MASH is timelessly white liberal. There’s even a lovable Southerner (Tom Skerritt) who knows in that science way Black folks are just folks, but he still wants to be a dick about it. And his white male Northeastern elitist friends, Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, are totally fine with that bigotry because, you know, it’s not hurting anything, really.
But then there is something going on actually hurting people, and it’s evangelical Christian Robert Duvall. In what initially seems like a pronounced case of bullying, it turns out director Altman, actor Duvall, and screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. (whose actual dialogue infamously got edited out for the final product) do a great story arc about Duvall’s Christian Nationalism hurting tangibly hurting and maybe even killing people. When it’s not about Sutherland, Gould, Skerritt, and every other guy in the movie sexual harassing their female colleagues, it’s an exceptionally subtle look at life in this Army M*A*S*H unit.
Altman is doing an anti-Vietnam picture from a pro-war Korean War novel, and the studio is interfering; MASH is a film made in the editing room to some degree. The chaos of the film and the chaos of the content are in perfect sync. When you get to the saddest moment in the picture, you don’t even know why it’s sad; the actors knew why it was sad, but it’s out of sequence and haunts differently. MASH has these occasionally bewitching moments, sometimes even the problematic romance arcs, so Altman and editor Danford B. Greene have sort of set the tone for it to continue. MASH intentionally overloads the audience with information—conversations over one another, basic transition scenes ignored, actual voiceover contrasting a different scene—they work at it from the opening. MASH’s story begins when Sutherland walks into frame, and some quotes roll. But the opening titles are scenes of the unit bringing in the wounded from the helicopters. The film starts with a kick in the gut, one Altman never really brings up again—the gory death surrounding the characters. There are a scant handful of medical cases—MASH is anti-procedural—but their drama’s never tied to them. It’s incredible the film Altman made with the performers not knowing where the film was going. It’s organized chaos.
Just like the war.
Okay, so there’s the white colonial savior shit, which I’ll group with the permissive white liberal racism, and then the classism. Though the classism is more about the misogyny, which is a sort of post-sexual revolutionist excuse for predatory and grooming and gaslighting behavior. Then there’s Duvall’s puritanical shit, which is actually very harmful, and Duvall’s playing a gross, evangelical shit. It’s depressing how secular MASH was allowed to play in 1970.
And then Sally Kellerman’s regular army, but professionally skilled, but performatively puritanical. She’s actually the film’s most realized character, and her purpose is to suffer sexist assaults and hijinks from Sutherland, Gould, and Skerritt. MASH goes out of its way to expertly convince Duvall is actually bad enough of a guy to deserve it, but with Kellerman… the film batters her, and she preservers through it. It’s an excellent performance from Kellerman. Especially since she’s playing a generic harpy in most of her foreground scenes for the first half of the picture. The character development’s in the background.
And when there isn’t character development, it’s about why there isn’t character development. Sutherland, Gould, and Skerritt are the Marx Brothers as drafted, drunken, horny, disaffected brilliant narcissist surgeons. Skerritt’s simultaneously the most and least sympathetic since he’s the unapologetic bigot. Oh, the homophobia. I forgot about the homophobic story arc. MASH is a series of interrelated story arcs; they’re not really vignettes just because they’re all sort of happening at once. At least until the third act and the zany football finale.
Yeah, there are a lot of things going on in MASH. The homophobia arc basically then turns into a patriarchal, classist toxic masculinity objectifying thing for the resolution. Like it’s fucked up. And it does say a lot about the characters creating manipulating those situations. Altman’s got a peculiar narrative distance with the protagonists. Skerritt’s going to get demoted in the third act because he’s gone soft for a girl—everyone’s got a wife back home, but it’s okay because maybe the nurses have husbands. There’s an ever-present but never directly explored romance between base commander Roger Bowen and nurse Indus Arthur. In addition to being married, Bowen’s helplessly aloof; his corporal, Gary Burghoff, basically runs the base. So Arthur’s always doting on Bowen, and it’s kind of icky, but also maybe it’s sweet. But then there’s this added layer where Arthur’s aware Bowen’s a doofus and laughs at it with her friends, including Burghoff. MASH is basically able to get through all of its… well, from Sutherland calling a Black guy a “racist” for giving him shit, MASH is white liberal edge-lord. While also being great.
It’s able to get away with it by never going too far in any one direction—the homophobia is literally genially presented, the racism levels are fine with Fred Williamson, so it’s got to be okay, something something something with the sexually predatory behavior (the nurses are all enthusiastically consenting because the men Altman cast to be normal-looking are all love stallions). It’s a movie, after all, a Hollywood movie, and it’s a comedy. And a war movie. So a Hollywood war comedy. MASH requires a very delicate touch, and Altman’s got it.
Acting: Kellerman’s the winner, then Duvall. Then it starts getting difficult to list it out. Not Skerritt. Kind of not Gould. Kind of not Sutherland either. In terms of irreplaceability, it’s Burghoff. He’s not in the movie as much as he’s in the TV show; he’s definitely a D-tier character (he’s got no subplots to himself). But he’s holding it all together. But also, everyone’s great. Williamson’s great—he ends up commanding the majority of the third act—Rene Auberjonois is great, David Arkin is great, Bud Cort is great; no one’s not standout. Even the objectified nurses. Actually, the treatment of the nurses is kind of where the Marx Brothers comparison comes in.
MASH is awesome. It’s also very privileged, elitist, sexist, and generally misanthropic. But, again, white liberal edge-lord and still gets away with it. When Altman’s great, Altman is great.