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  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

M*A*S*H (1970)

Updated: May 1, 2021

Ah, MASH. The cultural phenomenon that endorsed the methods to the madness needed to combat against the travesties of war. Spanning across the book, the movie, and the TV series, it drew in viewers and readers alike with its oddball tactics that came about with clever results and drove the other people in the medical grounds completely bonkers.

After reading the book, I finally checked out the movie next, and let me tell you, I found it to be just as good as the book.

The story, I probably would find redundant to discuss about here, since I already critiqued the book. But for the sake of clarity, here’s what’s going down: three surgeons, Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John McIntyre, and Duke Forrest, or, as they called themselves, the Swampmen, were summoned into the 4077th division of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. But during times when they weren’t performing surgery, they got involved in one screwball situation after another so they could've kept themselves, and, for better or worse, their fellow medics, mentally afloat, even if it got on the nerves of those who had the most medical experience, especially Margaret Houlihan, or, as they called her, Hot Lips.

Much like the book, it may not have packed a sprawling narrative to lay the groundworks for the movie. It was practically a series of crazy hijinks pulled off by the Swampmen either for fun or as some kind of coping mechanism. But, the idea of those hijinks occuring in the last environment we expected them to crop up in – hospital grounds that tended to the wounded soldiers from war – added up to a colorful plethora of insanity that acted as a good satire of the travesties and commitments of the war effort.

Now, there were plenty of differences that were noticeable to me from the book. For starters, Duke Forrest wasn’t the tall redhead with the freckles as he was described to be in the book, but rather a modest young man with black hair.

Also, while I can’t quite remember what Frank Burns or Hot Lips Houlihan did in the book, I can say for sure that their roles in the movie were more substantial by comparison. Frank Burns was presented as a committed, but strict army official who sought to keep the doctors in good working order. Meanwhile, Margaret 'Hot Lips' Houlihan was introduced as an uptight, no-nonsense American head nurse who took her profession very seriously, to the point that her moments with the Swampmen were odd-couple-ish, but with more bickers.

While I, once again, can’t remember if this was mentioned in the book, the movie also showed that Frank Burns and Hot Lips had a secret relationship that was strong enough for them to noticeably have sex on more than one occasion. One misfortune they ended up in that I definitely know was made for the movie was that the Swampmen, during their sex routines, slipped a microphone underneath their bed so that their sexual activity could've been heard through the radio. As soon they heard it, they made the next move and worked them out so that it could've been heard through the campground loudspeakers, too.

Something else I noticed about the movie was that, while in the original book, there were about seven or eight stories being told of the Swampmen's adventures in the 4077th MASH, here, the movie only used about three of the stories and mashed them together (pun slightly intended).

The most noticeable story included in the movie was the "suicide" of Painless Pole Polowski. It played similarly to how it did in the book, complete with the campmates arranging a departure ceremony for him – which actually looks like something right out of The Last Supper – and ultimately leaving him to "commit suicide" with a pill they had him use to supposedly do the task for him, with Painless Pole not realizing that the pill was fake. But, a few things I caught during then either spiced certain things up in this scene or helped it make a little more sense. In this case, I saw exactly why Painless Pole was so depressed and why he considered suicide in the first place: he realized that he was showing hints of being a homosexual, and it rattled him knowing that he had a loving wife and three grown daughters back home in the USA. Given that, at the time period, homosexuality was still frowned upon, especially in the 1950s, this was quite understandable, and you can sense his pain and sympathize with him. In fact, this made Hawkeye's whole decision to arrange the ceremony while still intending to keep him alive weirdly endearing. It was also made more hilarious by what else Hawkeye arranged for Painless Pole: he asked one of the local nurses he had sex with earlier in the film to creep into Painless Pole's bed and have sex with him while he was asleep before she was on her way home to the USA.

The other two stories were presented here in the movie mostly as they were described in the book, only without as much demonstrations or portrayals of the goings-on.

The second story involved Hawkeye and Trapper Joe heading off to Tokyo for some golf matches before deciding to hold it off so they could've dealt with a fellow doctor whose moves resulted in a Japanese prostitute being pregnant with a child on the way. Of course, they had to force their way into the hospital in which it occurred due to not being authorized to perform surgery there, but the idea that they would have been willing to perform some noble deeds beneath the more unorthodox measures they took to do so was pretty bold...sort of.

And the last story was the football match between Blake and Hammond. General Hammond, the chief officer who General Blake followed orders from, mostly appeared in the movie as a competitive US army general who wanted to win against Blake, even if it meant doing so through something as wild and outrageous as an impromptu football game. Of course, even though it came at the cost of some shreds of humanity that I admired from the book, it did open the movie up to more of the ludicrous insanity and wild satire that made MASH a household name.

