At the center of the mostly plotless film is the trio of Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland and Tom Skerritt. Sutherland is best known as a dramatic actor, Tom Skerritt has been cast into the mediocrities of who-gives-a-damn filmmaking (notably the recent TV remake of High Noon), and Gould, though once a succesful comic actor, is now perhaps best remembered as Barbra Streisand's ex-husband. They're stationed in a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, in case you cared) during the Korean War, and when they're not dealing with particularly bloody cases, they're drinking, golfing, and getting laid. The original Variety review said that the film seemed to be an accurate portrayal of calloused doctors, and that sounds about right. That certainly explains the frequent and bloody scenes of surgery, during which the doctors crack wise (you can't see the blood in pan-and-scan). As the film progresses, however, we see less and less blood and more and more wisecracking. The ultimate impression isn't that it's a comedy about war, but that it's just a war. Certainly that impression is contributed to by the football game finale, reminiscent of the war games segment in The Dirty Dozen more than anything else.
The trio gets their way in all things eventually, since they're excellent doctors and equally good pranksters. Altman's only moral here is for the establishment to shut up and let the doctors do things their way; the movie's most likable commander, not coincidentally, is the most clueless guy in the movie. Incidentally, only one actor made it from the movie to the show: Gary Burghoff, as the bespectacled and prescient Radar. All three leads are excellent, and Duvall demonstrates a surprising comic flair; as the clueless commander, author Roger Bowen is particularly appealing.
Half of the greatness of the film is the cast; the other half is Altman. His overlapping dialogue works perfectly for once, and his terrific work on the widescreen demands to be seen in a proper format. It's a two-hour comedy where, for once, the length doesn't work against the film. He really immerses the audience in the world of the MASH, muddy surroundings, stuttering radio announcer and all. At the end of the film, the audience has more or less forgotten about the blood and has been heartily amused . By keeping us constantly grounded in realistic surroundings, Altman has ensured that his movie seems realistic without being depressingly so, and through his constant stream of gags he diverts us (and the men) from all the catastrophes occurring around them. And that, at least, is more than Roberto Benigni has accomplished.
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