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Plot Details: This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.



Plot Overview

Some whirlybirds touch down to off-load stretchers of wounded in a staging area. Two newly arrived doctors, Capt. Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce (Donald Suther­land) and Capt. Augustus Bed­ford ‘Duke’ For­rest (Tom Skerritt), draftees as it turns out, com­man­deer a jeep and drive it to the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) “three miles from the front” in Korea, 1951. They mess with the staff and hit on the nurses. The lenient camp commander Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen) after figuring out they do belong (“when you report to your new duty station, you go to your commanding officer”), introduces them to their (Irish Catholic) chaplain, Father John ‘Dago Red’ Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois) and helps them get squared away (“You'll be staying in Major Burns's tent.”)

Duke (“What's this here?”) finds fellow doctor Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) teaching Ho-Jon, one of their mess hall boys, how to read … from the Bible. Duke upgrades the kid's reading material with a girlie magazine (“It's got a lot of pictures in it.”) When Frank starts praying the ‘Our Father’, Duke leads a chorus of “Onward Christian Soldiers” outside their tent. I believe it was St Augustine who said that singing is like praying twice. When Duke asks Frank if he always prays so much, Frank replies that now he has two more souls to pray for.

Hawkeye complains to Col. Blake (“Uh, what is it, men?”) about “That sky pilot” (“you can't get your rest with a sky pilot jabbering to Heaven all night”). “You have got to get him out of our tent,” he demands. They also request a chest cutter and get a Capt. John Francis Xavier ‘Trapper John’ McIntyre (Elliott Gould). Major Burns finds an ally with the arrival of new head nurse Maj. Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). The other docs think she's “a regular army clown,” but Major Burns thinks she's just what the doctor ordered (“God meant us to find each other.” ¶“His will be done.”)

The Evangelical United Brethren Church has donated some hymnals to these hard working doctors, menders of war wounds, but this camp seems to find a more irreverent brand of enter­tain­ment. Their dental officer, Capt. ‘Pain­less Pole’ Waldowsky (John Schuck) suffering a temporary erectile dysfunction concludes, “I'm a fairy, a victim of latent homo­sexuality” (“He shouldn't read.”) The camp sends him off in style, reminis­cent of Judas at the Last Supper before he did him­self in, Matt. 27:5. Father “Dago Red” reads some encouraging scripture to Major Burns as he's being carted off in a straight­jacket. And Brigadier General Charles Hammond (G. Wood) come to investigate some unflat­tering rumors sets up an intra-service foot­ball game. His team is in blue uniform, the MASH team in red with red crosses on their white helmets. The players stack their hands on a Bible to commence, and we all get to patriotic­ally cheer the red, white and blue—our ally's colors as well—as the game gets rough in the second half, mim­icking the war that produced all the fodder for the doctors.

This movie in itself might seem pretty sick, but coming out in 1970 when the U.S. was engaged in a gruesome war in Indo­china (Vietnam), its audience could find the black humor hilarious.


Director Robert Altman (in 1970) found it necessary to obscure his anti-war sentiment, and in fact “MASH” opened the doors to movies' criticism of American war policies, but the studio would have balked if they'd seen any overt message. Altman accomplished his goal through basic projection, substi­tuting flagrant sexual immorality for the immorality of wanton killing. The apocryphal book of Ecclesias­ticus, also known as the Wisdom of Sirach, lends itself to this appli­cation: (Sirach 23:16-17) “Two sorts of men multiply sin, and the third will bring wrath: a hot mind is as a burning fire, it will never be quenched till it be consumed: a fornicator in the body of his flesh will never cease till he hath kindled a fire. All bread is sweet to a whore­monger, he will not leave off till he die.” America's hotheadedness to leap into wars of dubious merit was substituted for by the soldiers' hots for the nurses, both situ­ations hotblooded.

And it was exposed here in film along the lines of, (Sirach 23:18-21)

A man that breaketh wedlock, saying thus in his heart, Who seeth me? I am compassed about with darkness, the walls cover me, and no body seeth me; what need I to fear? the most High will not remember my sins: Such a man only feareth the eyes of men, and knoweth not that the eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter than the sun, beholding all the ways of men, and considering the most secret parts. He knew all things ere ever they were created; so also after they were perfected he looked upon them all. This man shall be punished in the streets of the city, and where he suspecteth not he shall be taken.

