AFI Top 100: MASH

In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is MASH (1970), #54 on the list.

I’ve read the argument that MASH is intended to be an astute look at how soldiers react to the horrors of war by perpetuating the callousness toward others. But it’s inarguably a comedy above all else, and it’s one that intends for the viewer to become endeared to the characters and laugh along with their abhorrent cruelty. Any meaningful insight into the psychological toll of war is surface level – a delivery system for mean-spirited hijinks. Altman makes distinct choices to align us with the main characters, and instead of offering commentary on their actions, the scenes play out as pure entertainment. They encourage a fellow soldier to commit suicide after he fears he’s a homosexual, and then subsequently goad a female Lieutenant into getting in bed with him to allay his fears. They later expose a different female soldier while she’s showering and all the men clap and cheer at her humiliation as she tries to cover herself. We’re intended to smirk and laugh with them during these scenes; they’re depicted as mischievous antics from charming characters. And if there’s any uncertainty as to whether the exposed woman’s humiliation is meant to be comical, that skepticism is cleared up during the end credits montage when we see it used as her brief character clip.

It’s bad enough that the inherent misogyny isn’t explored through critical examination of the characters’ behavior, but what’s somehow even more perplexing is that people found MASH funny at all. Even when you divorce the jokes from their intended targets, the humor doesn’t land. Maybe it was seen as refreshing because it featured so much overlapping dialogue and throwaway jokes, but it’s downright ludicrous that it ranks #7 on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list, above Airplane!, The Odd Couple, and especially His Girl Friday, which featured even more rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue 30 years prior. The most generous excuse I can muster for both the loathsome cruelty of MASH’s content and the remarkably dull humor is that the film was a product of its time, but regardless, it certainly does not hold up 50 years later.

Does it belong on the list?

Absolutely not.

AFI Top 100

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