Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H

On this Day:

In 1970, the film “M*A*S*H“, directed by Robert Altman, starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, was released (and won the Palme d’Or 1970).

MASH (stylized on-screen as M*A*S*H) is a 1970 American black comedy war film directed by Robert Altman and written by Ring Lardner Jr., based on Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. The picture is the only theatrically released feature film in the M*A*S*H franchise, and it became one of the biggest films of the early 1970s for 20th Century Fox.

The film depicts a unit of medical personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War. It stars Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, and Elliott Gould, with Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, René Auberjonois, Gary Burghoff, Roger Bowen, Michael Murphy, and in his film debut, professional football player Fred Williamson. Although the Korean War is the film’s storyline setting, the subtext is the Vietnam War – a current event at the time the film was made. Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, who saw the film in college, said MAS*H was “perfect for the times, the cacophony of American culture was brilliantly reproduced onscreen”.

The film won Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, later named Palme d’Or, at 1970 Cannes Film Festival. The film went on to receive five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay. In 1996, M*A*S*H was included in the annual selection of 25 motion pictures added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and recommended for preservation. The Academy Film Archive preserved M*A*S*H in 2000. The film inspired the television series MAS*H, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Gary Burghoff, who played Radar O’Reilly, was the only actor playing a major character who was retained for the series.


In 1951, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea is assigned two new surgeons, “Hawkeye” Pierce and “Duke” Forrest, who arrive in a stolen Army Jeep. They are insubordinate, womanizing, mischievous rule-breakers, but they soon prove to be excellent combat surgeons. Other characters already stationed at the camp include bumbling commanding officer Henry Blake, his hyper-competent chief clerk Radar O’Reilly, dentist Walter “Painless Pole” Waldowski, the incompetent and pompous surgeon Frank Burns, and the contemplative Chaplain Father Mulcahy.

The main characters in the camp divide into two factions. Irritated by Frank’s religious fervor, Hawkeye and Duke get Blake to move him to another tent so newly arrived chest surgeon Trapper John McIntyre can move in. The three doctors (the “Swampmen”, after the nickname for their tent) have little respect for military protocol, having been drafted into the Army, and are prone to pranks, womanizing, and heavy drinking. Frank is a straitlaced military officer who wants everything done efficiently and by the book, as is Margaret Houlihan, who has been assigned to the 4077th as head nurse. The two bond over their respect for regulations and start a secret romance. With help from Radar, the Swampmen sneak a microphone into a tent where the couple are making love and broadcast their passion over the camp’s PA system, embarrassing them badly and earning Houlihan the nickname “Hot Lips.” The next morning, Hawkeye goads Frank into assaulting him, resulting in the latter’s removal from the camp for psychiatric evaluation. Later, when Hot Lips is showering, the Swampmen prank her by pulling the tent sides off and exposing her naked body, in order to settle a bet: Is she a natural blonde? Hot Lips is furious, and screams at Blake, who is in bed with Lt. Leslie, that the 4077th is not a hospital, it is an “insane asylum”, and it is his fault.

Painless, described as “the best-equipped dentist in the Army” and “the dental Don Juan of Detroit”, becomes depressed over an incident of impotence and announces his intent to commit suicide, believing that he has turned homosexual. The Swampmen agree to help him carry out the deed, staging a feast to evoke Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, arranging for Father Mulcahy to give Painless absolution and communion, and providing him with a “black capsule” (actually a sleeping pill) to speed him on his way. Hawkeye persuades the gorgeous Lieutenant “Dish” Schneider—who has remained faithful to her husband and is being transferred back to the United States for discharge—to spend the night with Painless and allay his concern about his “latent homosexuality”. The next morning, Painless is his usual cheerful self, and a smiling Dish leaves camp in a helicopter to start her journey home.

Trapper and Hawkeye are sent to Japan on temporary duty to operate on a Congressman’s son and hopefully, play some golf. When they later perform an unauthorized operation on a local infant, they face disciplinary action from the hospital commander for misusing Army resources. Using staged photographs of him in bed with a prostitute, they blackmail him into keeping his mouth shut.

