Vintage Movies: “MASH”

MAGNET contributing editor Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’20s through the ’80s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

MASH (1970, 116 minutes)

When two hotshot young surgeons arrive at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital at the height of the Korean War, the “combat zone” is effectively expanded to include the helter-skelter daily life of this ramshackle medical outpost, only three miles from the front lines. Captains Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) show up in a stolen Jeep to find a cockeyed paradise at their new posting: from an able (and willing) staff of surgical nurses to a bountiful supply of drugs and plenty of booze. Although the grueling 12-hour shifts, operating on gravely wounded Army personnel in conditions that seem more like a slaughterhouse than a sterile U.S. hospital, are taxing, the two doctors prove they have what it takes.

The only fly in the ointment is their bunkmate (and inferior fellow surgeon) Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), a martinet who neither drinks nor womanizes. But the newest “chest cutter,” Trapper John McEntyre (Elliott Gould in a Pancho Villa mustache), is just what Hawkeye and Duke ordered. “I would love a martini,” replies Trapper John to Hawkeye’s civilized inquiry. “I think you will find these accommodating,” says Hawkeye. “Don’t you use olives?” asks Trapper, fishing a jar of the briny delicacies from his jacket.

A new head nurse, Major Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), is escorted from a helicopter by Duke, bent-over with hands clasped behind his back, a la Groucho Marx. Such foolishness is lost on the no-nonsense Houlihan, who aligns herself with Major Burns. “I think of the Army as my home,” she tells a puzzled Hawkeye, as the compound’s PA blurts out “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” sung in Japanese.

As the three surgical amigos toss a football around after-hours, Hawkeye smiles, recalling the day he intercepted an ill-advised pass by Trapper for the game’s only points to beat Dartmouth in the final seconds. “Lucky your mouth wasn’t open. The ball would have got stuck in your throat,” smirks the former quarterback.

Hawkeye finds a way to make fools of Burns and Houlihan with one fiendish stroke. “Looks like Dr. Frank is doing a bit of dilatation tonight,” says Hawkeye after discovering the couple will rendezvous in Burns’ tent to do what comes naturally. Hawkeye rigs up a live feed to broadcast their groaning liaison over the camp’s PA. “My lips are hot, Frank. Kiss my hot lips!” moans Houlihan, unknowingly selecting “Hot Lips” as her own permanent Army sobriquet.

MASH‘s infectious irreverence struck a sympathetic chord with those disillusioned by the Vietnam War. Nothing may have stuck in the craw of the U.S. power structure quite like a drunken chorus of doctors and nurses blowing off steam with an improvised version of “Hail To The Chief”: “Hail to the chief/He’s the best of all the surgeons/He took his orders/And shoved them up his rectum.”