Anyone who pops in their DVD of Robert Altman‘s movie adaptation of Richard Hooker‘s novel expecting to see a two-hour version of the TV show is in for a rude shock. The long-running series starring Alan Alda is related to this movie only by title, character names and setting. Stylistically, they are very different animals altogether.
The CBS sitcom, for its groundbreaking subject matter, is still a traditional “workplace” comedy at heart, very much in the tradition of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The TV Frank Burns has far more in common with Ted Baxter than with the religious fanatic portrayed by Robert Duvall in the movie.
The movie version is a choatic, anarchic and hilarious celebration of insanity as an antidote for insanity. Much like Inherit the Wind used the Scopes Trial as thinly veiled allegory for McCarthyism, M*A*S*H uses the Korean War to stand in for Vietnam. The word Korea is barely mentioned except in the opening credit crawl and the dress and demeanor of the main characters are far more appropriate for 1970 Saigon than 1950 Seoul.
The plot of M*A*S*H is very episodic in structure and very little that happens in any one scene has an impact on what happens later in the film. This is hardly a flaw but really suggests the day-to-day approach people take to keeping their sanity in wartime. As a broad outline, the movie concerns three Army doctors at a MASH unit, Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland), “Trapper” John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) and Augustus Bedford “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerritt) as they torment those around them who insist on regular Army discipline, specifically Majors Frank Burns and Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), and manhandle their commanding officer, Col. Blake (Roger Bowen). Along the way, they find themselves in Tokyo treating a congressman’s son, foiling a suicide by the company dentist and playing football against another MASH unit.
With the freedom that comes with its “R” rating, the movie is free to portray the horror of a battlefield operating room far more intensely than the TV series ever could. If you’re more than a little sqeamish, you might want to close your eyes. Fortunately for those of you, the operating room scenes are a much smaller part of the movie than they were on TV.
As I said at the beginning, as long as you don’t come this film with expectations formed by the TV series, you can enjoy this film not only as raucous comedy but also as the perfect reflection of the spirit of the time in which it was made.