{‘Audit Season’ is a segments where I break down my personal experiences and the world building details of a property. Each entry contains my musing on the world building nature of the segments as well as how these stories affected my life.}

Time to open a brand new audit with a property near and dear to me:   M*A*S*H! (in all of its glory). This means an examination of the original Altman film and the original series with an eye for the ‘world building’ the show went through, as well as how different developments in the shows particular nature and the nature of television itself shaped the stories that were told. The completist in me also wants to pull Trapper John, M.D into the mix, as well as AfterM*A*S*H. Seeing as both of those spin-offs don’t occur until after the show itself, I have a little time to source viewing options.

A personal note on my audits: I attempt to perform them in as ‘objective’ as way as possible. I try to approach the material with a fresh mind, without preconceptions (which can be difficult considering this is M*A*S*H and it was literally on every day of my childhood) I also try and keep the chronology of the show’s universe in mind. This won’t prove any problem during my run of the series, however once we get to Trapper John, M.DAfterM*A*S*H, I will have to pay more attention to what show is supposed to happpen when in the M*A*S*H universe. If they both run concurrently, then I will have to do one of my favourite things and create a viewing chart of just when I think I should be watching each episode of each series. Some people focus their brainpower on curing cancer or searching for new planets. I figure out which TV spinoff episodes to watch in a fabricated viewing order that only makes sense to me. We all have our skills.

So without further adieu, I dive into the very beginning of this fascinating and landmark property with the feature film M*A*S*H…

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M*A*S*H – released Mar 1970

Director: Robert Altman

Runtime: 115min

Robert Altman’s film M*A*S*H premiered in 1970, 11 years before I was born. Watching it 47 years after it first broke onto the scene, I am both entertained and bothered by this cinematic classic. Currently #54 on the AFI’s top 100 list (updated as of ’07) there is no argument about the place of M*A*S*H in the heirarchy of film making. Altman’s trademark ensemble cast, overlapping dialogue and documentary style are all on full display here, and his deft adoption of dark humour will go unmatched until A Prairie Home Companion thirty six years later. I’m fairly certain there isn’t a great deal more I can add in terms of examination of the film on its own merits, as this has be done and debated thousands of times by people more capable than me.

Instead I’m here to talk about the world Altman’s M*A*S*H creates for us, in terms of how that world carries forward into the rest of the franchise. This is one of those situations where a strong template was established at the beginning, clearly defining the tone, style and composition of what will come. One of the hardest elements in attempting to pin down the signifigance of the film and later the show, is understanding that so much of the dark comedy that we find popular today exists because of M*A*S*H. Prior to Altman’s film I can think of no title that manages to combine irreverant comedy with starkly brutal images of war and death. Since then, it has become a cliche to associate the sardonic humour of professionals with the absurdities of modern life, but M*A*S*H did it first, and did it best.

The structure of the movie predicts the television show exceptionally well, in so much as the episodic nature of the movie translated successfully to a weekly 22 min format. Most all the locations established in the film are carried over  and each location, with it’s own unique ‘mood’ and character in the movie is replicated with the same ‘mood’ and character later in the show. The Swamp is, and always will be, the swamp: A home for the most basic intincts and desires of humanity, tented under drab army olive. The mess tent is forever the watering hole of the African veldt, where everyone must come and congregate regardless of rank or position. The highest sit with the lowest in the mess tent and for a while, everyone is the same. Surgery is surgery, a place where horror is battled with humour and skill, and the true test of these surgeons mettle is demanded. The army PA system announcements become another mainstay in the show, and they are used here as a kind of audible punctuation between madness and despair.

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That’s truly the crux of film, allowing madness to shield oneself from horror. These doctors do outlandish, crazy things to permit themselves a release from the daily parade of wounded young men the war provides them. Their subversiveness and insubordination is hailed as a vaccination against the mindlessness of slaughter, but it also ages the film in modern times.

Because M*A*S*H has a problem with ‘-isms’. Racism, homophobe(ism), and most obviously of all, ‘sexism’. It’s a nearly 50 yr old movie based on events that go back as much as 67 years, so attitudes towards racism and sexism have evolved since filming. Comparing it to modern fare, this shortcoming is pronounced. I want it known that I know and love M*A*S*H, film and tv, I always have, but I won’t hesitate to point out where this film fails its’ female characters and its female audience.

