Film / M*A*S*H

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

This is 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 most of the uglier parts, and came up with this.
  • The Alleged Car: "Goddamn Army Jeep!"
  • Alliterative Name: Painless Pole's real name is Walter Waldowski.
  • Angry Black Man: The motor pool sergeant in the opening scene.
  • Aside Glance: Lt. Dish seems to have some unsettled feelings about her use of sexual healing to bring Painless around—until she looks right at the camera and smiles as the helicopter lifts off.
  • 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.
  • Bald of Awesome: General Hammond sports this look.
  • Berserk Button: "Would you say that she was a moaner, Frank?"
  • Big Game: The football game between the 4077th and the 325th Evac hospital, which dominates the last third of the film.
  • 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.
  • Bookends:
    • Hawkeye and Duke steal a jeep at the beginning of the film to drive from the depot to the 4077th. At the end of the film, they re-steal the same jeep to go back.
    • Hawkeye does his whistle in the opening scene, while Radar does it in the end scene.
  • Break the Haughty: Hawkeye, Trapper and Duke do this to Hot Lips. It's actually rather uncomfortable viewing, as they choose to sexually humiliate her by broadcasting her sex with Frank to the whole unit, and later to pull up the shower curtain while she's in it. But by the end Hot Lips has become one of the gang, attending one of their poker games.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: "Attention. Tonight's movie has been M*A*S*H..."
  • 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.
    • That little whistle that Hawkeye keeps doing. (Which showed up again in Fantastic Mr. Fox.)
  • Chekhov's Skill: We learn early on that Hawkeye and Trapper played football in college, which comes in very handy later.
  • 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. After he's told that olives are difficult to procure in a war zone, he pulls out a huge jar of them that he just happened to have in his coat pocket, while Duke and Hawkeye stare in amazement.
  • 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.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: During the party to celebrate Trapper's appointment as chief surgeon, Radar tries to sing a solo verse of "Hail to the Chief". However, as he is being flashed by one of the nurses, he is unable to get through more than a few words at a time before dissolving into giggling fits.
  • Don't Call Me "Sir": Hawkeye corrects anyone who calls him Captain Pierce.
  • 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: As in the real military, many of the staff members at the 4077th have unfortunate nicknames.
    • Major "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan gets her nickname after her intimate session with Frank Burns is broadcast on the radio all over camp, so that everyone hears her exclaiming "My lips are hot... kiss my hot lips!"
    • 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.
    • "Spearchucker" Jones claims he got his nickname because he used to be a javelin thrower.
    • Camp chaplain Father Mulcahy rejoices in the bizarre nickname of "Dago Red".
    • Captain Black, the "gas passer" in surgery, is not a handsome fellow, and so has been nicknamed "Ugly John" by his comrades.
    • When Hawkeye and Trapper go to Japan to perform surgery on a Congressman's son, they are assisted by Hawkeye's old friend "Me Lay" Marston, so named because his preferred pickup line was "Me lay, you lay." Hawkeye tells Trapper that this tactic only worked on about one girl in fifty.
    • "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.
  • Ensemble Cast: Although Hawkeye and Trapper get the most screentime, they are supporting players in a number of the film's vignettes, and there are over a dozen characters who receive enough time and key scenes in the spotlight to be considered major characters.
  • Everyone Went to School Together: Hawkeye knows Trapper John looks familiar then finally recognizes him as a quarterback he played against in his college football days. Later they happen to bump into Hawkeye's boyhood chum "Me Lay" Marston at the Army hospital in Japan.
  • 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.note 
  • Fake Assisted Suicide: "Painless Pole" becomes suicidal after discovering he is impotent. His comrades arrange an elaborate living funeral for him, capped off by a putative suicide pill — but instead of dying he wakes up in bed beside a willing nurse, who cures his affliction.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: One of the cheers Hot Lips and the other cheerleaders do is "69 is divine". There is a player on their team with that number, but still...
  • 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.
  • Hawaiian-Shirted Tourist: Trapper John wears a Hawaiian shirt in several scenes.
  • Hi, Mom!: While taking Ho-Jon to his military physical, Hawkeye is filmed by a newsreel camerawoman, who invites him to say hello to his mother back home. He tells her his mother's deceased, then asks to say hello to his dad instead. According to Donald Sutherland, when his parents saw this film for the first time and they got to this scene, his father stood right up in the theater and shouted, "Hi, Donny!" back at the screen.
  • Holier Than Thou: Frank Burns is this as well as a hypocrite.
  • If You Die, I Call Your Stuff: When Painless Pole announces his intention to commit suicide, Bandini asks if he can have his record player.
  • Imagine Spot: Toward the end when Hawkeye comes into the O.R. to tell him 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 of his suicidal inclination by spending the night with him, thereby dispelling his concerns over both his heterosexuality and his ability to perform in bed.
  • Invulnerable Knuckles: Averted. When Trapper punches Frank Burns in the face for reducing Boone to tears, he appears to be in as much if not more pain than Burns.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Hawkeye and Trapper can be real assholes sometimes, especially when they pull that stunt with Hot Lips in the shower. But they also plainly care about their work and their patients, as shown when they defy orders to tend to a half-American, half-Japanese infant.
