Director Spotlight: M*A*S*H

If you watch Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, in the credits the title of the film has no asterisks.  If you look at original ads and posters for the film, the little buggers make a cameo.  Apparently they’re on the cutting room floor, but I’ve decided to give them their proper due.

Before I get into the critical analysis part of the review, I’d just like to point out that with each film I review in the director’s spotlight I try to find a connection between it and a movie currently in theaters or something that is coming soon to a theater near you.  It took a little digging and connecting of dots, but I discovered  some linkage.  The forth coming film by Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, is a remake (Tarantino will tell you it’s an homage though) of an  older film of the same name.  The original film starred Fred Williamson, who eight years earlier played Captain Oliver “Spearchucker” Jones (a little insensitive don’t you think) in M*A*S*H.  It’s a bit thin, but the connection is there.

I tend to comment on acting last, so I’ll start with it against my better judgement (why must you judge me so?)  Actors flit in and out of the film, but the mainstays (not to discount Robert Duvall’s marvelous turn as Frank Burns) are phenomenal in their roles.  Elliott Gould is one of my favorite comedic actors, which could date back to my original viewing of this picture as a teenager (on VHS; I wasn’t alive when it first came out).  His “Trapper” John compliments Donald Sutherland’s “Hawkeye” Pierce quite well, though if I were casting I probably would have reversed their roles.  This, of course, could be me being influenced by Alan Alda’s portrayal of Pierce on the television series, and the uncanny similarities between him and Gould.  Sally Kellerman was adequate in the role of “Hot Lips” Houlihan, but I believe she reached her potential as an actress after this film (see Back To School and That’s Life!).

I'll stick with my HMO approved surgeon, thank you very much.

I'll stick with my HMO approved surgeon, thank you very much.

There were points in the movie where the cinematography was amazing and others where it was substandard, as if segments were done by entirely different crews of filmmakers.  For instance, the scenes involving helicopters were framed perfectly each and every time.  Then, scenes with the actors that required close ups or zoom in shots were regularly botched.  Uneven and irregular camera movement, poor utilization of offscreen space, and  crudely framed shots also plagued this facet of the film’s making.  If I had to guess, this is something that Altman was probably aware of, but felt it complimented the material.

Another thing that bothered me, and I don’t mean to sound like a question talker here, but…what was the deal with the segmented, sitcom feel to the movie?  It actually felt like a two hour audition for a network to pick up and make into a TV show.  If you sat with a stopwatch and paused each time the story shifted gears, you’d have an episode for a television series (of course it would have to air on HBO if you use all of the original footage).   Good thing someone caught on and made into a popular show, which lasted eleven seasons, chronicling a war that was over in three.

Cinematography and pandering aside, the film is thematically driven and impeccably so.  The injection of humor into what has to be a horrific job, while displaying a great deal of sensitivity towards patients, set M*A*S*H apart from other comedies made in that era of movie making.  And M*A*S*H is definitely double dipping, with its comedic motifs against a wartime backdrop.  Serving as a commentary on the futility of war and the senseless loss of life, while entertaining all the while, M*A*S*H wears its heart on its sleeve and doesn’t apologize for it one bit.

M*A*S*H is an institution, but what format do more people identify with?  The show or the movie?  I, for one, identify with the television series more, but am still able to appreciate the film for what it is.  And what is it?  It’s a comical romp through a rough period in history, which painstakenly reminds viewers to try and find the positive in any negative situation.

While the production value is a bit rough around the edges, the writing and acting are sublime.  The overall picture still holds up almost forty years later, which makes it a member of a very elite club.  Definitely worth checking out.  I give it 4 1/2 pitchforks out of 5.



About Pamp

Pamp is a lover of great scotch, good films, and bad fiction. When not playing video games or reading comics, he occasionally helps teens figure out "things and stuff". On a good day he does all three at once.

Posted on August 5, 2009, in Director Spotlight and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Spencer Diedrick

    I agree with many things in this review. Elliot Gould and Robert Duvall dominate, while Sutherland lacks the comedic edge needed for this film. I’d say Sally Kellerman was better than you give her credit for (or at least more enthusiastic), but I’m not sure about her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nom. And did you notice Bud Cort (from Harold and Maude and Life Aquatic) as the kid that Duvall harasses?

    I’ll agree with the segmented nature of the film as well. It’s true that it almost fits a mini-series better, but maybe that’s the point of the film is that it doesn’t have a true direction, much like the surgeons were simply waiting around until they got sent home (like Jarhead, also criticized for its listlessness). But sometimes the chapter things works, like with The Sting. It’s all a matter of opinion I suppose.

    The same goes with the cinematography. I’ve always noticed that Altman sometimes has these tracking shots that occasionally last much too long (imagine those shots from Unbreakable going about 10 seconds longer). I wish someone was reviewing A Prairie Home Companion, because it’s major in that one.

    But overall you’re right, it’s an extremely entertaining and surprisingly raunchy film worth seeing quite a few times before it makes the journey from the Korea of the DVD player to the U.S. of a personal movie library.

  2. Mike Pampinella

    And those tracking shots sometimes stop on objects that really shouldn’t be the focus. At one point the shot is tracking the movement of several characters and then simply stops on a support beam and a pile of boxes, which obscure your view of the action. That’s inexcusable.

    Sutherland was definitely the Zeppo of the crew, though he had some funny moments. Duvall got short changed. I would’ve loved to see more of him.

    Kellerman was much better in the second half of the film, especially during the football game. What bothered me was she was reduced to a prop in certain scenes (like the first time you see her assisting during surgery). This is more a function of the movie rather than her acting, but she isn’t really given enough chances to shine.

    If something is episodic, it isn’t necessarily bad, but when it leads to a television show shortly after, you can’t help but wonder if that was always the goal.

    And I’m actually a fan of films that play more like a series of non-sequiturs (which is why I’m bummed that we couldn’t fit Altman’s Short Cuts in this month), because you get more story and characterization for your dollar. In M*A*S*H it felt a little false.

    I know it sounds like I didn’t like the film, but I really did. These are just some of the underdeveloped areas that stick out in my mind.

    • Spencer Diedrick

      Definitely. And I definitely wish we had more time this month to cover films of his like “The Player” and “The Long Goodbye”, also starring Elliott Gould as a bad-ass. Alas…

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