Robert Altman’s dark comedy MASH follows the staff of a field hospital during the Korean War as they use humor and satire to keep their heads and mental sanity through dark times. The film, starring Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as Hawkeye and Trapper, respectively, is the basis for the popular television spinoff, M*A*S*H, and is considered one of the pioneers in the use of wartime satire. MASH is set during the Korean War, although it tries to makes the line distinguishing it from the Vietnam War ambiguous, all to make the message of the film more accessible for the time period.
Episodic in nature, the film follows Hawkeye and Trapper through their antics both in surgery and the camp, a fact that is loathed by head nurse Major Margaret Houlihan (aka “Hot Lips”) and is blatantly ignored by the unit’s commanding officer, Colonel Henry Blake. Hawkeye and Trapper continually harass Hot Lips, help the dentists commit “suicide” against his imagined homosexuality, travel to Japan for work and golf, and hustle another unit in a game of football all in the name of winning a bet. The entirety of the movie is tinged with the horrors of the Korean War, particularly during the surgery scenes, but is still full of humor, sarcasm, and a pinch of absurdity.
Though MASH has received some criticism by those who believe it to be mocking the Korean War and the American soldiers involved, MASH is by no means doing so. MASH is playing on the soldier’s way of keeping their sanity in a time where they felt completely out of control. This feeling of being scattered and out of control is exemplified in the film’s dialogue, as there are often four conversations happening at once, a completely new technique in film at the time that has frequently been employed since then. There is nothing glamorous about the film, and the camps look as they really are: dirty, disorganized, and depressing. The only true spark of light or happiness comes from the light-hearted antics of the men and women of MASH. However, some of these “light-hearted” antics hit very close to home, as with the Dentist’s attempt at suicide for his “homosexual tendencies” and the staff going through the motions of the Last Rites and a funeral, complete with a poignant image of The Last Supper. Despite the humor of the crew’s charade and the complete absurdity of the situation, the actual problem that is introduced was an extremely relevant and common occurrence during the Korean War.
The effect of stress and the disturbing nature of war were accurately portrayed by the characters of MASH, whose hysteria or madness could be misconstrued as light-hearted humor, often a blurred line in wartime. MASH did its part to help audiences understand the prospects of spending a seemingly infinite amount of days in a military camp with despair and fear creeping in. By finding the humor in the darkness of war, the staff of this field hospital were able to find the light in humanity and realize how important it is to always look on the bright side of life (*cue whistling*).