There were even some aspects of the other stories the crept up here in the movie, but only as side events. The Korean servant boy, Ho-Jon, who the Swampmen would've sent to America to take college classes in the book, was reduced to a goofy, but likable and surprisingly well-spoken comic relief. And, while the Swampmen, as part of their usual shenanigans, messed with ladies like Hot Lips, they were mostly shown in the movie as doing so in the movie without acknowledging the consequences. Not only that, but their methods of pranking Hot Lips here in the movie felt a little more extreme than in the book. Whereas in the book, they simply made moves on her in such public places as the cafeteria, here, they watched her go into the ladies' tent to take her shower, and then, with a sizable audience with them, they dropped the bucket to lift up the tent like a curtain and expose Hot Lips in her birthday suit, like something right out of a high school prank.

Come to think of it, it's kind of amazing how the actions of the Swampmen in the movie were leaving me uncertain over how to react to them compared to in the book. One minute, their intentionally buffoonish antics got some laughs out of me, as well as lightened the mood in the face of war-induced dread, but the next minute, I looked at them like they were arrogant and didn't give a rip how the conditions around them or even concerning them played out. The more I thought about it, though, this added to their refreshingly unpredictable natures. When it seemed like you would expect them to say, or do, or react to something the way you think they would, they could easily have surprised you with some tricks they had up their sleeve that would only have added weight to the humorous natures at hand.

In fact, one of the things I really admired about this movie is its writing. While it still held on to some of the episodic natures of the book, it did a good job of smoothing them out so that they transitioned into each other more smoothly and still accomplished great feats within its cinematic confinements. Making it even better were, once again, the sheer ludicrousness and flaws of the Swampmen's antics, plus those of the Swampmen themselves, since their oddball intentions strengthened the unpredictable natures of their slackish and brash shenanigans. In other words, a different shade of unpredictability to combat a more dreadful kind of unpredictability.

And the movie only took it up to eleven with some comedic hijinks of its own, including allowing some of the medics in the unit to express some comedic personalities and even toying around with the loudspeaker announcements. Throughout the movie, the announcer, half-interestedly, read off the war campground bulletin, as well as a list of movies that would have been playing in the war campgrounds, and by the end of the film, what was the next film on the list? MASH! Yes! The very movie I saw over the past couple of hours was now one of the movies showing in the MASH campgrounds, with the announcer listing off the actors who played their roles in the movie as the Swampmen were on their way out and home free. That kind of fourth wall humor was very clever and really made the film go out with quite a flavorful bang.

The acting was very well done, too. Donald Sutherland went all out there as Hawkeye Pierce in terms of showmanship, and he made his self-proclaimed remarks about the war effort or their ideas of madness leaving him to be either admired or not trusted. Elliot Gould heightened the sleaziness of Trapper Joe McIntyre, while still keeping it underneath a coating of laid-backness and modesty. Robert Duvall allowed his character, Major Frank Burns, to express himself with the utmost conviction that's expected out of a Catholic war medic, not to mention with an added layer of stinginess to his character. Sally Kellerman as Hot Lips Houlihan made her the perfect foil for the Swampmen, expressing her high-and-mighty attitude and self-righteous expertise that often left her as a Swampmen-approved target waiting to happen. And G. Wood, in the little time he had in the movie, looked like he was having a ball as General Hammond, mostly when he was getting too competitive and started showing himself off as a sore loser when the Swampmen and Blake's team started to gain the upper hand and climb their way to the top in the football match.

Everyone else simply played their roles just right, and there was no bad performance in sight.

Something else I really liked was the title theme, "Suicide is Painless". Sung during the opening credits and composed as the funeral song for Painless Pole, it took a more moody and melancholy dip into existentialism and pondered about the harshness and faulty twists and turns of life. I even like this set of lyrics:

A brave man once requested me

To answer questions that are key,

"Is it to be or not to be?"

And I replied, "Oh, why ask me?"

The reason that stuck out to me was because no one has the right answers as to how to deal with whatever life may throw at us; that's just part of human nature, as well as of life. That kind of commentary was very thought-provoking and left you in a more pondersome state of mind. And, notwithstanding the song's moody outlook, I also like how it made life look like it's just one bad turn after another, and yet, whether we want to combat it or escape it, like through suicide, is up to us. Hence the phrase, "I can take or leave it if I please". It was no wonder it was such a classic song, or that it got an Oscar nomination in its day.

So, yeah, MASH was a wry, offbeat, outrageous, and most of all, crazy war flick that seemed to have come in the right place to the right people at the right time. This was released in 1970, and during then, the protests concerning the Vietnam War were on the rise. So, leave it to the Swampmen to point out the fallacies of the war effort and of how seriously it took itself. This movie also did the book justice by sticking to the crazy situations that demonstrated underneath their mocking exteriors how to deal not only with war, but also with life itself, as well as by exposing more of the flaws from both the Swampmen and their fellow medic team to dig up a plethora of extravagant jokes.

Frankly, and in a weird way, this is one war venture I would gladly partake in any day.

My Rating: A-

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