M*A*S*H, 1970 – Based on the Book By Richard Hooker

Directed by Robert Altman for 20th Century Fox in 1970.

M*A*S*H was based on the book by Richard Hooker:

Dentist, Captain Walter Kosciuszko Waldowski (John Schuck), a.k.a. “The Painless Pole,” of the 4077th MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Unit) decides he is going to commit suicide. So, his friends in the unit  planned the funeral, got a coffin and prepared a final meal in honor of the event. They even got him the black “poison pill” to do the final deed. At “The Last Supper” Corporal Judson (Tim Brown) sings the song “Suicide is Painless” (the iconic song we hear at the opening of the TV show too) after they give the dentist the pill and have him lay down in the coffin. It was really a sleeping pill. They wanted to scare Painless into reconsidering. Yes, they took it to the extreme, and it worked.

Cruel humor? Yep. But it’s the way the soldiers in the 4077 distract themselves from the horrors of the cruel Korean War.

I’m ashamed to admit that a movie, (book AND TV show too) about a medical unit in a war zone make me laugh. But all three of them do. The movie is chock-full of some terrific actors, which makes it worth it to me. But honestly? It’s the TV show that was the most enjoyable version of these oh-so-valuable stories.

Thanks to the script and comedic timing of the actors in M*A*S*H, the movie, the stories of the 4077th provide much-needed levity to the often horrible (horrific) scenes of war the movie highlights. But the practical jokes and shenanigans don’t make this a movie I want to rave about. It’s funny alright, but I think my problem is that I saw the TV show before the movie.  These stories shine as a weekly TV episode. One story at a time makes more sense then having them thrown together in a collection with no real direction, which is how the movie feels to me. The book and the movie, while funny and interesting don’t have that one anchor connecting them….except for the war zone.  I found myself needing a cohesive where these humans are working for something together within the chaos.

Having said this, there are funny moments provided by skilled actors that make it worth it to watch anyway. The little quips and banter throughout somehow make a movie about war funny.

Frank Burns (Robert Duvall): I don’t drink.
Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland): Jesus Christ, I think he means it.

Just like the TV show, the P.A. Announcer in the movie (David Arkin), was always there to provide smiles when the viewers need them:

P.A. Announcer: Attention. “Due to a possible camp infection, Arlene Chu’s Hollywood Grill is off limits. That is all.”

The character studies are the redeeming value of the movie for me. Hawkeye Pierce  and Trapper John (Elliot Gould) are the smart, funny personalities that keep the insanity of war at bay…..and kept me watching the movie. How in the world they handle these excruciating things is fascinating to watch. The fact that, more often than not, it’s humor that helps them is just more proof that laughter really is the best medicine. Without this look into these characters’ minds I’m sure I would have turned this movie off.I’m not good with blood and gore, and the movie has detailed scenes with both. This could be another reason I prefer the TV show.

While I understand Hollywood’s desire to turn the book into a movie, there’s no doubt about it, MASH, the TV show feels better and gets the point across better than the movie. It offers us all more time to discover what’s happening.

P.A. Announcer: “Attention. Attention. May I have the camps’ attention? This week’s movie will be When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950). Uh… The biggest parade of laughs of World War II. All the love, laughs and escapades of the Willies who came marching home. This film stars Dan Dailey, Corinne Calvet, and Colleen Townsend…”

Overall, M*A*S*H is slow, but I’m still grateful I was able to spend a couple of hours learning and laughing with it.  Just to see all those stars; Sutherland, Gould, Duvall, Tom Skerritt as Duke, Sally Kellerman as Hot Lips, etc., etc., and of course,  Gary Burghoff as Radar was worth it for me.

 


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