M*A*S*H at 50: the Robert Altman comedy that revels in cruel misogyny

The anti-war film – regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time – has a problem with women

M*A*S*H is a rare example of a movie that has been eclipsed by its television adaptation. The 1983 finale of the long-running sitcom about a medical unit near the frontlines of the Korean war was the highest-rated single television episode in history, with 125 million viewers tuning in. It’s understandable that Robert Altman’s 1970 film, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, lives in its shadow. The subversive anti-war comedy avoided sentimentality and teachable moments in favor of cruel pranks and a more hardened cynicism. Coming at the start of cinema’s most famous decade, it is a seminal film of New Hollywood, and it bears all the hallmarks of its era: a strong anti-establishment sentiment, the foregrounding of morally ambiguous protagonists, and, unfortunately, a deep and unexamined misogyny.

The film follows the comic hijinks of three army surgeons – played by Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, and Tom Skerritt – stationed on a medical base during the Korean war. In between bursts of bloody activity, they become experts at killing time through football, golf, gambling and their pursuit of the female nurses. It starts immediately, when Hawkeye (Sutherland) and Forrest (Skerritt) arrive on base and aggressively proposition an attractive lieutenant, minding her own business in the mess hall. Hawkeye invades her personal space, sitting uncomfortably close to her despite the availability of other seats, and calls her “Lieutenant Dish”. Several scenes later, he’ll have her in his bed, a plot twist to reward him and the male viewers who want to see their hero complete his conquest.

The boys save their most awkward cruelty for bigger game, the hated nurse Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). A comic foil who has the gall to confront the surgeons about their unprofessional attitude, she is introduced to viewers as she gets off a helicopter, with her skirt rising so we can see her garter belt below. Perhaps unable to tolerate the combination of her good looks and lack of submissiveness, the boys make her the target of their misplaced anger. When she succumbs to her loneliness one evening and has a casual rendezvous with Maj Burns (Robert Duvall), a stuffed-shirt religious type who is the boys’ object of ridicule, Hawkeye and his friends transmit their sexual dalliance over the base broadcasting system. After she begs Burns to kiss her “hot lips”, her new moniker – “Hot Lips” Houlihan is born.

‘Given that M*A*S*H remains so highly esteemed – it ranked #43 in a 2017 BBC poll of the greatest comedies of all-time – it deserves this closer scrutiny’
‘Given that M*A*S*H remains so highly esteemed – it ranked #43 in a 2017 BBC poll of the greatest comedies of all-time – it deserves this closer scrutiny.’ Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/CBS TV

It would be easy to see this as an equal opportunity lampooning – after all, Maj Burns was also a target of the prank – but the film continues to pile on to nurse Houlihan. The most egregious act of violence against her comes later on when the boys decide to settle a bet as to whether she is a natural blonde by exposing her in the shower tent for the entire base – and us – to see. It’s a cruel moment that the film revels in. She subsequently runs to the commander’s tent to tearfully complain about her treatment, and he, who has another nurse in his bed at the time, dispassionately suggests she simply resign her post.

The trauma that Houlihan experiences, brought to life with emotional force by Kellerman, cannot be laughed off in the way that it might have been in 1970. It was intended as a prank, but today, after the revelations of the #MeToo movement, it reads more like harassment or assault. Of course, depiction need not equal endorsement, and while one could argue that this misogyny is in some ways the subject of the movie – that the men are reverting to their primal selves amid the throes of war – the film itself tips its hand in the closing credits, which show brief shots of each actor from earlier in the film as their name is printed on screen. The clip of Kellerman is of her in the shower, encouraging the audience to see her – the actor, not only the character – as an object. This is not just depiction. It’s endorsement.

Of course, even the film version of M*A*S*H was an adaptation, so it’s not quite fair to lay these critiques entirely at the film-makers’ feet. The sexism is present in the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker that the film is based on, but it’s greatly magnified in the screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr and the extensive improvisation that reportedly occurred on set. The shower scene, the broadcasting of the lovemaking between Houlihan and Burns, and a subplot involving a character who wants to kill himself because he is afraid he is gay; none of them are present in the book.

Without the ability to assign a single author to the film’s misogyny, it’s reasonable to read it as a product of the culture from which the film sprang. The great films of the 1970s may have contained excellent, complex roles for women; Ellen Burstyn as a struggling but hopeful single mother in Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; Faye Dunaway as the hardened TV executive in Network; and Diane Keaton as the heroine of Annie Hall, who undergoes a bigger transformation than her male counterpart created by Woody Allen. But there is no denying that the culture of New Hollywood, in which young, male mavericks like Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas and Ashby were given carte blanche, was fertile for sexism. Perhaps emboldened by their freedom, they inadvertently revealed a blind spot for women’s equality. Even the best roles for women were somehow beholden to their male creators, and few were the type of roles women would create. They were projections of male insecurity, like Annie Hall, or women whose personalities were bent towards maleness by a patriarchal system, like Dunaway in Network.

‘Without the ability to assign a single author to the film’s misogyny, it’s reasonable to read it as a product of the culture from which the film sprung forth.’
‘Without the ability to assign a single author to the film’s misogyny, it’s reasonable to read it as a product of the culture from which the film sprang.’ Photograph: AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo

M*A*S*H can’t compare to these complex depictions of femininity in a world of men. It may be remembered for its youthful subversions, but its protagonists treat women with the same disrespect that their fathers did, and it portended a troubling future. Squint at M*A*S*H, and you can see National Lampoon’s Animal House, which would come eight years later. Look a little further into the future, and there’s Porky’s or Revenge of the Nerds, other films in which frat bros play sexual pranks on unsuspecting girls. In its defense, M*A*S*H has more to say than those films, and there doesn’t appear to be the same intention of cruelty. Rather, it spreads its subversive sentiment in all directions, women just get caught in the crossfire and ended up getting the brunt of the injury. After all, Kellerman’s nude scene was in itself a watershed moment. The Production Code was repealed in 1968 and replaced with the MPAA system. For the first time, nudity was permitted on screen, and it’s easy to see how Altman could have viewed the shower scene as a flex of his first amendment rights.

Still, given that M*A*S*H remains so highly esteemed – it ranked #43 in a 2017 BBC poll of the greatest comedies of all-time – it deserves this closer scrutiny. Many of today’s best film-makers grew up idolizing the directors of the 1970s and modeling their careers after them. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that Hollywood still has such a woman problem. The absence of female directors in this year’s Oscar nominations to the eye-opening reporting of the #MeToo movement makes M*A*S*H more timeless than it should be. Women in Hollywood are still struggling to be seen as anything more than casualties of war.


Noah Gittell

The GuardianTramp

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