In 1970, director Robert Altman released a film that, despite its blatant anti-war rhetoric and heavy criticism of Cold War attitudes, would win several awards including five Academy Award nominations and an Oscar for it’s screenplay, and a designation of “culturally significant” from the Library of Congress. M.A.S.H — and the TV show that followed – took place during the Korean War, and depicted the lives of several members of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital close enough to the front to see the bloodiest of wounds. The film does little to mask the fact that the commentary offered is not so much about the Korean War – which ended in 1953 – as it is about the Vietnam War, and the emotional and ethical ramifications of being an anti-war draftee.
I had seen only pieces of the original film, but in High School – this is the part where you cry out, “NERD!” – I came home from school every day, plopped down on the couch, flipped to the Hallmark channel and watched reruns of the M.A.S.H television show. I remember it fondly; the messages about the futility of war and senselessness of violence resonated perhaps subconsciously with me as a teenager growing up during the Iraq War. Our society has traded an unhealthy and deeply harmful obsession with communism with an unhealthy and deeply harmful obsession with terrorism; we live with a very similar racist, warmongering paranoia.Unsurprisingly, it’s this Cold War-era commentary that holds up. Specifically, the film’s portrayal of army higher-ups as blundering fools, take-downs of officials who value order over human life, and swift cuts from plotlines back to the blood and gore of the “operating theater” are all stark reminders that this, rather than the patriotic propaganda generally seen on screen, is war. Perhaps the most striking scene in the entire movie is a short one in which the entire operating theater – surgeons, nurses, bystanders – all begin to sing as they stitch together guts and limbs. It’s a relatively quiet, normal moment; their untrained but still lovely voices are raised just above the din of surgical instruments clicking and removed bullets falling into tins. M.A.S.H., over and over again, reminds us that carnage becomes normal for those on the front lines – but its presence doesn’t devalue the lives of those on the tables.
An unexpected but well-executed theme in the film was the presence – or rather, lack thereof – of God. The film’s second most obvious villain – the first being the governmental forces behind the draft and the Cold War – is Major Frank Burns, a surgeon who blames death on anyone but himself, including harmless orderlies and God’s will. When the film introduces Frank, he almost immediately kneels beside his bed to pray while his new tent-mates, Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest, heckle him. Later, an announcement drifts over the operating theater that hymns have been donated to the camp library, and Father Mulcahy is called away from blessing a dead man to hold a clamp so a surgeon may free up a hand. God and religion are present only to be mocked, questioned, and tossed aside, and while the film doesn’t tussle with them too heavily, it does seem to ask its viewers to remember that God’s will is not at play in war – unless government officials are gods.
M.A.S.H. makes all these points well. The humor pulls you in immediately and almost unwillingly; I spent most of the first third of the film laughing, whether it was at a Charlie Chaplin-esque moment in which officers fell into mud and couldn’t get up, or at war-weary surgeons playing pranks to disrupt the military order that had disrupted, ruined, and ended lives. Unfortunately, the final two thirds seem to go out of their way to put women, gay people, black people, and Koreans at the butt of every joke, utterly devaluing their humanity.The first red flag of the film is the treatment of Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. In his largely positive review of the film, Roger Ebert found this treatment quite justifiable; he felt that Pierce and McIntyre – the film’s protagonists, finest surgeons and heroes – were allowed such cruelty because “…we cannot quite separate that [their cruelty]from the matter-of-fact way they’ve got to put wounded bodies back together again. ‘Hot Lips,’ who is all Army professionalism and objectivity, is less human because the suffering doesn’t reach her.” What Ebert does not mention, however, is that Houlihan is the only significant female character in the entire film. The women in the film are mostly nurses, and they are seen either helping the surgeons operate, sleeping with them, or aiding them in their pranks. When Trapper and Hawkeye are called to Japan to operate on an army official’s precious son, they burst into the hospital and harass a black woman – possibly the only black woman in the film with lines – with a golf club and an umbrella, until she has to run away from them down a hallway.
The treatment of women in the film is not just unpleasant, not just cringe-worthy, but also hauntingly familiar. In her recent piece Political Issues: The Self Fulfilling Misogyny of “Seminal” Comics, fellow WWAC writer Rosie Knight took a critical eye to Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In Watchmen, the superhero The Comedian serves in the Vietnam War and, despite fully comprehending the violence that landed soldiers under the hands of surgeons like Hawkeye and Trapper, carelessly contributes to that violence. Moore emphasizes The Comedian’s lack of humanity by depicting him assaulting teammate and superhero Sally Jupiter AKA the Silk Spectre; an incident that occurs just a few pages into the massive book. Altman, in his similar quest to reveal how war disrupts human life, corrupting some people’s sense of compassion and humanity, also allows his characters to sexually assault a woman. His heroic but traumatized surgeons, attempting to inject liveliness into the bleakness of war, record Houlihan having sex and project the audio out to the entire camp, and later tear down a shower wall, exposing her naked body to the entire camp.
In addition to this familiar misogyny, M.A.S.H. engages in both homophobia and racism that again devalue the humanity of minorities. The film dedicates a bizarrely long, painful storyline to a gay joke, in which a notoriously sexually successful dentist decides to commit suicide because he loses an erection and assumes he is “a fairy.” Hawkeye leads the camp in an elaborate scheme that ends with a nurse sleeping with the dentist to bring him back to life, and to heterosexuality.M.A.S.H.’s racism comes in two flavors: the white savior role the surgeons play when it comes Korean people, and the anti-black racism that pushes black characters into one-note roles with few or no lines. In addition to the aforementioned nurse whom Trapper and Hawkeye violently harass, the biggest role given to a black actor is that of “Spearchucker” Jones, a college football star who was drafted before his career could take off. The surgeons convince Colonel Blake to have him transferred to their camp so that he can help them rig a football game and humiliate an officer, but Jones has no opinions of his own, little personality, and is largely present to be complicit with Hawkeye and Trapper’s scheme.
Yes, these errors utterly undermine Altman’s attempt to emphasize how Johnson and Nixon’s endless war ended possibly millions of lives and how their draft prevented others from truly living. (There is no definite casualty count for the Vietnam War.) However, they also reflect similar, modern attitudes – specifically those of “well-meaning” advocates who in fact fail to recognize their racism, their sexism, and their homophobia. I can do you no better favor than to again direct you to Knight’s article, because she makes this point better than I possibly can during her discussion of V for Vendetta. Knight recalls plot lines like V’s decision to imprison and torture a 16-year-old girl in order to teach her that the government is bad, and connects them to similarly misogynist policies; namely former Prime Minister David Cameron’s advocacy for a porn ban. Each of these storylines and political decisions are harmful problems that stem from the same root: tone-deaf paternalism.
Straight white men may be able to return to a film like M.A.S.H. and appreciate its commentary on the true effects of war and the damage caused by self-absorbed, warmongering political officials. As a queer woman, I couldn’t put aside the treatment of characters like Margaret Houlihan. I can’t enjoy this film, but I can ask modern anti-war art to do better.
This spring we’re looking back at the Cold War through games, movies, comics and books. Check out the rest of our series here.