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M*A*S*H, 1970

In 1951, two new combat surgeons arrive in Korea as part of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH). Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Duke (Tom Skerrit) have both been drafted and arrive ready to make trouble. Later joined by heart surgeon Trapper (Elliot Gould), the men clash with a surgeon named Burns (Robert Duvall) and the head nurse Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), both of whom want the camp run by-the-book.

The best part of this film is the dark humor that pervades it, particularly highlighted by the inane and bumbling intercom announcements that punctuate the action. As the men try to save the lives of mutilated soldiers, the intercom informs them that marijuana has officially been declared an illegal and dangerous substance.

This film also showcases Altman's gift of using overlapping dialogue. At times this is used to effectively establish the hustle and bustle of the operating space in the hospital. Other times it is used to more comic effect, as in several scenes where competent assistant Radar (Gary Burghoff) speaks just a second ahead of his commanding officer (Roger Bowen), having already anticipated the man's orders. The actors all do a good job with this method of line delivery, and having characters speak at different volumes adds to the realism of the dialogue.

As an overall film, though, I will admit that I struggled with this one a bit. There's a line between charmingly roguish behavior and doing gross things to people, and way too often the antics of the "Swampmen" (as they nickname themselves) came down on the wrong side of that line for me. The film repeatedly goes back to the same well over and over again--sexual humiliation--and I increasingly found myself siding with the victims of their "pranks."

The character who is most misused, both by the men and the film, is Houlihan. Initially, the men punish her for her disapproval (who wouldn't want to be called a bitch and have someone demand that you take your clothes off? What a prude!) by sneaking a microphone into her tent to humiliate her and Burns, who have started an affair. I was kind of willing to give this a pass. But later, for seemingly no reason, the men make a bet about whether she is a "natural blonde", which involves exposing her naked body to over a dozen people. Ha ha? The film divides its female characters into two categories: the ones who like being ogled and happily mend the men's clothing, and the uptight rule followers. Their harassment later in the film of a female nurse who tries to keep them from storming into a hospital (they are wearing civilian clothing) was actively off-putting. And later in the film, Houlihan just suddenly . . . doesn't have a problem with them anymore? With the implication that it's because she just needed good sex? She turns into a ditzy, literal cheerleader rah-rahing for the men as they play football.

I think it's too bad that the film didn't lean more on the humor that had a bit of humanity to it. When one of the officers believes that he has turned gay and declares his intention to commit suicide, the men stage a mock last supper/wake for him. When a young Korean man who works at the camp is drafted into the Korean Army, the men attempt to get him out of service by giving him drugs to mess with his heart rate and blood pressure. Even a scene where the soft-spoken priest (Rene Aberjonois) is pulled away from giving last rites---to a man who has already died--to that he can assist in a surgery has a kind of dark magnetism to it.

Performance wise, I really enjoyed all of the central performances (aside from Kellerman's shrieking caricature), but I kept having this disconnect where the pacing and the score kept suggesting I ought to be smirking along with the antics of the central trio even as I found them increasingly grating.

A distinctive style of filmmaking made this one interesting to watch. I just wish that in the various adventures I hadn't found so much of the on-screen behavior to be actively mean-spirited.