Having grown up with M*A*S*H I was imprinted with some rather… curious ideas about courting the opposite sex. Camouflaging pushy sexual aggressiveness with self-depreciating humour seemed to work great for Hawkeye and Trapper, so that was how it was done, right? When those same surgeons treated Nurses so dismissively during actual surgery, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The movie treats these nurses the same way. They are discussed, rated and swapped by male characters like a commodity. On his birthday Trapper demands O’Houlihan be stripped naked and brought to him for sex. YES, the segment is designed for fun and Trapper is behaving in a bawdy Caligula-like manner for the purposes of humour rather than true satisfaction, but rest assured he went home with ONE (or more) of the other nurses that night. Remember in American Pie when Jason Biggs broadcast his sexual encounter with Shannon Elizabeth across the internet? Thinking about that in today’s environment, Jason Biggs could’ve easily been charged with making child pornography. Anyone who knows the movie recognizes the parallels between that and Trapper & Ford rigging up the microphone beneath O’Houlihan’s bed and broadcasting her sexual encounter with Frank Burns across the camps PA. As an audience we are supposed to find this funny, since O’Houlihan and Burns are the stodgy ‘antagonists’ of the story and presented as inflexible establishment types, the diametric opposite of the subversive Hawkeye & Trapper. Maybe five decades ago it was funny, but today it seems jeuvenile and ultimately trashy. We can carry this distaste for some of the humour all the way to the scene where O’Houlihan is revealed in the shower to the whole camp, the height of Hawkeye’s and Trapper’s bullying.

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Because let’s not mince words here. Hawkeye & Trapper are bullying O’Houlihan. At least when it came to Frank Burns, Trapper was satisfied to strike him out of hand for being a dickish human being and leave it at that. Our two hero surgeons torment O’Houlihan to her breaking point, simply because they don’t like her authoritarian approach to the military (this woman even out-ranks them, keep in mind). No matter how you structure it, the debasement and abuse of a proud, professional woman is played for laughs in this film. It reflects the prevalent attitudes of the time, but also opens new opportunities for interpretation.

Because sexism isn’t the only “-ism” bantered around in the film. Racism takes it’s form in the character of Oliver ‘Spear-chucker’ Jones. Now is he ‘Spear-chucker’ because he used to throw javelin in college? That’s what the film asks you to believe. Is there a part of your mind that can’t help but wonder “I wonder what race this ‘Spear-chucker’ is?” That part of your mind won’t (or will?) be disappointed to learn that yes Virginia, there IS a black surgeon at the 4077th. Calling the only black surgeon on the base ‘Spear-chucker’ is probably meant as a tongue-in-cheek jab at the language of racism that would’ve still punctuated culture in 1950’s America (Hell, it still punctuates the discussion of culture now, almost 70yrs later) however if that is the attempt it feels heavy handed and tone -deaf. The POINT of bringing Spear-chucker on ostensibly is so he can be the ‘ringer’ in an inter-forces football game (Yeah, to say nothing about the racial bias behind having a coloured officer reassigned to play football) but it’s clear the movie wants to point out that Hawkeye and Trapper couldn’t care less about the colour of his skin in an age when it would’ve been illegal for them to share the same bathroom back in America. This is successfully depicted in their characters, but the depiction is still stained by the interpretation of white privilege. Spear-chucker performs as successfully in surgery as they do, so he’s accepted.

One final elephant in the movie before my effective wrap up is the classic ‘Suicide is painless’ last-supper scene for Dr. Waldowski, or ‘Painless’ (The song ‘Suicide is Painless’, is sung when the character ‘Painless’ is about to commit suicide. Y’all clear on that now? Can we continue?) Years before John Schuck would be promoted to Federation ambassador from the Klingon empire, he was ‘Painless’ Waldowski, a surgeon with three fiances back home (Three? This man just can’t pass up a good thing…) who spends his free time womanizing his way through the Korean war. Now the womanizing itself isn’t unique to Painless, Hawkeye, Trapper, Col. Blake and just about everyone else spends the movie climbing all over and into each others pants. But Painless takes it seriously. So seriously in fact that after one night of performance anxiety, Painless concludes he must be a fairy (his words, not mine) and since he has three fiances at home and couldn’t deal with the shame of being gay, he decides to kill himself. Makes sense, right? Hawkeye and Trapper set out to ‘help’ Painless, not by listening or trying to communicate with him about his ‘confusion’ or ‘misinterpretation’ of ones night’s events, no. Instead they plan a fake funeral where Painless will take a ‘black box’ pill and blissfully pass away after a “fantastic” (by army standards) meal of Gin and regret. Of course the pill won’t kill him, and Hawkeye seals the deal by pimping out one of his nurse ‘friends with benefits’ to Painless, you know, so he can get his groove back. The shameless horse trading of unwilling women almost distracts us from the fact that an educated man was prepared to take his own life for fear of being gay. Now there is a whole argument to be made about the suicide rate among LGBTQ youth and how this sequence could encapsulate that struggle, but that’s not how the scene is handled. Painless’ desire to commit suicide isn’t about him being unable to accept a fact he knows to be true (and once the funeral scene has passed, there is no mention of Painless’ sexuality again, because he was ‘cured’ – having never been ‘afflicted’ in the first place) His desire for suicide is motivated by him ‘not’ wanting to be gay, and not in a self discovery in his youth kind of way, in an adult man “I can’t get it up so I must be gay” kind of way, which would be the way 14yr old boys thought, if that thought weighed heavily on them. It demonstrates an insensitivity not only to the state of gay rights now and then, but also to the acceptance of gay rights in society.

