Robert Altman is an often ignored master filmmaker in our modern setting. He is one of the best brains ever behind the camera, proving time and time again how subtly and he can put themes in his films. In particular, “3 Women”–a deeply disturbing avant-garde film about with gigantic themes of identity and psychology. “3 Women” is one of cinema’s finest films. “M*A*S*H” isn’t.
This is not for lack of trying or an incompetent director. The problems of “M*A*S*H” are found in its conflicting tones, lack of story, and overall confusing intentions. What is the story of the film? Who knows. What is known is that the film is that it is mostly a series of scenes of surgeons in a medical camp in South Korea during the Korean War. The film is mostly dialogue. Some of the best films ever made are about people talking. So why doesn’t “M*A*S*H’s” dialogue work? Well, the difference is because “M*A*S*H” mostly feels like dialogue, right out of the script.
The film’s tone is entirely inconsistent. From the opening shot, the film’s theme “Suicide Is Painless”, establishes it as a dark comedy. However, the finale of the film ends up being a scene of two different camps playing football. “3 Women” is a film with conflicting ideas and themes, however, the atmosphere is consistent and thrilling, changing appropriately with the story.
If “M*A*S*H” succeeds at anything, it is in how well it communicates how calloused and braindead these surgeons were. Men operate on injured bodies without emotional response. “Looks like the Mississippi River down there” they say while operating on a soldier profusely bleeding. The only person who recognizes this is the character Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit). “This isn’t a hospital, it’s an insane asylum!” she says when she understands how the war has made these men so insensitive and numb.
However, in “M*A*S*H”, there are so many conflicting ideas that simply synthesize with each other the film becomes a lifeless thing to watch. There isn’t a greater story that Robert Altman is telling, the film meanders on and on through its unjustified two hour runtime before the credits role.
Where Altman failed was in telling a story, having something that is connected, cohesive, and memorable. The film winds up being tedious, as scenes don’t seem to have a purpose other than giving Altman’s take on how anesthetized men became during the US’s involvement in the Korean War. Altman creates a strength full description of how this happened, but fails to scrutinize further into what is a waste of potential.