For years, whenever “M*AS*H,” popped up as I was channel surfing, I’d check to see where we were in the story, and often rewatch a big chunk of it.
Robert Altman’s breakthrough film, the one that taught us what “Altmanesque” means, casts its satire and ridicule far and wide, and some of the laughs and performances have aged well enough to matter.
Mimicking “The Last Supper” with a scene about a dentist (“introducing John Schuck”) whose solution to erectile dysfunction is a very public suicide, which is faked by our heroes, is blasphemy at its most amusing. The Vietnam War era futility, which the movie (based on Richard Hooker’s novel) twists into transgressive mockery at every turn, still plays.
I’ve always hated the lazy, run-time-devouring — if occasionally funny — “football game” that eats up the third act and tends to water down the picture’s anarchy when it is supposed to be underscoring it. It’d been years since I watched “M*A*S*H” past opening kickoff before sitting through it the other night.
But these days, though much of what earned the film that “R” rating back in 1970 is tame enough to put it on broadcast TV, the film plays like one long cringe.
And I’m not just talking about the hurt and stupefied look Tom Skerritt wears the moment Elliott Gould’s “Trapper John” shows up, pushing Skerritt into a veritable bit-player role, when he was star or co-star of the first act.
When one of the objects of your ridicule is the casual racism of the Korean War era ’50s, still present in the Vietnam ’70s, you’re walking a fine line. I’m not sure Altman was a racist, although all we know for sure about that is he was a native Kansas Citian who loved the jazz scene he grew up in there. And he gives a little agency to this or that African American or Korean character in the film.
But the racial slurs are on a Mel Brooks magnitude, and none of them play as funny any more. When the one thing you figure you have to bleep out is the racist nickname footballer/surgeon “Spear-chucker Jones” (Fred “The Hammer” Williamson) wears, without comment, you know your film isn’t standing the test of time. Altman, like Brooks with “Blazing Saddles,” had to recognize crap like that wasn’t earning laughs the right way when the film hit theaters, and only racists chuckle at it to this day.
And all that shrill, stereotypical sing-songy Radio Tokyo Japanese cover artist pop playing over the PA system might be here to emphasis the strangers meddling in a strange part of the world nature of “a land war in Asia.” But it was played for racial ridicule laughs.
Even more problematic is the naked sexism, both in the script and in what was worked out on the set. It goes far beyond the spin-off TV series’ leering and creepily aggressive womanizing.
Sure, take down the hypocritical religious prig Major Burns (Robert Duvall, deep into character). But the all-out assault on his almost-paramour, Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellmerman) after giving her the nickname “Hot Lips,” is just patriarchal cruelty.
“Well, what’s the matter with her today?”
“I don’t know. I think it’s one of those ladies’ things.”
“Hot Lips” only gains acceptance after Burns is goaded into punching a taunting Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and is bedded by third-banana Duke Forrest (Skerritt). Ms. “By the Book’s” corruption is a viable target for satire. Her abject humiliation suggests a porcine boy’s club in the screenplay and its execution.
Women are objects, to make passes at and be passed around. The “sacrament” of that last supper? She’s nicknamed “Lt. Dish” in the opening scenes. Jo Ann Pflug would count game show panelist as her major credit after the film, largely due to the way she was treated on-screen here.
Altman never “went there” in terms of patriarchal, frat boy sexualization again. At least he didn’t make a habit of it, although there was that infamous photo of him, on oxygen, on the set of “A Prairie Home Companion,” with his hand up a starlet’s skirt.
Gould, wearing a 1970 pornstache, RayBans and silence (he makes his mark with few lines) stands out. Sutherland was far loopier/hippier in “Kelly’s Heroes.”
The Altmanesque characters-talking-over-each-other art was never more perfect that when Roger Bowen and Gary Burghoff — as Col. Blake and Cpl. Radar O’Reilly — did it.
A lot of people appearing here, including Kellerman, became part of Altman’s repertory company in the years and decades that followed.
From “Dr. Strangelove” through “M*A*S*H” is still widely regarded as the peak decade for cinematic satire, with Altman’s anti-war war film the exclamation point (more or less) on an era. I’ve taken college classes devoted to that subject and these films.
But unlike most of the others, the once-adored “M*A*S*H” is really showing its age. I’d go so far as to call it “obsolescent” now.
MPA Rating: R, blood, nudity, sexual situations, profanity
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Tom Skerritt, Roger Bowen, Gary Burghoff, Rene Auberjonois, Jo Ann Phlug, Fred Williamson, Bobby Troup, Michael Murphy, Bud Cort and John Schuck
Credits: Directed by Robert Altman, script by Ring Lardner, Jr., based on the novel by Richard Hooker. A 20th Century Fox release.
Running time: 1:56