Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Gary Burghoff, Jo Anne Pflug
Directed by Robert Altman
Screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr.
Based on the book by Richard Hooker
20th Century Fox/Aspen
Robert Altman's innovative dark comedy about a U.S. Army surgical unit in the Korean War mockingly dissects those involved in the military's effort there, and the civil and religious authority that made it possible. Released during the Vietnam War, "M*A*S*H" targets the hypocrisy and ineptitude of those who made the war and celebrates those who managed to make love instead. The film tends to smirk, but its cynical eyes miss little. The writing, direction and acting are brutally effective. But as with too many other great movies of its era, "M*A*S*H" is infused with hostility to women--and all the significant female characters are nurses. Among nurse characters in American film, only Nurse Ratched is more influential than the martinet "Hot Lips" Houlihan, who was also a key figure in the long-running television series that followed. Houlihan is far better than Ratched, but the film's depiction of nurses is nothing to celebrate.
"M*A*S*H" follows wiseass Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and fellow surgeon and nurse hunter Duke (Tom Skerritt) to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital near the front. Both take an instant dislike to their tentmate, the sanctimonious Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), who compensates for his poor surgical skills by invoking God and blaming others. Nominally led by the clueless Lt. Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), the unit is actually run by clerk "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff), who can see the immediate future. Hotshot cardiac surgeon Trapper John McIntyre (Elliot Gould) arrives with a jar of olives for Hawkeye's martini, and the two iconoclasts set about disrupting everything but the bloody operating theater, where they are deadly serious. Meanwhile, new Chief Nurse Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) is aghast at the unmilitary unit she finds. She and Burns tattle to the brass in Seoul and begin a cringe-inducing affair. In response, Hawkeye and Trapper engineer a nasty invasion of privacy that humiliates Burns and Houlihan, then an operation to determine Houlihan's true hair color which the film finds hilarious, but which has something in common with gang rape. After learning what happens to irksome females, "Hot Lips" is more docile, Trapper praises her nursing, and she seems to enjoy bad girl redemption by joining some of the boyish fun on offer. The amusements include sex, booze, gambling, golf, a trip to Tokyo, and a zany inter-unit football game which involves cheating, racism, drugs, screw-ups, and grunts suffering for the greed and ego of their leaders--just like war, or peace for that matter.
"M*A*S*H" is a male movie, but to the extent women play significant parts, they are nurses. While the film shows little nursing, it certainly shows nurses. They fall into several overlapping categories. There are the strict bureaucrats, embodied by Houlihan and a couple of starched specimens Hawkeye and Trapper encounter when they barge into a military ward in Tokyo looking for a VIP patient. There are the naughty nurses, such as "Hot Lips" and others who do sexual favors for the surgeons, notably Lt. Dish (Jo Anne Pflug)--yes, a nurse named "Dish." Hawkeye pimps Dish for the sexual salvation of "Painless Pole" (John Schuck), the camp dentist who plans to commit suicide because an episode of erectile dysfunction has convinced him he's gay. (The treatment of gay issues is not highly evolved.) Hawkeye persuades Dish to have sex with Painless in part by suggesting it's a nursing responsibility. And there are the handmaidens, exemplified by the nurses who--despite being officers--happily sew buttons on Henry Blake's shirts and ask Trapper how he'd like the steak he has demanded. Of course, many of the characters veer into caricature. To the extent they are meant to convey something like reality, it's important to remember that this is a story of people at war in the early 1950's. And unlike Nurse Ratched's crew in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the "M*A*S*H" nurses are helping, not hurting the patients. But like "Cuckoo's Nest," this is a counter-cultural classic with a deeply regressive view of nurses.
Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, MSN, MPH, RN
Reviewed January 20, 2003
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.