What's the Big Deal?: MASH (1970)

The praise: In addition to being a box-office hit (it was the third-highest grossing film of 1970), MASH was nominated for five Oscars: best picture, director, supporting actress (Sally Kellerman), editing, and screenplay. It won for screenplay. The film also won the Golden Globe for best comedy or musical, as well as the Grand Prix at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. It ranked 56th on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 100 best movies ever made, and 54th on the 2007 revised list. The AFI's list of the greatest American comedies puts MASH at No. 7, between Blazing Saddles and It Happened One Night.

The context: Kansas City native Robert Altman (1925-2006) was not quite 17 when the United States entered World War II. As soon as he was of age, he enlisted in the Army and became a co-pilot, flying bombing missions. He served for three years before returning to civilian life, where he tried his hand at publicity, writing, and eventually filmmaking. He directed industrial shorts in his hometown before going to Hollywood, where he directed TV shows (including multiple episodes of Combat!, Bonanza, The Millionaire, and U.S. Marshal) through the late 1950s and into the '60s.

He was 45 when he made his breakthrough film, MASH, a boldly anti-Establishment, antiwar comedy that had been offered to a dozen other directors before Twentieth Century Fox gave it to him. It instantly put Altman into the ranks of respected filmmakers and led to a decade of artistic successes. In terms of box office, though, MASH was the biggest hit he would ever have.

MASH began as a novel, published in 1968 and based on author Richard Hooker's own experiences as an Army surgeon during the Korean War. (The title M*A*S*H, with the asterisks, was used in the film's advertising and on the subsequent TV show, but the film itself, like the book, styled it just MASH.) The screenplay was by Ring Lardner Jr., a veteran studio writer who, as one of the "Hollywood 10," had been blacklisted during the Red Scare of the late '40s. MASH was only his second post-blacklist on-screen credit (1965's The Cincinnati Kid was the first), and he won an Oscar for it. He hadn't liked the way Altman encouraged the actors to ad-lib and improvise, saying it changed too much of the script, but he doesn't seem to have had any problem accepting the Academy Award for writing it.

Altman had already developed the animosity toward studio executives that would define his career, and he sought to make MASH with as little interference as possible. He hired mostly unknown actors (to help stay under budget) and counted on Fox's simultaneous involvement with two bigger, more traditional war movies -- Tora! Tora! Tora! and Patton -- to keep them from paying attention to his offbeat little project.

His actors were another matter. Donald Sutherland (playing Hawkeye Pierce) and Elliot Gould (as Trapper John) both quickly came to the conclusion that Altman was insane and had no idea how to make a movie. They spent a good deal of time trying to have him removed from the project before finally adapting to his freewheeling style. Many of the inexperienced cast members, on the other hand, loved Altman's emphasis on camaraderie and partying. Drug use on the set was, shall we say, condoned.

(The review in Variety made this understatement: "There is the feeling that Lardner, Altman and the actors never were agreed on what the film's final approach should be.")

Studio executives were horrified when they saw how Altman had combined anarchic humor with realistic operating-room gore. They were pacified only after test screenings showed that, apart from a few walkouts, audiences loved the film.

The movie: It's the Korean War! The doctors at a mobile army surgical hospital near the front lines try to relax and keep their sanity in between patching up wounded soldiers and civilians. That's pretty much it, plot-wise.

What it influenced: Well, there was that TV show. M*A*S*H premiered in September 1972 and ran for 11 seasons, comprising 251 episodes, before its finale in February 1983. Widely considered one of the most beloved series in TV history, it also produced two spinoffs, Trapper John, M.D. (1979-86) and AfterMASH (1983-84). Several characters from the film appeared in the TV show, but only Radar O'Reilly was played by the same actor (Gary Burghoff). There was no effort to make the TV series a direct sequel to the movie anyway, as many details about the characters' personalities and lives were changed, and certain plot points ignored. (In the movie, Frank Burns, played by Robert Duvall, gets sent home halfway through.)

Though set during the Korean War, MASH was obviously meant as a commentary on the Vietnam War, which was fast becoming unpopular at home. A not-too-careful viewer could easily assume the film was set in Vietnam, a misconception that Altman did everything he could to exploit by removing as many specific references to Korea as possible. (The opening title cards about Korea were put in at the studio's insistence.) The film doesn't make any political statements about Vietnam (or Korea) specifically, but about war in general: how it's absurd, how it's illogical, how it mostly consists of men behaving like animals. These sentiments met a receptive audience in 1970.

The "antiwar comedy" was not exactly a robust genre. There were occasionally antiwar films, and there were comedies with military settings, but to get laughs by satirizing war was almost unheard of. (Dr. Strangelove had done it six years earlier.) To satirize war at a time when the United States was involved in one was particularly unsettling. Nor did MASH stop there. The film also made sport of belief in God, treated marital infidelity with astonishing casualness, and got laughs by having the men mercilessly abuse and harass a female officer.

