Tuesday, January 11, 2011


“Suicide is painless” is an opening song that all of us either know by title or by tune, but it’s been part of the American lexicon since its release in 1970. Better known as the “Song from M*A*S*H” (I bet now all you non-believers are kicking yourself) it’s the opening theme from, you guessed it, M*A*S*H. Now I’m not talking about the series that lasted eleven seasons, which surpassed the actual Korean War by eight years. No, I’m talking about the Robert Altman anti-Vietnam War film, cleverly disguised as an anti-Korean war film. I first watched M*A*S*H the film back in high school, or maybe it was middle school; either way it was with the wrong set of eyes. This movie is one that you can only truly appreciate after you’ve been part of something. So actually by that logic I guess as a member of a band, or a sports team I could’ve understood what Altman was getting at with his film, but I guess I wasn’t ready. Save The Cat! writer Blake Snyder defines this type of film as “Institutionalized”, meaning the protagonist is fighting against some sort of group dynamics. In an “Institutionalized” story the hero is left with only one of three choices, join the group, destroy the group, or destroy himself. In Altman’s movie our protagonist Capt Hawkeye Pierce very quickly identifies himself as anti-military when he removes his Captain’s bars and steals an Army jeep, showing that he doesn’t respect his own authority or anyone else’s. So by Snyder’s logic, Hawkeye is on the outside and the “group” is the U.S. Army, so Hawkeye will either have to conform and become a good soldier (military doctor in this case), rebel against the Army’s standards, or kill himself to escape. Well, if Hawkeye chose either the first or the last choice this would’ve been a completely different movie. Hawkeye chooses to rebel against the authority of the Army and finds similar brothers in arms with Capt Duke Forest and Capt. Trapper John McIntyre.

With each antagonist met, Hawkeye shows he’s not going to change for the army. His first obstacle is Maj. Frank Burns, a by the book military man but a subpar doctor and clearly a member of “the group.” Hawkeye and Duke convince Col. Blake to remove Maj. Burns from “their” tent. I say “their” because clearly it was Maj. Burns’ tent before Hawkeye or Duke was assigned to it, but disregarding rank structure they have a superior officer removed from his lodging so they can have a more relaxed environment. Proving that their priorities and the army’s priorities are not one in the same, the only common factor is trying to save wounded soldiers lives. When Trapper John joins the group he catches Maj. Burns blaming the death of one of his patients on a young soldier and punches him in the face for doing so. Striking a superior officer is clearly against the rules of “the group”, but since Trapper John doesn’t belong to “the group” he doesn’t care. He doesn’t see what is right in the eyes of the military just what is actually right and wrong. His punishment for striking a superior officer is he is promoted to head surgeon. When Maj. Houlihan, the new head army nurse, joins “the group” it is clear that she is on the side of the army and not a fan of Hawkeye and his clan. She teams up with Maj. Burns and drafts a letter to Gen. Hammond asking for the resignation of Col. Blake in order to right the wrong that is Hawkeye’s way of thinking. But quickly Hawkeye’s camp show that Maj. Houlihan isn’t going to be an obstacle either when she and Maj. Burns have an affair and they use the base PA system to broadcast the event earning her the nickname Hot Lips O’Houlihan and taking away her power. For the rest of the film every time the Army seems like it will get the upper hand, Hawkeye and clan triumph, proving that “the group” will not take them down.

The only part that I feel that doesn’t fit Snyder’s “Institutionalized” archetype is the ending, and if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want me to ruin anything then stop here. 


The movie ends with Hawkeye running into the operating room and letting Duke know they can go home, their tour of duty is over. Hawkeye is going to leave the army and go back to his civilian life because his time as a drafted solider is over. He didn’t let “the group” change him, he wasn’t destroyed by “the group” but his effects on “the group” won’t last after he is gone either. So in Altman’s tale, nothing ever changes; Hawkeye fought against the Army and didn’t really win or lose. He had to do his time, and yes he did it his way, but the Army is still the Army at the end and Hawkeye is still Hawkeye. The film ends with a stalemate.


When I watched this movie as I teen I don’t remember liking it, I remember thinking that it had funny parts but over all was just kind of okay. I think that might’ve been because in the end nothing changes. Now that I’m older and still stuck in permanent adolescence, I think that ending does really ring true. Sometimes in life you are forced to deal with situations that you can only do your best in to stay sane and in the end all you really learn is that particular situation sucked and you wouldn’t want to be stuck in it again. I don’t believe that every story is a life changing one, and I find it interesting that Hawkeye is the same person he was when he started out in the movie even though he had been through war and back.