STARRING Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Gary Burghoff DIRECTED BY Robert Altman SCREENPLAY Ring Lardner, Jr. (Novel by Richard Hooker) MPAA RATING Rated R RUNNING TIME 116 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY 20th Century Fox
There is a phrase in Roger Ebert's review of Robert Altman's 1970 film "MASH" that sums up, for me, the essence of why the film continues to appeal to audiences thirty-five years after its release. Ebert referred to the film's actions, especially between characters, as "metaphysically cruel."
Living as they must in the midst of the Korean War, the characters of "MASH" become characters with whom we can identify, possibly even bond, because their methods of coping are authentic, their relationships are grounded upon both their need for connection and their astute awareness that any one of them may not come out of this thing alive.
It is almost impossible to not laugh during "MASH" because these people become mirrors of who all of us are. They reflect our wants, needs, desires, fears, paranoias, rages and tears. Even in the middle of a war zone, these characters behave the way that many of us want to in our schools and our workplaces and our organizations and, yes, even our families.
The way that Hawkeye (Elliott Gould) and Pierce (Donald Sutherland) taunt and torture Hoolihan (Sally Kellerman) is purposeful, downright cruel at times, yet it is also a way of coping, a way of humanizing a situation and a professional peer who has lost touch with her humanity. As intentional as their actions are, Gould and Sutherland are so low-key in their presentations that their actions blend perfectly with their daily lives. Thus, these comic scenes don't appear as if they are done for laughs. Instead, we laugh out of the situation, out of familiarity, or simply out of how normal it all seems.
The same is true in their interactions with Major Burns (Robert Duvall), and their oft-conflict ridden relationship. We laugh because it reminds us of our own conflicts, and the three play these situations so normally that we end up watching them taunt each other and we wish it could be us.
The entire cast has clearly bought into Altman's "everyday" vision for this film, and there's not a weak performance in the bunch, including Gary Burghoff as Radar, Rene Auberjonois as Father Mulcahy and Fred Williamson as Spearchucker.
To truly look at the film is to realize that the script, by Ring Lardner, Jr., is actually quite bland and sparse in dialogue and conflict. Realizing this, simply reinforces the brilliance of director Robert Altman's vision and the ability of his cast to pull of the vision in their performances.
"MASH" isn't so much a war film, though an argument could surely be made for it being an anti-war film. Instead, however, "MASH" is about those individuals who live in the war zone by choice or by necessity. It's about how they survive and how they, ultimately, reflect each one of us.
There are certain films that are what I refer to as comfortable films. They are the films that I can watch no matter the place I am at in my life. I can watch them happy or sad or angry or confused. I can watch them when I feel successful or when I feel a complete failure. They are the films that become interwoven into the fabric of my life and I turn to them often as a place of peace.
"MASH," with all its humor and lunacy and revenge and cruelty, is one of my comfortable films because it reminds me in the most subtle of ways that when I am in the midst of the battle there is always a way to survive.