MASH. 20th Century Fox 1970.
MASH. 20th Century Fox 1970.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve seen a handful of episodes of the series, but I couldn’t say I know it very well. As I understand it, the book this is based on is intensely serious, the movie is a dark comedy, and the series started out almost at Hogan’s Heroes-level hilarity before getting even more morose than the movie (perhaps because the series lasted so long the war was longer for them than in reality).

So I guess what I’m expecting here is a cynical but amusing picture of the Korean War. I don’t know what characters from the series are there, and which are played by different actors, but I don’t know half of them anyway. There’s probably going to be a lot more money on the screen than a television sitcom can afford.

After watching the movie:

“Hawkeye” Pierce arrives at the 4077th MASH unit, three miles from the front line in Korea, and immediately starts molding the place to his slack way of doing things. He’s a skilled surgeon, and a more skilled drinker and carouser. He asks his commanding officer to request a chest surgeon, and the man assigned is his old friend Trapper John McIntyre. Together they get up to as much mischief and as little work as they can. However, they butt heads with fellow surgeon Maj. Burns and new nurse Maj. O’Houlihan, who prefer army discipline. Over the course of months, Pierce and McIntyre take over the camp.

It’d be a lot easier to take in this movie as the entirely separate entity it is from the TV series if Sutherland’s closed, beatnik-like Hawkeye wasn’t so completely alien to Alda’s warmer version. A large point of the movie is that even though Hawkeye and Trapper John are good guys, they’re not nice guys, and I have a hard time being asked to not entirely like Hawkeye. For a moment, I almost sided with Burns and O’Houlihan, until their alliance turned out to be less about policy and more about sex.

As it’s structured episodically, the plot is very nebulous. Hawkeye and Trapper even spend a large segment out of camp for not much reason but to clash directly with an officer who finds their laid-back attitude appalling. The closest thing to a plot is that the real-Army O’Houlihan spends her assignment antagonizing Hawkeye’s band of merry rascals (the antagonists we agree with). There’s so little war involved (the surgery is brutal, but it could have been caused by anything), that not only does the whole thing feel like a summer camp movie that forgot the kids the counselors are supposed to be looking after, but the dramatic climax in this Korean War movie is… a football game with a $5k pot.

Ultimately, Hawkeye and Trapper are our guides through some tableaus of life in wartime, neither glorious nor horrifying. They work hard, they play harder, and they look after their own. Hawkeye stages an elaborate funeral and rebirth to get Painless out of a suicidal kick. He gives a Korean mess hall boy drugs to try to keep him from being drafted. He gets a baby the care he needs first and takes care of the army hospital commander later. He’s not great, but he is good.


Watch this movie: because it’s an experimental classic about war.

Don’t watch this movie: as anything much like a pilot for the TV series.

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