Fifty Shades of Cinema: 1970 – M*A*S*H

Fifty Shades of Cinema continues with Jonathon Dabell taking a look at M*A*S*H, starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould.

The Contenders
Fifty Shades Of Cinema enters the 1970s and there is a wealth of fine cinema to sift through among the titles of 1970. The big Oscar winner of the year was wartime epic Patton starring George C. Scott – a marvellous film, well worthy of consideration. Another war film, Tora! Tora! Tora!, deserves a spot high on the list of candidates. The disaster genre was born with exciting airborne melodrama Airport; Jack Nicholson delivered a masterful performance in offbeat character study Five Easy Pieces; David Lean’s epic Ryan’s Daughter bagged a long-overdue acting Oscar for John Mills; and Arthur Penn continued his seemingly endless run of magnificent  movies with revisionist western Little Big Man. Extraordinary documentary Woodstock captured the candid liberality of a famous 1969 music festival; The Great White Hope offered a cutting view of racial intolerance within the world of boxing; Performance teased and tantalised viewers in equal measure with its gender-bending narrative; Love Story tugged at the heart-strings of even the least lachrymose of macho men; and another Charles Dickens novel was given a successful musical makeover with Albert Finney starring as the eponymous Scrooge. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s extraordinary cult western El Topo challenges strongly for top spot, along with classy Rock Hudson/Julie Andrews vehicle Darling Lili, and passionate historical epic Cromwell featuring towering performances from Richard Harris and Alec Guinness. Top of the pile, however, sees FMV’s award for No.1 Film Of 1970 being proudly bestowed upon Robert Altman’s splendid Korean War comedy M*A*S*H.   

M*A*S*H
M*A*S*H manages the rare feat of being a great film that you don’t realise is great whilst watching it. It is what might be referred to as a ‘grower’ – one of those films which increases in stature in your head during the days and weeks after seeing it. Various bits of the film imprint themselves upon one’s memory, almost subliminally… months later, you may find yourself chuckling about one of the many lines of outrageous dialogue; reminiscing about the hilarious hijinks that the characters inflict upon each other; shuddering at one of the many images of operating-table gore; reflecting, perhaps, on the sheer lunacy of war.

Director Altman all but deceived his 20th Century Fox financiers into believing he was making a standard patriotic Korean War flag-waver, while all along he was really working on an aggressively anti-war and anti-establishment satire. Upon seeing the finished article, the horrified studio execs were aghast and planned to shelve the film indefinitely… only to change their minds when test audiences responded with delirious enthusiasm toward it. Thank goodness they did. To have lost a film as cutting, as funny – as important – as this would have been a crying shame.

There is no specific plot to speak of, more a series of loose incidents which demonstrate how the men and women of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) indulge in the most outrageous and anarchic behaviour to overcome the daily horrors of treating wartime casualties. Their eccentric, juvenile and caperish behaviour is borne purely out of a desperate need to escape the grimness of their work.

The ringleaders of all this mayhem are brilliant but unorthodox surgeons Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper McIntyre (Elliott Gould). Among their many misadventures, they broadcast a sexual interlude between religious nut Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and uptight Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) over the camp loudspeaker, tipping Burns over the edge of sanity and earning Houlihan the unflattering nickname of ‘Hot Lips’. They help the unit’s dentist, Painless Pole Waldowski (John Schuck), to beat his irrational fear of turning gay by persuading him to commit mock suicide, then arranging a nurse to seduce him while he is ‘dead’ to rid him of his fear. They abuse and offend the entire staff of a Japanese hospital whilst performing an emergency operation on a congressman’s son, injured in training. They plan an elaborate sting against another unit during a bad-tempered ‘morale-boosting’ football match, bringing in a professional player (a ‘ringer’) to help them win the game after deliberately falling behind in the first two quarters.

The story of M*A*S*H really isn’t all that important; it’s the build-up of character detail, the shockingly anarchic attitudes, the alternately funny and engrossing accumulation of incident, that make the film what it is. Sutherland is excellent as Hawkeye in one of the key early ‘70s roles (along with Kelly’s Heroes, Klute and Don’t Look Now) that nudged him toward international stardom. Gould is equally terrific as the dangerously unpredictable Trapper McIntyre, while Kellerman’s Oscar-nominated turn as Hot Lips Houlihan is memorably indignant. Roger Bowen also gives a marvellous performance as the unit’s Commanding Officer, one Lt-Col Henry Blake, whose nonchalant acceptance of his men’s appalling shenanigans infuriates and delights the company in equal measure..

Altman boldly allows the actors to indulge in a good deal of improvised dialogue, sometimes overlapping three or four conversations within a single scene. It’s a risky technique, but in this case wonderfully effective. Altman always was Hollywood’s most experimental and unorthodox mainstream film-maker, an accolade never more pertinently demonstrated than here.

With its unforgettable theme tune (Suicide Is Painless), and the legacy of a smash-hit TV series spin-off which followed later in the 70s, M*A*S*H is still one of cinema’s greatest satires. Not to be missed.

FMV Rating *****



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