons, and tackling that aspect of the film—which also happens to introduce what we now think of as Altman’s style—seemed like a promising idea. Finding a particular scene to write about, however, proved tricky. There are a lot of surgery sequences in MASH, but they’re all shorter than they seem when you’re watching them in context; I’d edited several together in my memory, and was surprised, when I looked, to find that they’re in fact widely separated. That’s a deliberate strategy on Altman’s part, but it meant that I had to pick one fairly short scene and treat it as representative of the whole. So think of this clip, in which Hawkeye and Trapper argue about how to treat a patient whose blood they can’t replace, as an example.

Altman begins the scene with the surgery already in progress. That’s true of just about every surgery scene in the movie. The whole point of a MASH unit is to be close to the front, so that soldiers can be treated quickly, but the surgical equivalent of, say, firemen leaping from beds and throwing on their gear and sliding down poles to their trucks gets skipped. There’s one instance, early on (before Trapper John arrives), of Hawkeye and Duke walking through the operating theater just after bodies have arrived, but Altman lays voiceover from the preceding scene (which takes place in an office) on top of the footage—a technique he hadn’t used earlier and never uses again. MASH is entirely about the disjunction between the surgeon’s horrific job and their fun-loving downtime, and we’re deliberately never shown the transition between the two. One minute they’re pranksters and the next minute, with a simple cut, they’re elbow-deep in viscera. This is perhaps one reason why the film’s opening-credit sequence shows choppers transporting the wounded: By providing those images at the outset, Altman can avoid showing them later.

This particular scene isn’t the best example of how cacophonous MASH often gets. But there’s still plenty of overlapping dialogue going on, and it’s hard for those who weren’t around to grasp just how disconcerting that approach was at the time. Even if Elliott Gould (as Trapper John) and Donald Sutherland (as Hawkeye) had carefully spaced their lines so that each could readily be heard, it’d be difficult for most lay people to follow exactly what they’re saying—I had to look up “cava,” for example, which I found is a vein that returns deoxygenated blood to the heart. The details don’t really matter, though. One can readily discern that something is seriously wrong, and that fixing it without a fresh supply of blood (A-, specifically) would be extremely risky. At the same time, offscreen voices are tossing in wisecracks, as when someone says they’d better stop the spurting and someone else sarcastically notes, “That’s a very good technical term, doctor.” Other surgery scenes have even more startling gallows humor, underlining the need these professionals feel to distance themselves from the life-or-death decisions they constantly have to make, under extreme pressure.

Professionalism is the one thing in life that Hawkeye and Trapper John genuinely do respect. Earlier in the film, Trapper lightly upbraids a nurse who’s slow to respond when he asks for instruments, saying “It’s a good thing you have a nice body, otherwise we’d get rid of you quick.” Today, such a remark might inspire a sexual harassment suit, but it’s mild compared to other shenanigans in the movie. And it’s balanced, in this scene, by the only kind word our anti-heroes ever speak to Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman): “Hot Lips, you may be a pain in the ass, but you’re a damn good nurse.” That’s not remotely enough to make up for the cruelty she endures, by any means, but it does further emphasize the work/play disjunction. As much as they may hate her for being a by-the-book killjoy, they can’t help but admire that she does her job as skillfully as they do theirs. Might have been nice if Trapper had called her by her name just once, rather than by a humiliating nickname (“earned” when her pillow talk with Robert Duvall’s Major Burns was broadcast over the P.A. system), but he’s a different man in his gown and gloves.

Both of which he really needs. My sense is that few if any films prior to MASH had depicted surgery as the gorefest that it actually is: torsos peeled wide open, multiple clamps jutting from the holes, blood fucking everywhere. This was right around the time that TV news was starting to show carnage in its coverage of Vietnam, and American audiences weren’t as desensitized as we are today; these scenes must have been visually shocking, especially when accompanied by jokes. Putting yourself in that grotesque headspace makes it easier to roll with the idea that MASH knows very well that its surgeons are assholes, and means to suggest that they maintain their sanity, in impossible circumstances, by picking on the weak. I still feel like Altman and screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. could have provided more critical distance—MASH seems to admire Hawkeye and Trapper much more than, say, The Wolf Of Wall Street admires Jordan Belfort. But the surgery scenes make it impossible to write the movie off as a relic of a less enlightened age. These guys aren’t nice, but neither is their situation.

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