I seem to recall finding myself vaguely surprised when I discovered the television show that would occasionally wander across my home television was based on a movie with–no! One of my favourite actors?! Then discovering it was the work of Robert Altman nearly broke my brain. I knew, at least, that it was certainly going to be different from the show.
I first saw it a few years ago on tape, then again a little later, and now I’m seeing it in widescreen for the first time. I think, actually, I may have first seen it in an English class while reading Catch-22, which was also filmed and came out the same year as M*A*S*H. I wrote a paper comparing this film to the novel Catch-22 (M*A*S*H, by the way, is also based on a novel) which I only vaguely recall at this time, mostly referring to the similarly episodic nature of both, as well as the comedic approach both took to the idea of war, using it as a vehicle to promote the idea that it was absurd and unnecessary, both clearly showing overall antiwar sentiment through the juxtaposition of this attitude with graphic scenes of disturbing violence.
While–as is normal with Altman–this would be best described as an “ensemble” film, the theoretical stars are “Hawkeye” Pierce (here Donald Sutherland–the favourite actor I referred to–instead of the series’ Alan Alda), “Trapper John” (Elliot Gould, Wayne Rogers in the series, and not a character who stayed anywhere near the whole run) and “Duke” Forrest (Hey! Isn’t that where I LIVE?!–er, sorry–Tom Skerritt, still “Captain Dallas” to me, even if he doesn’t have that beard here, not present in the series). Hawkeye and Duke are new doctors to the MASH unit (that’s Mobile Army Surgical Hospital if you never knew) when the movie opens, with Trapper John arriving not long after.
Surrounding them is a cast that includes Sally Kellerman as Major O’Houlihan (later also known by a nickname, but if I can keep the surprise for you, I will), Robert Duvall as Major Frank Burns (an extremely religious man, perhaps hinting at his later role in The Apostle, heh), John Schuck as “Painless” Waldowski (a dentist who develops suicidal tendencies for humorously ridiculous reasons), and Rene Auberjonois as Father “Dago Red” Mulcahy (you may know Rene as Deep Space Nine‘s Odo).
Trying to describe the plot is a waste of time, as it’s as episodic as I implied earlier. Roughly, Hawkeye, Duke and Trapper John bring drunken, golfing womanizing ways into the unit and create some level of upheaval through it, starting and ruining many affairs, abusing job offers, lying and ‘borrowing’ things to get somewhere they’d prefer to be as opposed to where they’re assigned. They manage to ruin O’Houlihan’s uptight, condemnatory attitude, start a football game (!) and otherwise create general havoc of sorts.
Many of the jokes are smile-worthy at most, but don’t feel like they’re supposed to be anymore, but rather a solidly, continuously amusing movie overall, with Altman’s trademark zooming, slowly observant camera and overlapping dialogue, Lt. Col. Blake (Roger Bowen) often giving commands under “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff, the only actor who carried his role into the show) as Radar predicts them, but also through an early mess hall conversation where everyone is introducing themselves. However, I must note that the football game, especially Houlihan’s new attitude, is pretty damn funny. An early film for almost everyone involved and a very entertaining one–but don’t expect anything like the show. I didn’t know the show too well myself, though, so it was no big deal for me to make the transition, as it was mild, except to know that Sutherland was replaced by Alan Alda (which nearly ruined the idea of ever watching the show for me).