Released in 1970, Mash is a satirical war film which portrays the obstacles faced by the staff of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital – a field hospital – during the Korean War (Altman, 1970). The story is set in South Korea, where American nurses, doctors and surgeons spend their days curing wounded soldiers, sawing off legs and trying to save as many lives as possible. The film is primarily known for its characters’ black humor, which they use as a weapon to detach themselves from what they see every day. However, it is evident that their practical and, at times, distasteful jokes are what they need to stay sane in a particularly challenging environment, where emotional detachment is the only way to survive.
The medical personnel has been defined as “metaphysically cruel”: surgeons make fun of their patients, make heartless comments about their health and even try to humiliate members of the army. For example, they drug a general and then wait for him to get into a brother in order to take pictures of him. What makes Mash so unusually funny and credible is the fact that the two of the main characters, namely Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, did a fine job underplaying everything and showing the audience how their dark sense of humor stems mainly from their desperation.
Moreover, both Sutherland and Gould are quite convincing as dedicated, professional surgeons who take their duties very seriously and deal with mutilated bodies on a daily basis. In fact, it could even be argued that the horrors they witness everyday help the audience understand why they need to make apparently cruel jokes in order to be able to do what they do.
- Altman, R. (1970). Mash. L.A.: 20th Century Fox.