In both the Korean conflict and the one in Vietnam, we had local forces aided by countries from across the sea, but Vietnam at least was hard to justify. This is not unlike the land-based Babylonians and the sea­faring Chaldeans coming up against Israel in Isaiah 43:14. Their dominance was limited, as indicated by (Isaiah 43:16-17) “Thus saith the LORD, which maketh a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters; Which bringeth forth the chariot and horse, the army and the power; they shall lie down together, they shall not rise: they are extinct, they are quenched as tow.” In this movie the OR doctors seemed always on the verge of running out of thread to stitch 'em up with, perhaps fore­shadowing that the war effort there would soon reach the end of its rope. A MacArthur speech was displayed whose text ended with the words: “fade away.”

Concurrent with the anti-war sentiment in the 1960s, bleeding into the 1970s, was racial disharmony. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of the Civil War era allowed for Negroes to join the military. In World War II they had their own units, witness the movie “Red Tails.” The Vietnam War saw full integration, and the Korean conflict was trans­itional, at least as portrayed in “MASH.” When neuro­surgeon Dr Oliver Harmon ‘Spear­chucker’—he once threw the javelin—Jones (Fred William­son), who used to play for the San Francisco 49ers, was requisitioned—in order to be a “ringer” on the MASH foot­ball team—it was remarked that he would be the only black officer on base. So the trio of docs let him stay in their tent.

The racial tension happened during the game, as in the following exchange:

Cpl. Judson: “Bastard, 88, called me a coon.”

Spearchucker: “Called you a what?”

Cpl. Judson: “Coon.”

Spearchucker: “OK, that's an old pro trick, to get you thrown out of the ball game [through provocation].”

Cpl. Judson: “Well …”

Spearchucker: “Why don't you do the same thing to him?”

Cpl. Judson: “What, call him a coon?”

No, Spearchucker advised Judson to make some disparaging remark against 88's sister (“Her name is Gladys”) on account of some sensitive past history. Since we here reduce racial strife to the level of brother-sister dynamics, with a sensitive history, and we are already heavily invested in the Bible, we might as well go all the way back to Noah. Noah had three sons (Gen. 6:10), Shem, Ham, and Japheth, who were to build home, family & future after their apoca­lypse. The non-canonical book of Enoch (Noah's great grand­father) describes Noah as a striking albino. After the Flood there was an incident, Gen. 9:20-22, where Noah got drunk and was exposed in his tent in all his glory to his son Ham who spied on him. Noah's other two sons, Shem and Japheth, covered him up, Gen. 9:23. Ham had violated him in some way, Gen. 9:24. Noah's curse puts Ham's youngest son Canaan (Gen. 10:6) in a position of servitude, Gen. 9:25. Noah's other two sons Shem, Gen. 9:26, and Japheth, Gen. 9:27, were blessed by Noah. Canaan the youngest carried the ball for the whole family of Ham whose (black) descendants settled in Africa. Canaan is a homo­phone for coon, whence the insult to a Ham descendant who would like to be accepted into Shem's (who fathered the white Europeans) tent just as was Japheth. The movie intro­duces exposure of well-equipped ‘Pain­less’ in the shower, of bottle-blonde ‘Hot Lips’ in the shower, and of unsus­pecting adulterers in bed, over the PA system. It also shows the covering of an operating doctor with a gown in situ, and of a nosy commander with an anes­the­tizing mask. Of course, the director is not going to make any direct state­ments regarding race, but he gives us enough to think about from various angles.

Production Values

MASH” (1970) was directed by Robert Altman. Its screen­play was written by Ring Lardner Jr., based on the novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, by Richard Hooker. Lardner complained that not a single line of his screen­play showed up on screen, this on account of liberal ad libbing. Yes, but he provided the kernel, and the actors, often talking over each other, contributed to the ribald humor. “MASH” stars Donald Suther­land, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Robert Duvall, and Rene Auber­jonois. It boasts a lot of then new talent as well. Their major acting accom­plish­ment was keeping a straight face.

It's rated R for sexual content. It's 116 min. long. (There's a PG version that's 112 min.) A tele­photo lens was used in conjunction with fog filters to give the film a grainy gritty realism, but the foot­ball game reverted to bright colors. The director's teen­age son Matt Altman was the lyricist who wrote the haunting song, “Suicide is Painless,” that opened the movie and played again from time to time. The director Robert Altman did his own editing—practic­ally unheard of—to capture his own vision. He used the device of announce­ments over the base speakers to segue between various vig­nettes, the story itself lacking over­all cohesiveness.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

MASH” is a black comedy. It's good in the sense that it reflects real times and gives us an opportunity to laugh at them. I was of draft age when it came out, so I related to it right away, even though the Korean War it supposedly portrays was over by then. My suggestion is that if you find your­self offended at first, stick around; you just might get into it. It won a lot of awards.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Well done action flick. Suitability For Children: Not Suitable for Children of Any Age. Special effects: Well done special effects. Video Occasion: Good for Groups. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: Four stars out of five.