With M*A*S*H, Robert Altman laid down the blueprint for many of his 1970s films with his overlapping dialogue, loose approach to dramatic structure (moments of clarity and catharsis come as unexpectedly as any force of nature), unorthodox tonal shifts, and his emphasis not on character and plot but instead on community (the word, in this instance, referring to both an ensemble and their place of dwelling). Being Altman’s sole uncontestable box office sensation, M*A*S*H is the odd man out in an odd career. The key word of that summation isn’t “odd,” but “man.” M*A*S*H may be the definitive pop-fiction movie about Vietnam made while the war was still ongoing (all references to Korea were, essentially, inserted at the demand of 20th Century Fox suits), but it’s also one of the most (perhaps unintentionally) telling exposés of the divergence between counterculture and feminism.
Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould’s Hawkeye and Trapper John are first and foremost a double shot of youthful irreverence, a pair of anti-establishment swashbucklers who also, given their status as military surgeons, save lives and very conveniently serve through a war they don’t want to be a part of without ever once having to pick up a gun. But whatever socially vanguard credentials they and every other male soldier at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital outside of the Bible-thumping Maj. Burns (Robert Duvall) earn, they lose on modern audiences by virtue of their decidedly Neanderthal attitudes toward women: their garter-wearing fellow soldiers on base and the women they are unfaithful to while fooling around with the former.
Considering how they treat the women they like, it’s no surprise that they set out to utterly crucify the one they don’t, Hot Lips Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Altman scholar Helene Keyssar notes that the overall thrust of the film, its episodes “that constitute the humiliation of Hot Lips Houlihan—what I earlier called her defloration—are, transparently, about the ritualized degradation of women by men.” After watching the methodical devaluation of Houlihan’s social standing until the only authority she holds on base is as the captain of a cheerleading squad, you almost have to wonder if her Oscar nomination was an act of chivalry on behalf of AMPAS. Altman has countered criticisms of misogyny by stressing (with some accuracy) that his presentation of his cast’s loutish behavior is only meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive; that women indeed are systematically taken advantage of, if not outright ignored, by the fraternity of the Military-industrial complex.
But to be totally honest, his plea would wash a lot better if the rest of the movie weren’t so clearly tapped into the giddy code of the clubhouse, if Hawkeye and Trapper John weren’t so consistently rewarded for their behavior, and if it didn’t all boil down to, of all things, a football game. As already argued here by Jeremiah Kipp, M*A*S*H is a good dint lower than its reputation, more so if you look at it not as one of the seminal 1970s films but instead as the first chapter (if not quite the first film) from the finest filmmaking career spent examining the American mystique. But a first chapter it is, and thus mandatory viewing.