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!).
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.