Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Fishing in the Discount Bin - MASH

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly ode to how much time I have on my hands by watching one of the many movies in my home movie library and blogging about it.  Today, we have the source material for a very famous TV show, MASH.  This review is originally dated May 5, 2012.

Well, for a while now, I've been thinking, "Hey.  Do you know what would make a good double-feature?  My Dad's favourite movies."  And the last time I was at HMV, the finally had them on sale in their 2 for $30 bins.  So I snatched up American Graffiti and MASH.  And that's what I just spent my afternoon watching...MASH.

The legendary movie which spawned the legendary TV series actually began life as a novel.  I read the novel a few years ago when it was on sale at Chapters and I picked it up.  MASH:  A Story of Three Army Doctors is where the whole franchise began.  Written by Richard Hooker, which was the pen-name of Dr. Richard Hornberger and W.C Heinz.  The novel is a semi-autobiographical account of Hornberger's experiences as a surgeon in an actual MASH unit during the Korean War.  I have spent some time these past few years reading up on real MASH units online.  Quite the fascinating thing.  Established by the US Army in the closing days of World War II, the MASH unit was designed to bring medical care closer to the front lines, and replaced the Army's rapidly-growing-outdated system of battlefield hospitals.  That's why MASH units were a really big deal during the Korean War.  It was really the first time they were field-tested.

I finally get the movie.  As I said, it was one of my Dad's favourite movies, so I wound up watching it quite a bit when I was a kid.  The movie, and its original novel, is significantly darker than the resulting TV series.  The example I always go to is the character of Frank Burns.  As portrayed in the movie and TV series, Burns is a fairly incompetent surgeon and a general screw-up.  In the TV series, the respond to this by constantly harrasing Burns with juvenile pranks.  In the film, they actively conspire - and succeed - in getting Burns thrown out of the Army.

The film is fairly episodic, which is probably why it was a natural for television adaptation.  The segment with Burns, well, it pretty much is like an episode of the show.  Burns and head nurse, Major Houlihan, get fed up with Hawkeye and Trapper John's antics and write a scathing memo to the general about the un-military shenanigans going on at the camp.  But, while working together in such close quarters, Burns and Houlihan give into their passions and start going at it.  Here's where things take the dark turn.  In the movie, Radar sneaks a microphone into their tent, and their lovemaking is broadcast to the whole camp via the PA system.  BTW, in her dirty talk, Houlihan begs Burns to "kiss [her] hot lips," hence the origin of her nickname.  They discover what's going on, and are naturally pissed off.  The next day at breakfast, everyone mockingly calls Houlihan "Hot Lips," and she runs off in shame.  Hawkeye begins asking Burns about Houlihan's lovemaking skills, and this enrages Burns so much that he starts beating the crap out of Hawkeye.  For striking a subordinate officer, Burns is dishonorably discharged and sent home.  Leading Duke - the laid-back sidekick of Hawkeye and Trapper who never made the transition to the TV series - to calmly ask Henry Blake, "If I screw Hot Lips and punch Hawkeye, can I go home too?" 

And yeah.  Despite being such a prominent character of the TV series, Burns is gone halfway through the movie.

I'm kind of getting ahead of myself...brought to the big screen by legendary film director Robert Altman, this was one of his earliest big Hollywood films.  Great Canadian actor Donald Sutherland is the legendary Hawkeye Pierce, Elliot Gould, rocking an epic 'stache, is Trapper John, Robert Duvall is Frank Burns...he put together a great cast. 

As I said, there's not much of a plot, as it is very episodic and portrays a series of incidents at 4077 MASH unit in Korea.  Fun trivia fact:  Altman ordered all references to Korea to be deleted from the script, so as to fool audiences that this was going on at the still-raging Vietnam War.  It opens with Hawkeye and Duke arriving in Korea and being assigned to the 4077th.  The tone is set early as Duke mistakes Hawkeye for an enlisted man and his driver, and Hawkeye promptly swipes a Jeep to drive himself and Duke to the 4077th. 

The one segment where I finally got the joke and was inspired to seek out the film after seeing the movie on TV a year ago or so has to do with the saga of Walter Waldowski, the Painless Pole, who was the camp's dentist.  We learn early on that the Painless Pole is ridiculously well-hung.  A small bout with impotence leaves Waldowski depressed, struggling with his sexual identity, and suicidal.  To help him get through this, Hawkeye throws a funeral for Waldowski, and whips up a "black capsule" to help Waldowski into the next life.  Waldowski is convinced it's poison, but it's really just a strong sedative.  After their funeral, Hawkeye convinces one of the best-looking nurses in the camp to go...*ahem*...be with Waldowski for the night.  She's reluctant at first, but once she peeks under the sheet and sees that the stories about Waldowski are true, she goes along with it.  She's discharged the next day and goes home very satisfied, and Waldowski gets over it and goes back to work.  What really makes this scene funny is the way the music swells and gets all Disney-esque.  It's very politically incorrect in this day and age, but damn, it's funny.

The film climaxes with what Leonard Maltin described as "one of the most corrupt football games ever put to film," as the 4077 has a friendly match with the nearby EVAC hospital, and players are routinely drugged, getting high, and knocking each other out of the game.  It can probably best be summed up by this line that Radar delivers to Colonel Blake:  "They're just upset that our ringer is better than their ringer."

And the end, too, seems fairly anticlimactic.  Hawkeye finishes his tour of duty and goes home.  That's it.  That's how it ends. 

When all is said and done, MASH is highly surreal.  It's blend of humor against such gruesome surroundings was groundbreaking at the time, and really demonstrates the extremes that folks go through to remain sane in insane situations.  It's truly deserving of its classic status.

But yeah.  When I described this to a friend of mine, she was turned off instantly.  If you're only exposure to MASH has been the TV series,  you'll find the movie shockingly dark.  

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