Such iconoclasm and anti-authoritarian sentiment hardly feels revolutionary now -- but that's largely due to films like MASH opening the door. Mark Bourne wrote that "it's hard for anyone too young to remember the Beatles' breakup to watch ... MASH and appreciate deep down how shocking the movie was in its time.... If its bite and sass have diminished for today's new audiences, for whom smart-ass crassitude is as common as cornflakes, consider that a testimony to the attitude, style, and technique it pioneered and infused into American popular movies."

You can tell it was revolutionary at the time by reading some of the contemporary reviews. In the New York Times, critic Roger Greenspun was shocked and appalled:

To my knowledge Robert Altman's MASH is the first major American movie openly to ridicule belief in God -- not phony belief; real belief. It is also one of the few (though by no means the first) American screen comedies openly to admit the cruelty of its humor. And it is at pains to blend that humor with more operating room gore than I have ever seen in any movie from any place.

All of which may promote a certain air of good feeling in the audience, an attitude of self-congratulation that they have the guts to take the gore, the inhumanity to appreciate the humor, and the sanity to admire the impiety -- directed against a major who prays for himself, his Army buddies, and even "our Commander in Chief."

Variety, meanwhile, called it "stomach-churning, gory, often tasteless, but frequently funny."

Roger Ebert understood why the shockingly realistic blood and guts was necessary. "We can take the unusually high gore-level because it is originally part of the movie's logic," he wrote. "If the surgeons didn't have to face the daily list of maimed and mutilated bodies, none of the rest of their lives would make any sense." We have to see the horrors they see in order to appreciate -- even to tolerate -- the things they do in their spare time.

Ebert also observed: "Most comedies want us to laugh at things that aren't really funny; in this one we laugh precisely because they're not funny. We laugh, that we may not cry." The critic in Time magazine, who loved the film, began his unsigned review with a remarkably similar sentiment: "'And if I laugh at any mortal thing,/ Tis that I may not weep,' wrote Byron. That philosophical fragment accounts for the duality of all black farce; looking between the cracks, one catches glimpses of hell."

In the New Yorker, though, Pauline Kael -- who would become one of the film's most famous and most ardent supporters -- just found it flat-out funny. "All the targets should be laughed at. The laughter is at the horrors and absurdities of war, and, specifically, at the people who flourish in the military bureaucracy.... Though the setting makes it seem a 'black' comedy, it's a cheery 'black' comedy. The heroes win at everything." Later in the review, Kael said: "I don't know when I've had such a good time at the movies." (The New Yorker, Jan. 24, 1970, p. 74.) I like to picture her and the Times' Roger Greenspun sitting next to each other at the press screening, having opposite reactions to the movie, each wondering what was wrong with the other.

What to look for: The film has been described as "episodic" (fitting, given that it inspired 251 episodes of a TV show). Its story points come along almost in random order, with no real beginning, middle, and end like a normal story would have. There isn't a climax, per se; a football game between the MASH unit and a rival military unit appears where most films' climaxes would go. That in itself might be significant: This is ostensibly a war movie, and it all comes down to a violent sport played for fun.

Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) are irreverent in every sense of the word, showing open disdain for their religious-nut bunkmate Frank Burns and something more like pity for the harmless chaplain, Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois). It seems to be these doctors' philosophy religious faith has no place here because faith suggests an attempt at enlightenment, and war by definition cannot be made to make sense. But when the men's sense of justice is offended, as when Burns cruelly blames a patient's death on a young orderly, they are quick to take action.

Walter Chaw wrote a persuasive essay about the film asserting that it's about "the cult of masculinity." He says:

Matters of spirituality and men of the cloth are to be scoffed at while other rituals -- like the rites observed in an operating theatre, or golf (a game played with clubs), or football, or the pursuit of women -- are regarded with the obsessive gravity of a lower primate. It's about male bonding, all that cruelty towards women and disrespect of authority and open racism -- the game of me-against-you.... [It] may be the saddest war film ever made in that it identifies conflict as something that, however contrary to civilization, is inextricably hardwired into our bestial nature. We're vile, stupid, ignoble apes and we aspire to ideals we're eternally incapable of honouring.

Altman established with MASH the style he would use in virtually every film he made thereafter, with characters speaking naturalistic dialogue on top of one another. He also made good use of telephoto lenses, zooming in for close-ups in scenes that normally would have been too crowded to allow them. There are few establishing shots; we don't ever get a sense of the layout of the camp. All of this contributes to the film's overall sense of mayhem and anarchy, the idea that no one person is in charge, that there is no master plan.

What's the big deal: Countercultural touchstones like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider had shown people rebelling against authority in a way that was highly appealing to a young, restless, late-1960s audience. But those movies were about outsiders, people you'd expect to defy convention. MASH was about anti-Establishment types who were actually part of the Establishment. They didn't want to be part of it, though, and bucked against it by maintaining their ideals even when compelled to be part of the system. For a nation in the middle of a war that had already claimed the lives of thousands of unwilling participants, that was a liberating idea.

Further reading: Here are the original 1970 reviews from Variety, the New York Times, Roger Ebert, and Time magazine; here are more recent essays from DVD Journal and Film Freak Central.

Related columns:

What's the Big Deal?: Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

What's the Big Deal?: Easy Rider (1969).

What's the Big Deal?: Nashville (1975).