I hadn’t seen this Robert Altman hit in over twenty five years. Truthfully all I really recalled was the scene involving Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman and a strategically placed microphone. Upon revisiting it, I suspected I would consistently compare it to the long running TV show. I’m not sure if there is another TV show derived from a feature motion picture that for my generation eclipsed it’s origins. Alan Alda is Hawkeye Pierce and Larry Linville is Frank Burns.
I was quick to get past the fact that different faces were playing many of the characters I had grown to love from the hugely popular sitcom. It was my number one son Ethan who was seeing the movie for the first time and it didn’t seem to faze him either. He was quick to note that the series seemed to carry the sprit of this film right from the opening credits to clips like the announcements over the sound system.
Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye arrives at the 4077th with Tom Skerritt in tow. Right from the get go, they don’t like their tent mate in the “swamp.” It’s Robert Duvall’s Frank Burns. Duvall is a little too straight for the unruly twosome who enjoy their bootleg martinis. Into camp comes Trapper John McIntire as played by Elliott Gould sporting a man sized mustache. He is of course the perfect match for Sutherland and the duo begin their reign of terror upon the military way of life. A way of life fully supported by the chief nurse who arrives in camp, Sally Kellerman as Hot Lips O’Houlihan. Just like the television series I’m so fond of, it’s Sutherland and Gould vs, Duvall and Kellerman as opposed to Alda and Rogers vs. Linville and Swit.
Drunken parties, sexcapades, colorful shirts and Gary Burghoff are featured throughout the film’s nearly two hour running time. Sutherland and Gould are first rank jokers and continually toss aside all military protocol. However, when it comes to the operating room, it’s time for business despite the running commentary and flirtations with the nurses. The one noticeable difference between the movie and subsequent episodes on TV are the camera angles in the operating room. While I have no idea what part of a limb or body I may be looking at, the camera is placed higher in the movie to allow for a more graphic look at the operating table with a bit more blood in clear view against the white sheets and smocks.
Off to Japan for a sham operation on a high ranking officer’s son allows Gould his best scene as he and Sutherland march into the military hospital in civies and golf clubs facing confrontation from the stern head nurse. Gould takes command in a wonderful clip.
“Look, mother, I want to go to work in one hour. We are the Pros from Dover and we figure to crack this kid’s chest and get out to golf course before it gets dark. So you go find the gas-passer and you have him pre-medicate this patient. Then bring me the latest pictures on him. The ones we saw must be 48 hours old by now. Then call the kitchen and have them rustle us up some lunch. Ham and eggs will be all right. Steak would be even better. And then give me at least ONE nurse who knows how to work in close without getting her tits in my way. “
The boys are in trouble with the brass but not for long. A football game is still to come that had me thinking The Longest Yard. One camp vs. another. This kind of reminded me of an episode from the show when Trapper John gets in the boxing ring with a champ from another camp. Like that episode, the boys from the 4077th had to resort to some amusing shenanigans. Bringing in a “ringer” for a quaterback in the shape of Fred “the Hammer” Williamson doesn’t hurt either.
Enough about the plot. Check it out for yourself and know that the film stands up on it’s own merit after all these years despite becoming secondary in the eyes of the viewing audience due to the success of Alan Alda and the gang on TV. My own opinion I know but I think it’s a valid one.
There are plenty of other observations one can make concerning the mirror images of the movie and show. Plenty of what if’s as well. There is a bit in here concerning a Last Supper type religious scene concerning John Schuck’s character and the gang. It marks the second time in three years that Sutherland played a variation on the famous image of Jesus and his disciples. The other being the 1967 film that gave Sutherland his breakthrough role, The Dirty Dozen.
After removing the DVD and putting it back on my shelf, I have to say, Gould steals the film for me leaving Sutherland’s Hawkeye more of a ensemble character as opposed to the TV show. Maybe the Trapper role is flashier. Whichever, Elliott just seems to shine a little brighter than Donald.