  • 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, with Painless in Jesus' place at the table and Hawkeye, Trapper, Duke, Murrhardt, Bandini, Ugly John, Radar, Judson, Seidman, Boone, Vollmer, and Ho-jon as the disciples. They are even making similar gestures to Jesus and the disciples in DaVinci's mural.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Including about a dozen major ones.
  • 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 corpse 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 stops to question his "billeting these enlisted men in the officers' area", then gives 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.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: In-universe, when Blake spots Hawkeye and Frank talking in the mess tent (after Frank's lovemaking with Hot Lips has been broadcast to the whole camp) and asks Radar to tell him what they're saying.
    Hawkeye: Does that big ass of hers move around a lot, Frank, or does it sort of lie there flaccid? What would you say about that?
    Radar: Um... Hawkeye's questioning the Major on a point of anatomy.
  • 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 the African-American Corporal Judson 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!". Judson 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 Judson and chases him all over the field.
  • Office Golf: Hawkeye and Trapper play an impromptu game of this in Col. Merrill's office.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: To indicate to Hawkeye how seriously depressed Painless Pole is, Father Mulcahy mentions that Painless had told him that poker was "only a game".
  • Playing Sick: Hawkeye and co. try to get Ho-Jon medically disqualified from serving in the Korean military by giving him drugs that accelerate his heart rate and cause a spike in his blood pressure. Unfortunately, the doctors examining him notice that he has been working at an American hospital and tell Hawkeye that they think Ho-Jon took the wrong medication by accident, so they're keeping him under observation for a few days before examining him again.
  • 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.
    • Staff Sergeant Gorman, Hawkeye and Trapper's driver in Japan, repeatedly grumbles "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 film, rather than following a coherent narrative, is more of a series of episodes depicting a year in the life of the 4077th. For the most part, once a major subplot — Painless Pole's "suicide", Hawkeye and Trapper's Japan trip, the football game — is wrapped up, its effect on the rest of the "story" is minimal. If anything, the novel is even more random and unstructured, and it's a testament to Ring Lardner, Jr. that he managed to distill it into something that at least had some slight organization.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: In the football game the serious ringer-filled 325th Evac team wears blue jerseys and the more boisterous 4077th wears red.
  • Rhyming with Itself: The verses of "Suicide is Painless" follow an AAAA rhyme scheme, but the first and last verses both have the same word at the end of lines 1 and 4 ("see" and "me" respectively).
  • Running Gag:
    • The camp's bumbling P.A. announcer, who can never get through an announcement without having to back up and repeat whole phrases after tripping over the words. At one point, he announces that Bandini is performing a surgical procedure that the other doctors may want to observe, and ends up having to spell the word "popliteal"note  when he cannot pronounce it.
    • When it comes to taking orders, Radar is always one step ahead of Henry while Vollmer is about two steps behind; several times during the film, Radar anticipates Henry's orders before he even starts saying them, then Vollmer shows up to take those same orders just as Radar goes off to carry them out.
  • Screw the War, We're Partying!: Pretty much the attitude of the entire 4077th staff (save for Frank Burns and Hot Lips) when they're not actually in surgery.
  • Shoe Shine, Mister?: Snippets of the song "Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy" are played twice, once shortly after Hawkeye and Duke arrive at the 4077th and once just before Radar tells Hawkeye he and Duke have received their discharge papers. The song (an actual tune 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.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: It opens with an angsty folk song playing over scenes of wounded soldiers arriving by helicopters, and the other songs in the film also provide an ironic counterpoint to what's happening on screen, as well as the goofy loudspeaker announcements.
  • 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.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Ho-jon, who is killed off in the novel. As noted above Ho-jon was originally supposed to be the soldier who receives Col. Blake's blood, as well as the corpse being hauled away at the end. Instead the Korean soldier was changed to a North Korean soldier (although certain shots show that it plainly is the same actor, Kim Atwood) and a POW and the corpse is a random background event.
  • 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, Judson sings "Suicide is Painless", accompanied by Bandini on guitar, as the "mourners" file past his coffin to pay their last respects.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Despite being the film's Designated Heroes, Hawkeye, Trapper and company are this through and through. If you root for them at all it's only because their antagonists are even bigger Jerkasses than they are.
  • Video Credits: Clips of the actors as the PA rattles off their names.
  • Wacky Fratboy Hijinx: Or the military equivalent thereof.
  • You Wouldn't Hit a Guy with Glasses?: Invoked by Hawkeye after he baits Frank Burns into attacking him in the mess tent.
  • 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 has a wife and kids.)

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