The misogyny and cruelty behind many of the gags are as striking as the black comedy

Thursday, September 29th, 2022

When I saw the TV show M*A*S*H as a kid, I don’t think it even occurred to me that it might be about Korea; it was obviously about Vietnam. Apparently the original movie had the same issue:

Because of the context of the film being made — during the height of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War — 20th Century Fox was concerned that audiences would not understand that it was ostensibly taking place during the Korean War. At the request of the studio, a caption that mentions the Korean setting was added to the beginning of the film, and PA announcements throughout the film served the same purpose. Only a few loudspeaker announcements were used in the original cut. […] The Korean War is explicitly referenced in announcements on the camp public address system and during a radio announcement that plays while Hawkeye and Trapper are putting in Col. Merrill’s office, which also cites the film as taking place in 1951.

I didn’t really watch the show, but when I finally watched the movie, I realized the theme music had been burned into my memory — or, rather, its melody had. The TV show doesn’t include the lyrics to “Suicide Is Painless“:

Director Robert Altman had two stipulations about the song for composer Johnny Mandel: it had to be called “Suicide Is Painless” and it had to be the “stupidest song ever written”. Altman attempted to write the lyric himself, but, upon finding it too difficult for his “45-year-old brain” to write something “stupid” enough, he gave the task to his 15-year-old-son Michael, who reportedly wrote the lyrics in five minutes.

Altman later decided that the song worked so well he would use it as the film’s main theme. This more choral version was sung by uncredited session singers John Bahler, Tom Bahler, Ron Hicklin, and Ian Freebairn-Smith, and was released as a single attributed to “The Mash”. Altman said that, while he only made $70,000 for directing the movie, his son had earned more than $1 million for co-writing the song.

Several instrumental versions of the song were used as the theme for the TV series, but the lyrics were never used in the show. It became a number-one hit in the UK Singles Chart in May 1980. The song was ranked No. 66 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs.

Its opening lyrics:

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it
If I please

The movie struck a nerve:

The film won the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, later named the Palme d’Or, at the 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.[3] The Academy Film Archive preserved M*A*S*H in 2000. The film inspired the television series M*A*S*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.

From my perspective, it wasn’t a black comedy so much as a depressing, meandering drama full of unsympathetic characters — with the exception of Radar O’Reilly, I suppose — combined with a low-brow sports comedy. The “ringer” they bring in to beat the other units football team is a black NFL player known as “Spearchucker” Jones. Yeah.

Roger Ebert, in the Chicago Sun-Times, gave the film four (out of four) stars, in a review I can respect and understand, even if I don’t share his assessment:

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 “M*A*S*H,” 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 a retrospective review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan 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.”

Overlapping dialog wasn’t its only innovation:

In his director’s commentary, Altman says that M*A*S*H was the first major studio film to use the word “fuck” in its dialogue. The word is spoken during the football game near the end of the film by Walt “Painless Pole” Waldowski when he says to an opposing football player, “All right, Bud, your fucking head is coming right off!” The actor, John Schuck, said in an interview that Andy Sidaris, who was handling the football sequences, encouraged Schuck to “say something that’ll annoy him.” Schuck did so, and that particular statement made it into the film without a second thought. Previously confined to cult and “underground” films, its use in a film as conventionally screened and professionally distributed as M*A*S*H marked the dawn of a new era of social acceptability for profanity on the big screen, which had until a short time before this film’s release been forbidden outright for any major studio picture in the United States under the Hays Code.


  1. Altitude Zero says:

    One funny note: the guy who wrote the book, a surgeon who served in the Korean War, as you might have guessed, was a conservative Republican, hated the TV show, or at least its politics, and always deplored the uses to which his work was put by the political Left. “MASH wasn’t anti-war,” he once stated. “It was anti-Army!” And yes, both the movie and the TV show always had a nasty edge behind the humor.

  2. Szopen says:

    The series was a huge success in Poland. I remember running back home just to watch the show.

  3. bruce says:

    My grandmother loved that show in the 1970′s. I thought it was okay.

  4. Altitude Zero says:

    The TV show was pretty funny for the first two or three seasons, but it got really preachy and unfunny in later seasons, and by the time it wrapped up, it was unwatchable leftist agitprop. Also, the characters never looked or acted like people from the Fifties, in either the movie or the TV show. Should have been cancelled after about the fifth season.

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