Written by Richard Hooker
Written by Ring Lardner, Jr.
Directed by Robert Altman
M*A*S*H tells the hilarious story of Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John as they experience the insanity of the war with the 4077th MASH unit. But you knew this already. Everybody knows it. Because it was on the TV show that somehow defined a generation and reinvented the medium, etc., etc. But I am not of that defined generation. In fact, I've tried to avoid the show on reruns and can successfully boast that I've not seen one episode in its entirety! So I come to this whole M*A*S*H thing untainted and ready for evaluation, starting with the original novel....
The book sits well in the company of Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 as an absurdist take on modern warfare. While the previously named classics both dealt with World War II, Hooker's novel deals with Korea (and does so in the shadow of escalation in Vietnam). Hooker's book is also the least absurd of the three texts. There are certainly moments of sheer comedy (the "human sacrifice" of Shaking Sammy and the promotional tour of Jesus Christ are two memorable sequences), but they are often buffeted by chapters of serious medical work. MASH units were alternatingly too busy by a third or too quiet for rational minds. The choppy chapter-by-chapter leaps from comedy to surgery are meant to illustrate this discontinuity of everyday life at the 4077.
I really enjoyed reading M*A*S*H, which made watching M*A*S*H all the more painful. Altman's film has not aged well; it plays like the obvious late 60s anti-establishment flick it is, a watering down and vulgarization (in both senses of the word) of a fantastic novel.
Lardner is given credit for the screenplay (he won an Oscar even), but the picture is pure Atman. You know that overlapping dialogue schtick that everyone raves about? Well, you get a lot of it here. Too much. What begins as an interesting attempt to provide realistic conversations quickly becomes a gimmick. We are immersed in a world where nobody listens and nobody shuts up. No, that makes it meaningful and workable. OK, it's like being in a restaurant full of loud talkers. It's not groundbreaking; it's annoying.
The film is also discomfortingly macho, especially since it's hailed as being a countercultural response to a stereotypically macho genre. Consider the story of the Painless Pole's suicide as it occurs in book and film. In the book, the Painless Pole is known to suffer from bouts of depression. He decides to commit suicide and consults the Swampmen (our protagonists) for advice. Concerned for a friend and excellent field dentist/poker game administrator, our boys give him some knock-out drops, pretending they're suicide capsules. While passed out, they tie a blue ribbon to his gargantuan member (dubbed the "Pride of Hamtramck"). He awakens and we get a variant of the old punchline, "I don't know where ya been, but I see ya won first prize!" In the film, the Pole finds himself impotent for the first time. As such, he decides he's going queer and that he must die before wholly giving over to his sickness. The Swampmen again drug the Pole (after the film's famous "Last Supper" sequence) and Hawkeye has a nurse give Painless some sexual healing. The next morning, the Pole is in great spirits and the nurse ships out with a wistful look on her face. As Vito Russo summarizes in The Celluloid Closet: "A good lay cures a sudden case of homosexuality."
A key player in the Pole's suicide is Dago Red, the unit's Catholic chaplain. While the book does skewer religious types (Shaking Sammy and Major Burns), Dago Red proves himself a remarkable man. He is a friend and even helps within the operating theatre when necessary. He is ribbed for his faith by the Swampmen, but he is also accepted whole-heartedly by them. In the film, Dago is an ineffectual, timid little man. He's a wimp in a world full of men, another piece of army bureaucracy and order which is put up for scorn. A truly compassionate character is reduced to simplistic buffoonery.
And we must mention the character of Hot Lips Houlihan! In both book and film she arrives at the 4077 as an uptight order-minded officer. In both she sides with Major Burns against the Swampmen. But after she is rebuffed by Colonel Blake, she all but disappears from the book. In the film, however, she must be broken and reinvented as a "proper" woman. So we get the "Hot Lips" radio sequence (not in the book) and the unveiling in the shower (also not in book). By the film's climatic football game, Hot Lips is an air-headed cheerleader.
Oh that football game. Wow, what a terrible piece of film that is! In case you didn't know you were watching a comedy, you get horrible slapstick-style music pumping from the soundtrack. And several shots of players toking dope. Maybe this abortion of a film would be funnier with some grass. I don't know, and I don't intend to waste any good God's green trying to find out.
Read the book for entertainment. It goes quick enough and is a well-written piece of literature within an established genre of post-modern fiction. If, even after my scathing attack, you do happen to watch the movie, think of it as a historical piece. I just warn you, suicide might be painless (as the cloying theme songs reminds us), but watching this clunker sure as shit isn't.