Here’s a film that I had never seen nor had I seen any episodes of the TV series. I really didn’t know what to expect other than knowing that the film definitely spoke to the anti-establishment political climate that had been sweeping the country since the 60s and was present in many films from the era. The film was released in 1970 (during the height of the Vietnam War), was nominated for five academy awards and won the trophy for screenplay. The film has a wonderful, colorful cast which includes the likes of Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall (who also starred in another anti-war movie of the same era, “Apocalypse Now”). The film consistently makes “best of lists” and so the big question is how it rated in this reviewers eyes.
Should this film be considered a classic? Yes, and I’ll offer a few reasons. First, it succeeds marvelously as a social commentary and satire of the time. The country was well into an unpopular war and that is reflected in this film’s take on war (although it is set in 1950s Korea). The film also plays up the anti-establishment bent that had swept across college campuses. A lot of times I don’t like the way those themes play out in movies (see my review of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“) but in “MASH” it works better for me. Maybe it was because even though there was a strong anti-war tone to the film and it didn’t exactly portray the military in a flattering light it did portray the main characters as largely having good hearts. The doctors, even if they didn’t follow regulations or were uppity snobs, did strive to care for their patients to the best of their ability. Second, the film is also very funny. Because of my personal politics I sometimes cringed while I laughed, but that is a sign of a great film if it can make you laugh even when you disagree with it. Third, the episodic editing of the film makes it feel a bit like watching a TV series but it also allowed the filmmakers to tell a lot of different stories in a variety of different tones ranging from serious to hilarious. Also, the performances of the cast are spot on and the sets have a wonderful air of authenticity.
Would I own this film? Yes, I would. I’ve started to notice that when it comes to films that take a political, moral, or social stance that is decidedly not my own I tend to like the comedies better than their more serious counterparts which often deal with similar subject matter and come from a similar era (e.g. I liked “Dr. Strangelove” but did not like “Apocalypse Now“). “MASH” is able to pull off something very challenging. The brutal scenes of operating rooms are mixed with scenes of great humor. Sometimes the great humor comes in the operating room. The film gets its point across clearly but it does so in a clever and watchable manner. I appreciate a film like that and this one is not only worthy of the accolades but worthy of spot in my library.