Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Froemming picked “M*A*S*H.”
The Movie: “M*A*S*H ”
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt
Director: Robert Altman
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) The staff of a Korean War field hospital use humor and high jinks to keep their sanity in the face of the horror of war.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 84 percent
Froemming: *hears a helicopter coming, runs to look*
Well, we are back. After a brief hiatus that had Brown and I busy with work, a wedding in Illinois and blackmailing a higher-up in Tokyo so we could get some golf in, we returned just before Sports Month with our first foray into the work of Robert Altman.
I had never seen the movie “M*A*S*H” before, and it was one of those movies I always wanted to watch, but never had a good reason to, since I am usually busy rewatching TV shows I have seen a thousand times before.
Now, I never experienced the fanfare when this movie came out (it came out 11 years before I was born). I was also too young to remember much about the TV show it spawned, that Altman hated (I wasn’t even 2 years old when its final episode aired), so when people brought either up, I usually just switched the conversation to something I did know: “Seinfeld.”
Two of my best friends were shocked when I let them know I knew nothing about any of this. So, did I enjoy this string of vignettes held together by commentary from a loudspeaker? We will find out.
Brown, as I train one of the locals in this war zone to mix me a proper martini, why don’t you give us your first thoughts?
Brown: I honestly had no opinion of “M*A*S*H” going into this review.
I knew there was a movie that preceded the long-running TV show. Other than that, my only experience with “M*A*S*H” has been the following:
- Me changing the channel when the show came on when Nickelodeon switched to Nick-At-Nite back in my childhood.
- Last summer, some high school friends and I did a baseball trip across the Rust Belt. One of the places we stopped at was Tony Packo’s Cafe in Toledo, Ohio. And apparently in the TV show, Klinger mentioned the restaurant a lot. I don’t blame him: they had good Coney dogs. Also, people autograph the hot dog buns there. And seeing Donald Trump’s fat-fingered signature on a hot dog bun made too much sense.
So yeah, I was going into this review blind.
How was it? Well, we’ll get into it. Just know I used the phrase “Problematic” a lot in my notes.
So Froemming, get us started while I look for a ringer with an offensive nickname for our pick-up football team.
Froemming: We begin this war movie in
1969 Saigon 1951, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea, where we meet two of the three main characters in this: “Duke” Forrest and “Hawkeye” Pierce, the latter who steals a military jeep while tricking the former he is some dumb grunt.
This introduction tells us how much fun war is, especially in this unit, where alcoholism and sex are as rampant as the college experience for some. As we see, this base is lazily run, the inmates are running the asylum and as usual, Robert Duvall plays a stick-in-the-mud.
And our two new hotshot surgeons don’t enjoy sharing a tent with the guy who will one day become Vito Corelone’s right-hand man.
Brown: Hawkeye and Duke just don’t know the benefits of a wartime consigliere.
Well, at least a future one. As for now, Burns (Duvall) is a Bible thumper and kind of a jerk.
He’s also teaching a local, Ho-Jon, how to read. Duke sees this and decides that he’d be better off learning from a picture book via the fine publication Playboy.
Froemming, watching this scene, was it giving you flashbacks to how you introduced our Malaysian friend Kai to American culture? Because I feel like this was a living mirror for you.
Froemming: I plead the fifth.
Yeah, Duke and Hawkeye teach Ho-Jon more important skills in life, like pornography and mixing a good strong drink instead of learning how to read and whatnot. I mean, I am sure the kid prefers this as well, as we soon see Burns is a real monster at times.
How much of a monster? He blames some subordinate for his failure to save a man’s life. Now, I am no expert, but I feel like blaming your mistake — which resulted in someone’s horrible death — on some schmuck who didn’t get you a thermometer or whatever on time is, what’s the word…HORRIBLE.
And this horrible behavior rubs Hawkeye and Duke the wrong way. Sure, they may be racist, misogynistic, alcoholic homophobes, but they draw the line at that.
The 1970s was a weird time, man.
Brown: “Sure, they may be racist, misogynistic, alcoholic homophobes…”
You just described everyone in the 1950s. And a future run by the GOP.
Froemming: I described everyone from the dawn of the modern age to, I would guess, the mid-1980s. And today’s GOP.
Brown: So while Duke and Hawkeye try to devise a way to rid themselves of Blake, they have found a new roommate in a mustachioed man named Trapper.
Froemming: Two smart asses befriending a mustachioed man…that was basically how you, our friend Joey and I formed a bond. This movie is haunting me. I was that mustachioed man!
Brown: No, you weren’t this mustachioed man. For Trapper may be the biggest psychopath I’ve ever seen in media.
Why, you ask? The dude keeps a jar of green olives in his (REDACTED) jacket pocket.
Froemming: War is hell, Brown. And sometimes disgusting, expired, hot olives in a jar in a stranger’s pocket are all you have for your martinis on the front line. Even if that stranger has a kickass mustache.
