Released Jan. 25, 1970. M*A*S*H was where Robert Altman first earned his reputation as on of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic directors.
The movie was a massive success, winning the Palme d’Or (then called the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film) at Cannes, receiving five Oscar nominations and winning for Best Adapted Screenplay. It became one of the most influential films of the ’70s, and gave birth to a long-running TV show of the same name. It also catapulted Altman into a massively successful, if occasionally uneven, career.
Lost beneath all these accolades, though, is the fact of what an odd, jagged and almost perilous film it is – perhaps a reflection of Altman himself.
M*A*S*H revolves around Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould), three American surgeons at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital at the front lines of the Korean War. Life for these men is a never-ending series of bawdy escapades, bouts of heavy drinking and brutally bloody surgeries performed on the decimated bodies of soldiers.
The escapades include everything from taking a golf trip to Tokyo – during which they almost incidentally perform a chest surgery and also save a dying baby – to trying to get their Korean aide de camp out of military duty by giving him amphetamines, to arranging a mock suicide for the camp dentist who’s in despair because he believes he’s lost his ability to make love to women. It was this scene that gave birth to the film’s (and later the show’s) famous theme song, “Suicide Is Painless,” written by Altman’s 14-year-old son Mike and jazz composer Johnny Mandel, who also scored the film.
The movie also centers on the heroes’ repeated encounters with their two nemeses: a devoutly religious surgeon named Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), and his lover, nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). These two disapprove of Hawkeye and Trapper John’s freewheeling approach to everything, and in return are despised for their puritanical moralizing and belief in Army regulations.
Eventually, Hawkeye and Trapper John win both conflicts. They manage to get Burns so worked up that he’s sent away in a straitjacket, and to humiliate Hot Lips by lifting the flaps of the shower tent so the whole camp can see her naked (although she recovers from this trauma fully enough to be sleeping with Duke at the end of the film).
Orbiting around these antics is a cast of other doctors, nurses and junior officers, all of them equally as zany as the central characters. The commanding officer of the unit, Lt. Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), is more interested in tying flies for his fishing attempts than he is in keeping order, and his attendant, Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff, who reprised the role on television) has the uncanny ability to repeat all of Blake’s orders a moment before Blake gives them. And the camp chaplain, Father Mulcahy (René Auberjonois) is a nervous and gentle man who seems to be the only character able to admit the impact the effect the terrors of the war are having on him.
As with virtually all of Altman’s work, the film doesn’t have a plot so much as it is a collection of scenes that serve as a study of the characters and the nature of their interactions. This collage approach also arises out of Altman’s signature technical flourishes. The movie is edited to emphasize its lack of front-to-back flow, rather than trying to create one, as films usually do. The various shots are cut in surprising places; the images and scenes jump from one to the next without warning, highlighting unexpected elements.
But Altman’s most lauded departure from traditional moviemaking is his use of sound and dialogue. He frequently has the characters – often many at the same time – talk over one another, so that no single person’s lines are entirely comprehensible. The effect of this is a feeling of chaos, a world in which everything is disorderly and perplexing, much like it must feel to be a doctor in wartime confronted with an endless stream of young dying bodies.
This bedlam also gives an entry into the film’s darker elements. Frequently termed a black comedy, and devastatingly funny in places, M*A*S*H is also in no small part a film about cruelty. Frank Burns, the puritanical doctor, is vindictive and arbitrary to the junior officers; an exact reflection of this is the incessant abuse and ultimately destruction visited on him by the heroes of the film. Beyond this, a large part of the movie’s humorous elements rest on the degradation of women, who are continually subjected to harassing comments by Hawkeye, Trapper John and Duke.
The weird sexual politics of all this are hard to pin down. Altman would go on to make a number of films that both featured women and focused on their struggles, and it’s not as if in 1970 he had no models of how to portray men who did not denigrate women – there were numerous movies predating M*A*S*H that made this their entire thematic focal point.
Similar difficulties attend the film’s approach to race. At the end, there’s a climactic football game in which the men of the unit bring on a ringer, a black pro football player and doctor named Oliver Harmon “Spearchucker” Jones. While this name came out of the novel on which the movie is based (MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, by Richard Hooker) Altman, or screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., certainly could have jettisoned it, as they did with many of the novel’s other elements. (When asked about his nickname’s origin, the character said, “I used to throw the javelin.”) That the implications simply seemed not to bother them is reinforced by a scene in which Hawkeye and Trapper John speak nonsense sing-song imitation “Japanese” on their trip to Tokyo.
All of this gives the film an air of white-boy fraternity puckishness that feels deeply retrograde. What was Altman up to? The racial elements seem simply ignorant. The misogyny seems more rooted in the film’s attempt to present cruelty as evidence of the desensitization brought on by war: the repeating surgery scenes are the only places where the interpersonal viciousness is dispensed with. One senses that Altman’s idea is that the doctor’s “bad behavior” should be seen as a direct reflection of the callousness they’ve been pushed into by their situation.
The context of the movie’s take about the horrors of combat was, of course, the war in Vietnam, which had been raging for five years when M*A*S*H was released. Altman’s film was one of the first big Hollywood productions to take the a direct stance on that war – as well as the U.S. Army itself – as being not only destructive but idiotic. It’s here that the film’s greatest and longest lasting impact is felt. The absurdist elements that have been a feature of many subsequent anti-war films would not exist with Altman’s movie.
Similarly, the show that followed it (running from 1972 to 1983) lent to the beginning of the Reagan age a kind of moral seriousness – levied with a humor that prevented it from becoming too preachy – about war itself that has seldom been equaled on the screen. From Apocalypse Now to China Beach, from Three Kings to 2019’s Catch-22 miniseries, virtually onscreen presentation of war owes something to M*A*S*H.