Throwback Thursday: M*A*S*H Uses Humor as a Coping Mechanism

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Two major holidays in the United States honor our servicemen and women: Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, honors people who gave their lives in service. Veterans Day, November 11th, shows respect to those who have served. Tomorrow is Veterans Day, and in honor of that I wanted to pick a film that pays tribute to our veterans but is also more than just a war film. 1970’s M*A*S*H is a typical Robert Altman movie but shows a different side of war than does the typical combat film.

Lobby poster for M*A*S*H

Lobby poster for M*A*S*H.

Set during the Korean War (though Altman purposefully keeps the details vague so that it feels like the then-current war in Vietnam), the film follows two captains as they land in-country and take a jeep to their assignment at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. We go on to meet the characters that make up day-to-day camp life via alternating vignettes featuring doctors performing surgeries on soldiers—and elaborate pranks on each other. The comedy balances the tragedy: planning and doing the practical jokes help the doctors remain as sane as possible. Like a lot of Altman films, this one doesn’t have a huge cohesive plot that gets us from point A to point B, but it does culminate in a football game between rival units. It’s interesting to note that there’s only one gunshot in his war film, and it comes from the football game’s starter pistol.

The M*A*S*H unit cheering on their team.

The 4077th at the big game.

One of the greatest things about an Altman film (or the most annoying, depending on how you experience it) is that he uses overlapping dialogue. His characters talk over each other all the time, and there are always multiple conversations going on. On repeated viewings, this can lead to added enjoyment as you focus on different characters, but it can be frustrating to an Altman newbie. I recommend focusing on Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Duke (Tom Skerritt) for your initial viewing. Though they’re the first two characters we meet, I wouldn’t call them the leads. Altman loved his ensemble casts, and this film is no exception. The cast also includes Elliott Gould as Trapper John, Sally Kellerman as Hot Lips Hoolihan, and Robert Duvall as Major Frank Burns. This is a top-notch cast of individuals functioning at the peak of their creative powers.

The film is a product of its times, sometimes in an uncomfortable way. In order to win a football game, for example, the 4077th finagle the transfer of a former professional football player/surgeon to their unit. Played by African-American former professional athlete-turned-actor Fred Williamson in his first film role, Williamson’s character is nicknamed Spearchucker. That’s awkward for today’s audiences. At the same time, Altman was liberal for that era: in one scene, Duke, Hawkeye, and Trapper John discuss where Spearchucker will sleep. Hawkeye and Trapper insist that he stay in their quarters (“the swamp”) with them because he is a fellow captain. Duke, however, is a good ole’ boy from the South who doesn’t think that’s appropriate. Hawkeye and Trapper shut down this line of thinking immediately and tell him not to be an idiot (in not so many words).

Trapper John and Hawkeye shut down Duke's bigotry in M*A*S*H.

Trapper John and Hawkeye shutting down Duke’s bigoted viewpoint.

As in (what I understand to be true in) real military life, almost all the M*A*S*H characters have nicknames. An exception is Major Burns, pompously characterized by Robert Duvall. He’s career military, unable to relate to the drafted personnel, and is so rigid in his beliefs that most of the pranks come at his expense. He’s eventually pulled from the unit for psychiatric evaluation. This is anti-war Altman’s way of saying that hardcore, unquestioning belief in the military leads to madness.

One other dated-feeling vignette deals with the unit dentist. His stress levels get so high that he can no longer perform sexually with the ladies. He wants to commit suicide because he thinks he might be gay. The team rises to support him in the form of performing a last supper and funeral for him. After his “death” and subsequent rebirth, he ends up knocking boots with a hot female nurse (because that’s a surefire way to “cure” homosexuality). Fortunately, there are also great moments that overshadow the awkward homophobia, including great Last Supper imagery and Pfc. Seidman’s (Ken Prymus) rendition of “Suicide is Painless” (the credits music for the eponymous TV show).

"Painless" final meal in M*A*S*H.

One more homage to Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Even with these awkward-in-hindsight moments, M*A*S*H is a humorous, poignant take on how human beings use comedy to cope with the callous implications of war. If that doesn’t sell the film to you, it’s also the first major studio film to use the word “fuck.” In the middle of a montage of plays during the football game, the action stops. The camera focuses in on the lineup. One character stares across the line and snarls, “All right, Bud, your fucking head is coming right off!” That moment perfectly captures the sports/war metaphor as we’re then thrust back into the montage and watch injured players carted off the field.

Hawkeye and Duke steal another jeep in M*A*S*H.

M*A*S*H ends how it began: two men take a jeep ride.

Thank you to all the military personnel who have experienced things that the average person doesn’t have to face. Thank you for serving our country. Saying it just once a year isn’t enough. So, one more time, thank you.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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