Brown: All I’m saying is I find someone hiding a jar of olives more haunting than the Maniac hoarding a bucket of chestnuts.
Froemming: But you advocate pocket dogs, Brown. Pick a lane!
Brown: That’s because hot dogs are delicious. Olives taste like pennies.
Anyways, we keep getting introduced to other characters, chief among them is the new head nurse, Houlihan. She’s as uptight as Blake, which will make perfect sense in a bit.
It’s about here where I realized that there’s no real plot in this movie. Just a bunch of loosely-attached stories that happen almost in episodic format. Makes sense that “M*A*S*H” worked as a TV show. I’m pretty sure Quentin Tarantino copied this idea for “Pulp Fiction.”
Froemming: Quick question: Who do you think upset Hot Lips more, Hawkeye or Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School?”
Brown: Oh, Rodney, no question. Hawkeye didn’t subject Hot Lips to Oingo Boingo.
Froemming: Man, even in the JOE-DOWN, Rodney gets no respect. No respect at all.
So, this part of the movie is a cold war of sorts between the prudes and the drunks. Burns, for all his pious posturing, we see will be DTF just by having Hot Lips speak to him. Now, it seems everyone in this is cheating on their SO back home, which is terrible. Everyone in this is terrible. Funny? Sometimes, but terrible. And Burns is no exception. And he isn’t even funny. He is preparing to help run the New York “family.”
Brown, what troubled you more: The infidelity or those pocket olives?
Brown: Pocket olives. I don’t agree with the infidelity, but we’re talking Army folks 7,000 miles away from their SOs. The pocket olives make me want to spew.
Since this movie is basically “Porky’s” with the gravitas of war, Hawkeye, Duke and co. enlist the help of Radar, who puts a microphone under the bed where Blake and Houlihan are about to hump. To ratchet up the awkwardness, they play this over the camp’s PA system. Houlihan says something to Blake about kissing her hot lips, so now she has a nickname that’ll haunt her for decades.
Brown: Hawkeye antagonizes Blake to the point of kicking his ass at the mess hall. Because of that, Blake is discharged and sent home in a straight jacket.
Now that that first skit is over, let’s go into the one after a man thinking he’s becoming gay!
Froemming: Yes, we learn early on our dentist friend in this, Walter “Painless Pole” Waldowski, is…um…well endowed. Everyone tries to peak at his…bits when he showers. I had no idea the military is basically high school.
But he is having a problem and goes to the absolutely worst person one could go with a problem: Hawkeye. Now, I did enjoy the snarkiness of Hawkeye and Trapper John to an extent. But this part, and I know it is of the times when homosexuality was tabboo, made me very uncomfortable at times, even when I think the movie did some interesting shots here.
Walter tells Human Red Flag Hawkeye that he has become impotent, so he thinks that means he might be gay, though they use more offensive language about it here.
Brown: So to help Painless of his problem, the camp says they’ll assist with the suicide. And they go into great detail, with a literal Last Supper, a “black capsule” that’ll end Painless’ life… painlessly. And even the “M*A*S*H” theme song, which is really quite dour.
Froemming: Altman asked his son to write the dumbest song lyrics he could think of, and this was what came out of that. Fun fact: His son made more money from the music royalties than Altman did with the movie.
Brown: Altman’s kid was going through some shit.
Also, the way it sounds, it made me think it was Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” sung by a choir.
Turns out, they just gave Painless a sleeping pill. And to further prove he’s not gay, Hawkeye coerses the female Lieutenant “Dish” Schneider to sleep with him.
I know this movie is pretty much “Animal House” in Army fatigues, right down to Donald Sutherland’s presence in both movies. But man, women are really only here as sex objects. Also, what good does it do to help Painless think he’s not gay if he’s not going to remember a woman in his bed via sleeping pills?
In another cutaway gag, we get a bit where the troop wants to find out if Hot Lips… ahem, curtains match the drapes. So, they pull up the shower tent while she’s in there. She (rightfully) flips out and wants these animals court martialed. Commanding Officer Blake isn’t going to do that because he checked out a long (REDACTED) time ago.
I feel bad for women in the ‘50s. Hell, I feel bad for women now. I just feel bad for women.
But enough of that, let’s go to Japan!
Froemming: Yes, we see Hawkeye and Trapper John hard at work hitting golf balls and getting drunk when a helicopter arrives and some higher-up says they are needed in Japan to save the life of a senator’s son, which John Fogerty once told us he ain’t no.
The selling point for our heroes is they can get some golf in after saving this chucklehead and have a nice little vacation. Apparently doctors were treated like Gods in a war zone, because these two seem to do whatever the hell they want. Also, Duke pretty much vanishes from the movie until the football game.