Where does this all go? (You wonder, 2100 words deep and still no end in sight) The relevance? To me it comes from this: In 1994 the Oliver Stone/Tarantino tour de force  Natural Born Killers was released and every counter-culture anti-social outcast was given a new favourite film. The original intent of the film, to demonstrate and criticize how modern society make celebrities out of detestable people, is completely lost by the films making a celebrity out of its murdering protagonists, Mickey & Mallory Knox. We’re supposed to understand that these two are NOT good people, but most people can’t walk away from that film without thinking that despite their homicidal urges, Mickey & Mallory are pretty cool. In falling for its own gag, the film actually delivers 100% on its point, if you’re prepared to step back and see that. It says ‘don’t idolize monsters’ then gives you two monsters you want badly to idolize, proving how easy it is and how corruptible our society is to these ideas. In a way, the movie succeeds because it fails. In 2013 Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street did the same thing (at least for me): It presented us with a story about a character seeking unlimited wealth and power, made us sympathize along with him on his journey, and ultimately showed the audience that despite his flaws, criminality and general disregard for the wellbeing of others, he receives little punishment and is rewarded for his actions. It’s meant as a cautionary tale about the corrupting influence of wealth and its pursuit, but even I left that movie wanting Jordan Belfort’s life. Who wouldn’t? The atrocious wealth, the hedonism, and the reassurance that any consequences you face for your transgressions will be minor at best? Sign me up. Once again, I fell in love with a film projecting an image I typically find reprehensible and objectionable. In doing that, in making me WANT to be that kind of a person, the movie succeeded by demonstrating how easy it was to fall into such a line of thinking.

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In my humble opinion M*A*S*H works in the same way. These doctors face the horrors of war daily, and what’s more they are not in a place where they can determine their own fate. No matter how many soldiers they patch up, there will be more. These doctors have no way of affecting the outcome of the war, so there is a sense of hopelessness that accompanies their actions. They rail against this sense of hopelessness by becoming unhinged anti-establishmentists, letting the absurdity of their antics serve as a valve, a shield against the ugliness of their world. They are however, still put upon by ugliness, and rather than try to ‘deal’ with that ugliness, they re-direct it through the power of the snark and the prank. Hawkeye and Trapper do not tormet O’Houlihan because they enjoy cutting down and belittling women, they do it to her because she embodies the military attitude they so detest. The film tries to show the audience what war will do to a person, even the most capable, intelligent of people. It demonstrates that even those with the best of intentions and goodness in their hearts can be corrupted by the need to release psychological scarring. We love Hawkeye, Trapper and the rest as they represent the rebel in all of us, but even they go too far in their desire to bring ‘levity’ to horror. By bringing the audience along to laugh at the bullying and sexim, the film makes us complicit in this as well, ensuring no one escapes the reality of the story as an ‘innocent’. I’ve laughed at the torments of O’Houlihan myself in the past, making sure that even I don’t escape culpability in succumbing to what war does to all of us.

None of this excuses the fact the film still treats women, gays and minorities poorly, but it does provide a context into which the film can still be enjoyed beyond being a ‘dumb comedy’. You laugh at the antics in the film and realize in the back of your mind that what you are laughing at is inherently cruel. Thus the job is finished – forcing someone to find humour in the cruelty of war is the summation of the films point.

War is hell, after all.

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