Following their return to camp, Blake and General Hammond organize a football game between the 4077th and the 325th Evac Hospital and wager several thousand dollars on its outcome. At Hawkeye’s suggestion, Blake applies to have a specific neurosurgeon – Dr. Oliver Harmon “Spearchucker” Jones, a former professional football player for the San Francisco 49ers – transferred to the 4077th as a ringer. Hawkeye also suggests that Blake bet half his money up front and keep Jones out of the first half of the game. The 325th scores repeatedly and easily, even after the 4077th drugs one of their star players to incapacitate him. Hammond confidently offers high odds, against which Blake bets the rest of his money. Jones enters the second half, which quickly devolves into a free-for-all, and the 4077th gets the 325th’s second ringer thrown out of the game and wins with a final trick play.

Not long after the football game, Hawkeye and Duke get their discharge orders and begin their journey home – taking the same stolen Jeep in which they arrived.

Critical Response:

M*A*S*H received mostly positive reviews from critics. The film holds an 84% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 56 reviews, with an average rating of 8.30/10. The website’s consensus states, “Bold, timely, subversive, and above all, funny, M*A*S*H remains a high point in Robert Altman’s distinguished filmography.” The film also holds a score of 80 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 8 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.

Roger Ebert, in the Chicago Sun-Times, gave the film four (out of four) stars, writing,

There is something about war that inspires practical jokes and the heroes . . . are inspired and utterly heartless. . . . We laugh, not because “M*A*S*H” is Sgt. Bilko for adults, but because it is so true to the unadmitted sadist in all of us. There is perhaps nothing so exquisite as achieving . . . sweet mental revenge against someone we hate with particular dedication. And it is the flat-out, poker-faced hatred in “M*A*S*H” that makes it work. Most comedies want us to laugh at things that aren’t really funny; in this one we laugh precisely because they’re not funny. We laugh, that we may not cry. . . . We can take the unusually high gore-level in “M*A*S*H” because it is originally part of the movie’s logic. If the surgeons didn’t have to face the daily list of maimed and mutilated bodies, none of the rest of their lives would make any sense. . . . But none of this philosophy comes close to the insane logic of “MASH,” which is achieved through a peculiar marriage of cinematography, acting, directing, and writing. The movie depends upon timing and tone to be funny. . . . One of the reasons “M*A*S*H” is so funny is that it’s so desperate.

In contrast, Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote of M*A*S*H, “To my knowledge [it] is the first major American movie openly to ridicule belief in God – not phony belief; real belief. It is also one of the few (though by no means the first) American screen comedies openly to admit the cruelty of its humor. And it is at pains to blend that humor with more operating room gore than I have ever seen in any movie from any place. . . . Although it is impudent, bold, and often very funny, it lacks the sense of order (even in the midst of disorder) that seems the special province of successful comedy.”

In a retrospective review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum noted that “the film … helped launch the careers of Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, and subsequent Altman regulars Rene Auberjonois and John Schuck, and won screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. an Oscar.” Rosenbaum characterized the film as “a somewhat adolescent if stylish antiauthoritarian romp. . . . But the misogyny and cruelty behind many of the gags are as striking as the black comedy and the original use of overlapping dialogue. This is still watchable for the verve of the ensemble acting and dovetailing direction, but some of the crassness leaves a sour aftertaste.” Writing in The Guardian for the film’s 50th anniversary, Noah Gittell also charged it with bearing “a deep and unexamined misogyny”, noting that the treatment of the Houlihan character in particular anticipated such later teen sex comedies as Animal House, Porky’s, and Revenge of the Nerds (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

“I am not so think as you drunk I am.” – Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan.

Second, a Song:

Here are scenes from M*A*S*H the movie pulled together by FOX International and YouTube.com. They state:

“This classic American war comedy received an Oscar® nomination for Best Picture and spawned one of the most popular shows ever to run on television. It focuses on three army surgeons (Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Tom Skerritt) who develop a lunatic lifestyle in order to handle the everyday horrors they encounter in the Korean War. Sally Kellerman, Gary Burghoff and Robert Duvall co-star in this disarming mix of slapstick, merciless fun and tragedy.” I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“Maybe there’s a chance to get back to grown-up films. Anything that uses humor and dramatic values to deal with human emotions and gets down to what people are to people.” – Robert Altman

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Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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