So they are magically whisked away to Japan, where they immediately terrorize a nurse with an umbrella, some soldiers with their insane banter and bring their chaos to this place, which I mean, hasn’t Japan suffered enough from Americans?
Brown: No. In the future, Jackasses from America will terrorize the streets in panda costumes.
Everywhere Hawkeye and Trapper go, they leave carnage in their wake. And yeah, they save the life of the senator’s son and, later, a sick Japanese infant. But they also blackmail the commanding officer by gassing him and taking incriminating photos of him in a whorehouse.
Everything in this movie from a 2022 scope is very problematic. I know here, their shenanigans come with doing good, honorable things. But every “good” guy in this movie is a sociopath.
After that brief excursion to Japan, we’re back to close out the movie with the most inconsequential thing to happen in this movie: FOOTBALL!
Froemming: Well, football the Hawkeye and Trapper John way. See, some higher up from another base is visiting and, well, these two somehow bullshit their way into a football game with this base — which is apparently the best. After this higher up and these two stop swinging their dicks for a moment, they decide to add some gambling on top of it.
Because war zones must be this (REDACTED) boring. This movie has it more like Uncle Jimbo’s experience than what I saw in “Platoon.”
But our “heroes” have a plan. They know of an NFL star they could have transferred over to their base and be a ringer, guaranteeing their bets.
This is when the movie swings wildly back from homophobia to racism. Because the 1950s AND the 1970s were awful times.
Brown: Yeah, I’m not saying the ringer’s nickname. We’ll just go with Dr. Jones. He’s a neurosurgeon who used to play for the San Francisco 49ers.
So we get this whole short plot about trying to hustle the Evac Hospital out of their money.
But, it turns out that the Evac Hospital had its own ringer that… *checks notes* our heroes shoot with drugs to get him out of the game.
Now, THEIR hustle can begin. The hustlers are out-hustling the other hustlers. It’s as flawless as when Uncle Phil did the same thing at a pool hall.
Froemming: Look, they are just living their lives like Rick Ross.
Also, who hasn’t drugged an opponent to win at a competition? Hell, I drugged you with liquid morphine to win at “Street Fighter 2” once. It’s just the nature of the game. The game of life.
Brown: THAT’S why I couldn’t throw Hadoukens. I thought my controller was busted. You sly fox…
With the former 49er in tow, the football game basically becomes the NYPD vs FDNY football game.
Look, I enjoy football. But this whole 20-minute sequence kind of derails the movie.
Froemming: It really comes out of nowhere and, I agree, kills the pacing this movie had, which I enjoyed how it flowed. Then football comes and it is a DEAD STOP.
But whatever, the game goes on and our “heroes” win the game. And the loot. Lots and lots of loot, and these guys are doctors so it is not like they need the money. They have crippling addictions and vices and the movie celebrates that. Should have called this “Fear & Loathing in the Korean War.”
One thing we glided over was the surgery scenes, which do make an impact on the horrors of war. You see bloody, mangled bodies and these drunks’ attempts to save them. It was pretty revolutionary at the time to show this horrific side of war in films. These are sprinkled in between the hijink scenes, balancing out what would have been, in your words, “Porky’s” in the Army.
Brown: I get it for visual storytelling. Also seeing that much blood made me regret my choice of having a chorizo breakfast burrito before watching “M*A*S*H.” I dunno, it felt like filler at times. Looking back at it, I see how the hijinks play a part in breaking up the carnage around everything. It’s like laughing at tragedy to stop yourself from crying. But the only time anything affects them outside the infirmary is the whole storyline with Blake guilting the kid after his screw-up.
It felt… uneven?
Froemming: For me everything works until the football game. That just took me out of the movie. The rest is like a slice of life of these folks’ lives at this base and in this war.
Brown: I’ll agree with the football scene. This movie could have been a tight 90 minutes without it.
Froemming: You hear that, ROBERT ALTMAN! Joe Brown and I think we could have done better with this Academy Award winning movie, you jerk!
Anywho, the end comes along and Duke suddenly shows up after being MIA in the last half of this, to find out he and Hawkeye are going back home. Where they will probably cause havoc in the hospitals back home in the states. Because I am pretty sure Hawkeye got through medical school like this guy:
Brown: I think Hawkeye left Korea and went on to be a professor at Faber College. There, he’d smoke weed and fornicate with his students. Honestly, that tracks considering Hawkeye’s actions in this movie.
Froemming, shall we get to recommendations while our black capsules kick in?
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Froemming: Yeah. It is a movie of its time, so it has problematic moments in the lens of 2022, but I really enjoyed it. The banter between Hawkeye and Trapper John is great, and Sally Kellerman is always great in her films.
Brown: I would. I think the movie’s a little uneven and definitely not for a 2000s crowd, but it’s extremely entertaining.
Here is what’s coming up for the next JOE-DOWN:
July is SPORTS MONTH, so we will be reviewing: