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Film: M*A*S*H

"This isn't a hospital, it's an insane asylum!"
Maj. "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan

A 1970 comedy film based on Richard Hooker's novel, M*A*S*H was the first major hit for its director, Robert Altman, and the inspiration for the long-running television series a few years later.

In the midst of the Korean War, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital is tasked with fixing up the wounded. Two draftee surgeons, "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and "Duke" Forrest (Tom Skerritt), arrive on the scene. Defying all conventions, they join with fellow surgeon "Trapper John" McIntyre (Elliott Gould) to "fix up" the mood in the hospital with their brand of black humor. The plot of the film is made up of various episodes dealing with their escapades in the Hospital.

It's one of a few different 20th Century Fox films alleged to have been the first pre-recorded videocassette to roll off the assembly line at Magnetic Video in the fall of 1977.


This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The film took the novel's main themes, stripped out the uglier parts, and came up with this.
  • All Asians Look Alike: Invoked as the result of an editing decision. The original plan was to simplify the Ho-Jon getting drafted, wounded, treated at the 4077 and ending up working in the Swamp again with him dying on the operating table. When the OR scene was moved to before Ho-Jon got drafted, it being Ho-Jon had to be dropped and dialog was changed to the man being a POW, but they left in shots where you can clearly see that it's Ho-Jon on the table.
  • Alliterative Name: Painless Pole's real name is Walter Waldowski.
  • Angry Black Man: The motor pool sergeant in the opening scene.
  • Attending Your Own Funeral: The unit dentist, "Painless Pole", wanted to commit suicide, so they set up a mock funeral for him so he could take cyanide and die in a casket. The cyanide pills were fake, and the only dying he did was in the Shakespearean sense.
  • Badass Mustache: Worn by Trapper John.
  • Berserk Button: "Would you say that she was a moaner, Frank?"
  • Big Game
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: "Painless Pole" is the "best-equipped" dentist in the army. After Lt. Dish spends the night with him, she is still in a daze the next morning.
  • Blackmail: When Col. Merrill breaks in on Hawkeye, Trapper, and Me Lay performing unauthorized surgery on an American-Japanese infant, they anesthetize him and take compromising photos of him in bed with a prostitute to keep him from talking.
  • Book Ends / Brick Joke: Hawkeye and Duke steal a jeep at the beginning of the film to drive from Seoul to the 4077th. At the end of the film, they drive the same jeep back to Seoul.
  • Break the Haughty: Hawkeye, Trapper and Duke do this to Hot Lips.
  • Catch Phrase: As in the book, Hawkeye's is "finest kind". Save for one or two occasions, this really didn't carry over to the TV show.
    • Also, that little whistle that Hawkeye keeps doing. (Which showed up again in Fantastic Mr. Fox.)
  • Closest Thing We Got: In an OR scene, Hawkeye has his finger pressed against a wounded soldier's carotid artery to stop the fountain of blood, and asks the only unoccupied person in the OR to help him with a more enduring solution to the bleeding. Said unoccupied person turns out to be Father Mulcahy, who warns at the outset that this is hardly his area of expertise.
  • Composite Character: Frank Burns from the movie is a cross between the Frank Burns from the novel (in which he's a Captain instead of a Major) and another character from the novel named Major Jonathan Hobson, a religious zealot who lived in the Swamp with Hawkeye and Duke before they got him thrown out for praying too much.
  • Cool Shades: Hawkeye wears tinted glasses (although they do appear to also be prescription lenses) along with a Nice Hat. Trapper is shown wearing actual sunglasses in a couple scenes.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Trapper has just arrived in the camp and is offered a martini, but balks at drinking it without an olive. He then pulls out a huge jar of olives he just happened to have in his coat pocket, while Duke and Hawkeye stare in amazement.
  • Creator Backlash: Despite winning the film's only Academy Award, screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. later disowned the film since quite little of his script was used in the final film. On the DVD commentary for the film, Robert Altman said it upset him that Lardner hated the film so much - the reason the film had the feel that it did, as opposed to the racist, sexist, homophobic book, was because of his script. Essentially, Altman claimed the final film was a distillation of Lardner's script.
  • Credits Gag: The film ends with the camp P.A. announcer Breaking the Fourth Wall by telling us that "tonight's movie has been M*A*S*H", and reading off the names of the cast.
  • Defeat by Modesty: Hawkeye and Trapper's way of getting Hot Lips to stop being such a pain.
  • Dueling Movies: Released the same year as that other anti-war satire movie, Catch-22.
  • Dumb Blonde: Hot Lips becomes this later in the movie somehow after sleeping with Duke.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Hot Lips, Spearchucker, Dago Red, Ugly John, Me-Lay...
    • Then there's Trapper John, who acquired that nickname after being caught "finding fulfillment" with a coed in the ladies' restroom of a Boston & Maine railroad car, and the young woman in question accusing him of having "trapped" her.
    • "Painless Pole" could be taken to refer to Capt. Waldowski's status as a dentist and his ethnicity. Or it could be taken to refer to something else entirely.
      Ho-Jon: Here he comes! The Jawbreaker!
    • Averted/subverted in that none of these characters (apart from Hot Lips) really mind their nicknames; if anything, they embrace them.
  • Expy: Apart from a few mentions of them being in Korea, the sets, costumes and props are clearly meant to evoke The Vietnam War which was ongoing at the time. This was intentional.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: Suddenly becomes a football movie for some reason in the last half-hour. One might ask where they got a full football field, plus actual uniforms in Korea; the answer is, one of the Generals had a major thing for running inter-unit football games, and had done it the year before as well.
  • Harpo Does Something Funny: Pretty much the whole film was improvised; the screenplay was just a template. (As mentioned in Creator Backlash, screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. did not expect Altman and the cast to take this approach to filming.)
  • Hawaiian-Shirted Tourist: Trapper John wears a Hawaiian shirt in several scenes.
  • Holier Than Thou: Frank Burns.
  • Imagine Spot: Toward the end when Hawkeye comes in the O.R. and says they've got their orders to go home, Duke has a quick flash of himself emerging from a plane back in the States and being greeted by his wife and kids.note 
  • Initialism Title: Short for "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital".
  • Intimate Psychotherapy: Hawkeye convinces Dish to "cure" Painless Pole in this manner.
  • Invulnerable Knuckles: Averted. When Trapper punches Frank Burns in the face, he appears to be in as much if not more pain than Burns.
  • Kick the Dog: Frank Burns brings the young Private Boone to tears by telling him that his bringing the wrong needle caused a patient's death, even though the patient died before Boone could have brought it.
  • "Last Supper" Steal: Painless's "last supper" looks very much like DaVinci's original.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: What convinces Painless Pole that he's a "latent homosexual".
  • Meaningful Background Event: While the surgeons are playing poker toward the end of the film, we see a jeep rolling past the tent bearing a dead soldier covered in a white sheet. This was originally part of a (deleted) subplot involving Ho-Jon getting wounded in action and then dying in surgery.
  • Mistaken for Servant: Due to Hawkeye using his rank insignia to pin a busted zipper on his bags in the opening scene, Duke assumes that he's the driver to get him to the 4077th. Hawkeye doesn't bother to correct him until they have arrived and are eating and Col. Blake asks about the "stolen jeep".
    • Later, as Radar is moving Hawkeye and Duke into the Swamp, Vollmer scolds him for "billeting these enlisted men in the officers' area" before firing an embarrassed salute when corrected.
  • Naked Freak-Out: Hot Lips has one of these, as part of the process of her haughty being broken. As far as everyone else involved in the incident is concerned, it's just Naked People Are Funny combined with Pass the Popcorn.
  • Never My Fault: As Duke says of Frank Burns, "Every time a patient croaks on him he says it's God's will or somebody else's fault."
  • Noodle Incident: More of a Noodle Insult. One of the opposing players in the football game calls a (black) M*A*S*H player a "coon", trying to invite an attack to get him thrown out of the game. Spearchucker tells him the name of the guy's sister and tells him "Use it!". The guy walks up to the line, and we don't hear anything but the normal background noise of the game, but the opponent suddenly lunges at the M*A*S*H player and chases him all over the field.
  • Office Golf: Hawkeye and Trapper play an impromptu game of this in Col. Merrill's office.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: When Painless states that "Poker is only a game", the priest knows how seriously depressed Painless is.
  • Precision F-Strike: During the football game, Painless Pole tells an opposing player, "All right, bud, your fuckin' head is comin' right off!" The line (an ad-lib by actor John Schuck) was the first use of the F-word in a major American studio film.
    • "Goddamn Army!"
  • Present Day Past: Korea ca. 1950 looks and feels a helluva lot like Vietnam ca. 1970. Once again, this was entirely intentional on Altman's part.
  • Random Events Plot: The story, rather than being a connected series of events, is more of a series of episodes in a year in the life of the 4077th. For the most part, once a major subplot - such as Painless Pole's "suicide", Hawkeye and Trapper's Tokyo trip, the football game - is wrapped up, its effect on the rest of the "story" is minimal.
  • Running Gag: The camp's bumbling P.A. announcer.
  • Shoe Shine, Mister?: Snippets of the song "Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy" are played at various times. The song (an actual novelty record from 1951, which was also included on the soundtrack album to the movie) is sung in Japanese, except for the words "Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy" in English.
  • Source Music: Several tunes, either instrumental or sung in Japanese, are played over the P.A. throughout the film.
  • Southern-Fried Private: Duke is kind of this, though he's actually a captain.
  • Spiteful Spit: One of the 325th Evac's football players spits a stream of water into Radar's ear in the locker room.
  • Suicide Is Painless: The theme song is the Trope Namer. It Makes Sense in Context.
  • Theme Tune Cameo: During the "funeral" for Painless Pole.
  • Throw It In: During the opening credits a stretcher-bearer stumbles and falls on his ass while carrying a wounded soldier from the chopper pad. This was a real, unscripted accident during filming and was something that likely happened a lot in real life due to the inhospitable terrain where mobile hospitals had to be set up.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Hawkeye and Trapper, through and through.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Pretty much every married character in the film has something going on the side. (Including Hawkeye, who - in contrast to the series - is depicted as having a wife and kids.)

A Matter of Life and DeathTropeNamers/FilmThe Matrix
The Deer HunterAFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies ( 10 th Anniversary Edition)North by Northwest
Lust, CautionMilitary and Warfare FilmsMaster and Commander
The Sound of MusicAFI's 100 Years... 100 MoviesThe Third Man
The MarineCreator/ 20 th Century FoxMe, Myself & Irene
Love StoryFilms of the 1970sThe Molly Maguires
Love StoryAcademy AwardThe French Connection
The ProducersNational Film RegistryWoodstock
How Green Was My ValleyCreator/Magnetic VideoThe Hot Rock

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