The received wisdom is that M*A*S*H is an anti-war comedy masterpiece, but it hasn’t aged well at all. It’s one of many films from the late-’60s/early-’70s period that today inspire a response like “Guess you had to be there.” I was born the year this came out, so perhaps my view might be taken with a grain of salt; perhaps not, though. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould are appealing if more than a bit self-satisfied as the irreverent Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John, combat medics during the Korean War who buck authority and generally look and act like hippies transplanted to the mid-’50s. The movie congratulates its young 1970 audience for being hip and against the military. The two lead doctors are the only rational men; most everyone else is a fool or a nutcase.
It must have looked pretty fresh and daring when it came out, and probably young audiences needed it and responded to it gratefully then (in the midst of the Vietnam War, Kent State, etc.). But it’s sort of hard to work up much enthusiasm for a movie that takes the only woman of any power (Sally Kellerman as “Hot Lips” Houlihan) and takes her down a peg by exposing her body to everyone. Yeah yeah, she symbolizes “regular Army” conformity and all that — if so, why doesn’t the movie show us full-frontal Robert Duvall, too? A good many people actually preferred the CBS series that followed, and not because they were stupid and couldn’t appreciate Robert Altman’s genius — it was mainly because the characters were more likable and were allowed a decade to develop, and the humor wasn’t as smug and mean-spirited. It does need to be said that on this film Altman inaugurated the random, scattershot, improvisatory style that sometimes worked for him and sometimes failed badly; when it worked, it worked really well, and some of M*A*S*H does work. At best it’s a snapshot of where young America’s heads were at back then. But if you want a “war is not only hell, it’s sick and absurd” black comedy that came out the same year and actually does pass the test of time, take a look at Catch-22. Altman’s next was Brewster McCloud.