Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/27/07 20:12:36

"Altman's first Robert Altman film."
5 stars (Awesome)

"M*A*S*H" is now probably best known as a television series, which isn't surprising; the series lasted over a decade and even during its lower points was one of the medium's bright spots. Still, that's the kind of success necessary for a later version to outshine this film, considering the talent involved.

Robert Altman, of course, is the big name, though he wasn't at the time. Though not his first movie, M*A*S*H was his first in what would later become his distinctive style - the large ensemble cast, overlapping dialogue, and improvised dialog all appear here. It's almost surprising, for someone like myself who grew up with the TV series, that the film isn't really just a feature-length version of that but a no-fooling Altman picture, with its own strengths and occasional weaknesses.

The "story" is thin to the point on non-existence: Doctors "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and "Duke" Forrest (Tom Skerritt) are drafted and assigned to the 4077th, a "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital". They're soon joined by "Trapper John" McIntyre, and fight the insanity of war with their own brand of foolishness. The main targets of their tomfoolery are self-righteous Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and regular army chief nurse Margaret O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). There's a whole slew of other characters, all of whom will have at least one scene to shine in.

Given the way the film is structured, it's not surprising to see that it would later be made into a TV series: Though certain themes carry on throughout the film, it takes a meandering route to get from its opening to the symmetrical ending, sticking a series of stories together rather than having one overarching plotline. The vignette about Duke mistaking Hawkeye for his driver that opens the movie is almost completely unrelated to the football game that occupies the final act, other than them sharing the same characters. This works out pretty well, as it allows the cast more latitude for improvisation and gives Altman the chance to jump back and forth between light tomfoolery, the serious business of performing surgery three miles from the front lines and the satirical bits that bridge the two.

As usual with Altman, the cast is great. Sutherland and Gould are laid-back and dryly funny, so that when they do get serious, it's in even more deadly earnest. They work off each other so well that they practically force Tom Skerritt off the screen; he becomes almost a non-entity when Could arrives. Robert Duvall makes the most of relatively little screen time as Burns, giving some substance to a character that exists almost entirely to be made a fool of. Roger Bowen and Gary Burghoff have perfect comic timing as Col. Henry Blake and Cpl. "Radar" O'Reilly, which is no small feat when you consider that their shtick is talking over each other. Fred Williamson shows up as "Spearchucker" Jones, their ringer in an inter-unit football game, and fits right in. Rene Auberjonois is charmingly naive as the camp chaplain, John Schuck manage to walk a line between comic and tragic despair as the camp dentist, and Jo Ann Pflug has some good moments as the (married) nurse who catches Pierce's eye. Sally Kellerman is a great sport as "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan, whether as the stick in the mud that the guys set out to humiliate in the first half or by being overly enthusiastic to try and fit in toward the end.

Just because Altman and company only used the bare minimum of Ring Lardner Jr.'s script doesn't mean they're just winging it; the movie is too well thought-out for that. The film never specifies that it takes place in Korea, rather than then-current Vietnam in order to make its topicality more evident (although the studio did add opening text to that effect). It's got time to talk about race and class, although it never berates the viewer. It's even got a fairly even-handed view of religion, noting how the likes of Burns use it as an excuse to act superior but having no issue with the earnest Father Mulcahy, even when he's doing something like blessing a jeep.

"M*A*S*H" has become almost a lost classic, a notable and excellent movie overshadowed by its own progeny. Pity, that.

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