Release Date: January 25, 1970
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: Aspen Productions | Ingo Preminger Productions
My mom was a fan of the tv series M*A*S*H so watching M*A*S*H was a big part of my childhood. We could watch two old reruns every weeknight, while the new episodes on Monday night were the first show I was allowed to stay up past 9pm to watch. After the last episode of M*A*S*H was broadcast, one of our local stations showed the original movie. As a 9-year-old, I wasn’t impressed with the movie. I liked Alan Alda and Mike Farrell a lot better than these guys I’d never heard of in the movie. I also found the movie to be very mean-spirited and was bored that so much of it took place at really stupid football game.
Revisiting the movie now as an adult, with an appreciation for Robert Altman as a director and the acting of Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, and knowing the context of the Vietnam War the movie was responding to, I figured I might like it better. I did not. The movie is angry and mean-spirited and really none of the jokes land for me. And the whole football plot lasts for about 30 minutes, so it is 1/4th of the movie’s runtime.
In the context of the counterculture/antiwar movement, I guess the anti-authoritarian antics of Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), and Trapper John McIntyre (Gould) may have been appealing. But they’re not resisting the system so much as doing whatever they want and letting other people clean up their messes (and rushing through surgery in order to play golf is the antithesis of counterculture). M*A*S*H is described as an anti-war film but I don’t see it actually opposing war. Instead it falls more into the tradition going back to at least to World War II of veterans creating popular entertainment that lampoons the ineptitude of the military, but not questioning the nation’s militaristic goals (this tradition includes Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr., the politically conservative veteran who authored the book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors under the name Richard Hooker).
But the worst part of the movie is its mistreatment of women. In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, the Swamp men make a bet regarding whether Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) is a natural blonde. They set up chairs around the shower tent and watch as the canvas is lifted to expose her naked body. Kellerman’s performance captures rage, terror, and humiliation and I can’t imagine how anyone can watch it and not be on her side. One could argue that Altman was simply reflecting an accurate depiction of how women were (and continue to be) abused in the military. But everything in the context of the film says that Houlihan is a regular Army stuffed shirt and a “bitch” who deserves her punishment and we should be laughing at her.
The Sexual Revolution that was occuring at the time this film was released brought many positive changes. But within patriarchal thinking, sexual liberation was interpreted that women should always be sexually available to men. This attitude is prevalent in this movie which served as a progenitor to the raunchy comedies of the 70s and 80s. From Animal House to Caddyshack to Revenge of the Nerds, we see again and again that “sticking it to the Man” is accomplished by humiliating and sexually abusing women.
My feeling is that in 1970, M*A*S*H was one of the first Hollywood films to caustically lampoon the military, mock religious devotion, drop an f-bomb, and talk openly about sex. It must’ve seemed refreshing for audiences at the time to see something they’ve never seen before. Over 50 years later, we’ve had films that addressed all of these issues in ways that are far less problematic and often in ways that actually make me laugh. M*A*S*H will be remembered for launching the careers of Altman, Sutherland, and Gould, as well as spawning one of the most beloved tv comedy series of all-time. But the film itself doesn’t deserve its spot on the AFI 100 or any great movies list.