To see Robert Altman’s acerbic 1970 film M*A*S*H, about the goings on in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, is to be reminded of how different it was in tone to the famous TV series it inspired - a well-written, well-acted sitcom, but one that ran for 11 years (though the war itself lasted only three!) and inevitably lost much of its edge over that time. On the show, for instance, Alan Alda’s Captain Hawkeye regressed from being a lean ’n mean protagonist in the early years to an avuncular gent who managed to have a twinkle in his eye even for his long-time nemesis, Major O’Hoolihan (or "Hot Lips"). In the film on the other hand, Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye is frozen for all time just as he appeared on screen for those 110 minutes - sneer permanently in place, ever ready with a wisecrack, genuinely cruel to the foolish idealists around him.
I’m not exactly knocking the TV M*A*S*H, I enjoyed it enormously when it was telecast here in the early years of the cable revolution. And any comparisons are bound to be unfair to the TV series, which never had the liberty to be as cruel, profane or hard-edged as the film version was. But given that the intention of the MASH script was to highlight the absurdity of war, it has to be said that only the film version makes the grade. Not the sitcom, which eventually turned into a long-running soap about a lot of likable people living together in many tents - and oh, by the way, there’s a war going on somewhere outside.
Few movies or books for that matter capture war’s insanity as well as Altman’s film, which is built on the friction between the hopelessly idealistic and the hopelessly cynical. One of the most remarkable things about the movie is that one never actually gets to see any fighting. This is war as theatre, set not on the killing fields but in the army operating rooms, where doctors have to deal with the messy aftermath. Where foolish, swaggering machismo is stripped away to reveal the blood and gore beneath, where bodies have to be stitched back together, organs put back in their right place. And where humour is the only way to deal with such horrors. ("Nurse, where’s the scalpel? Rright...scratch my nose please.")
Altman’s directorial style was well suited to the subject matter - the sudden zoom-ins and pull-outs and the overlapping dialogue all contributed to creating chaos out of order. The savagery with which this film lampoons the self-righteousness and gungho-ism that accompany armed conflict has rarely been matched. From the start, M*A*S*H is firmly on the side of the irreverent characters - Hawkeye, Trapper John, Duke Forrest - and never misses a chance to poke fun at the sanctimonious (read: hypocritical). When the Bible-toting Frank Burns (played by a young Robert Duvall) teaches a Korean lad to read from the Old Testament (in a scene that has proselytising implications), Duke Forrest hands the boy a porn magazine ("lots of pictures. Pictures good"). The implicit question is: in the madness and inhumanity of this setting, does the Holy Book really count for more than a skin mag? The question rears its head again a little later, when Burns and the equally lofty-minded Hot Lips succumb to their lust in her tent: they can’t even have consensual sex without justifying it as a divine act ("God wants us to be together; His will be done.")
Watching this film makes you wonder how the horrors of war can possibly be presented as anything but a comedy of the absurd. The question is pointless because there have been great war films in the drama genre, films that are austere and introspective, occasionally even - let’s face it - thrilling. For every M*A*S*H there’s a Paths of Glory, just as for every Catch-22 there’s a Naked and the Dead. But at their best, movies like M*A*S*H allow us to see that war is in its essence one big comedy - as rich in farce and slapstick as anything the greatest funny men could have dreamt up, and a mirror of the human condition unlike any other.