MASH (1970)

Director: Robert Altman

Oh HI, fancy seeing me here… So I haven’t watched a film since early March, haven’t even been watching a lot of TV or anything, it’s all been other stuff… but I’ve been busy ripping my DVDs so that I have them handy on a hard drive (only about 400 to go) during much of that time, and that’s got me thinking I really should actually start watching some of the fucking things again, I mean I’ve only got 1100+ titles catalogued and probably a few hundred more not catalogued, so I’m not really stuck for something to watch… just the inclination to do so.

Anyway, tonight I finally broke the drought, albeit with something on TV rather than my own film library; the ICM forum is doing a comedy challenge this month, which I thought might help ease me back into the habit, and when I saw this in the TV guide I thought that would do to get me underway. I last saw this, oh, 21 years ago, third year film studies at UNSW, I forget the class but I haven’t seen it since then. Wasn’t overly impressed back then, can’t say that I was tonight either (and I was hoping to be). The production seems to have been fraught, with Altman struggling to overcome the failures of his previous two features and the somewhat flaky reputation he’d garnered in his TV years, and to overcome the ill will of his cast, two of whom (Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland) tried to have him fired. Plus Altman had no faith in his source material and the studio had not much more faith in the film; reportedly studio heads fobbed off Gould & Sutherland by saying it’d likely only show in a few drive-ins. Once the film came out, it was an unexpected hit (second-highest grossing comedy ever at the time, apparently), but I don’t think it’s worn terribly well.

Plus, let’s face it, it has competition in hindsight from the TV series. I don’t suppose MASH was anything like the first film to generate a TV spinoff, but I doubt that any such series spinoff has cast such a shadow of its own across its source. I’d had years of watching the TV series, and therefore years to get used to Messrs Alda, Linville, Stevenson etc as the characters played… you know, all these other people, who don’t seem right somehow. I know I should try and take the film on its merits (and I will concede it generally avoids the smugness and preachiness the show would be prone to, especially in its later years when it forgot it was supposed to be a comedy), but I can’t look past the casting. No one in the film—least of all Sutherland, whose Hawkeye Pierce is just massively irritating—really matched up to the TV cast (Gary Burghoff is the obvious exception), though Rene Auberjonois (as Father Mulcahy) may have done if he were given more to do.

Ultimately there’s just far too many characters and far too many things going on. Turning the film into a TV series was, really, the only way to accommodate all of them and do theem all justice (even if, obviously, it couldn’t have accommodated some of the antics in the film, particularly the casually historic “fuck”). It’s well enough made, it probably seemed quite advanced in its day (especially Altman’s thing for overlapping dialogue), and its dark streak is impressively black at times, even if sometimes to the point where it’s not actually that funny. It’s just… of its time, not always in a good way, and I do find it impossible to keep the TV version out of consideration (though I suspect I might still not like the film much even had I never seen the series). Still, it finally established Altman, and the theme song made his teenage son (who wrote the lyrics) a millionaire, so at least he wouldn’t have complained much…

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