Dir: Robert Altman, 1970. Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall. Comedy.

Robert Altman’s MASH, 40-something years later still works as a funny, dark comedy and as a kinda-sorta anti-war statement, but most impressive is what Altman was able to do with his innovative sound design, still cutting edge today. Though it was a big hit film, for a number of years it was more famous as the inspiration for the then even more popular television show, M*A*S*H*, but as that show now feels musty and dated, MASH the movie is just as relevant today as it was in 1970.

M.A.S.H. stands for mobile army surgical hospital. Made during the heart of the cantankerous Vietnam War, MASH is actually about the medics near the front lines of the “forgotten” Korean War of the 1950s. These are talented doctors and surgeons, but drafted away from their private practices they fight the stifling rules of the military. They deal in blood and guts (at the time the surgery scenes were rather graphic for audiences), but when casualties aren’t mounting they drink, party, and cause mayhem just as hard as they work.

Based on a novel by Richard Hooker, the screenplay was written by Ring Lardner Jr., famously one of the original Hollywood 10 who were blacklisted and jailed for standing up to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. You can understand his cynicism toward American institutions, and MASH gleefully thumbs its nose at military discipline. The story is almost episodic. The first third of the film we meet our “heroes,” three doctors Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Duke (Tom Skerritt), and the new chest-cutter, Trapper John (Elliott Gould). Though charming, their primary goal is drinking and bedding nurses. Their main nemesis is the almost fanatically religious zealot Dr. Frank Burns (an intense Robert Duvall). When a sexy new head-nurse arrives, Margaret O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), they are put off to realize she is a “regular army clown” and even more stunned when she immediately hooks up with Frank. The rest of the chapter is about their efforts to humiliate the lovebirds, and eventually after breaking both down, Frank leaves in a straight jacket and Margaret falls for Duke.

The next section concerns the unit’s dentist “Painless” Waldowski. Though famously endowed he has not been up to snuff sexually and is now worried that he is gay, so he wants to kill himself (this is where the film’s great theme song “Suicide Is Painless” by Johnny Mandel fits in). The guys give him a mock “last supper” and a suicide capsule, but instead of dying they provide him with a willing nurse, curing him of his homosexuality. Then Hawkeye and Trapper go to Japan to operate on a Congressman’s son, where they are forced to blackmail a Colonel with pictures of him drugged with a hooker so they can operate on a Japanese-American baby.

The final section of the film concerns a company football game. Getting an ex-pro football-playing doctor named Spearchucker Jones (he’s a black guy, played by the great Blaxplotation star Fred Williamson), the guys make huge beats against another unit in a casual pick-up scrimmage. This is one of the screen’s great football games; a sorta cross between The Longest Yard and The Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers, much hijinx and cheating ensues.

This is not the same Hawkeye from the TV show, nor is it the same MASH. The TV Hawkeye as played by the sanctimonious Alan Alda is much more audience friendly than the film version. The film’s Hawkeye and his pals are shockingly cruel and even misogynistic. Unlike Alda, the slithery Sutherland is not out to be loved, these are guys living on the edge of war, they are not out to orate, they are just trying to enjoy what may be their last days. TV Frank Burns (Larry Linville, the best thing about the show) was also much more likeable. The film’s Frank, played by Duvall just before reaching stardom with The Godfather, is more scary than funny. Apparently actor Skerritt was offered a role on the show but turned it down so his character, Duke, was dropped, turning the hero trio into a duo. The only actor who went from the big screen to the small screen version was Gary Bughoff as the unit’s Radar O’Reilly.

It’s no wonder that a Robert Altman film would differ dramatically from a hit TV series. Altman may be the most un-audience-friendly popular director in Hollywood history. To say his quirky, ensemble films often challenge audiences is an understatement. Coming from television, Altman had made a couple of unmemorable flicks before MASH catapulted him into major-directordom. Altman was considered a major force in the maverick director movement of the '70s with an assortment of interesting works including The Long Goodbye, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and his other masterpiece, the sprawling character epic Nashville. For decades he would actually have more misses than hits, but even his flops can often be fascinating for the effort and ideas (Brewster McCloud, Popeye), while others have just been baffling (O.C. and Stiggs, Quintet). After too many bad films he had a couple of comebacks with his HBO series Tanner (a presidential campaign mockumentry) and his biting Hollywood send-up The Player. He would then continue working on a large platform until his death in 2006.

Right after scoring an Oscar nomination for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, MASH would make Gould a big star, but other than a couple of interesting outings again with Altman (California Split and The Long Goodbye) and a few solid genre flicks towards the end of the decade (Capricorn One, The Silent Partner), he would mostly squander the good will. Gould has been largely forgotten. Sutherland, on the hand, has quietly been a major actor ever since MASH. Moving between leads and supporting roles, arthouse and mainstream, American and European films, he’s had a major career peaking with the brilliant Ordinary People in 1980, maybe his greatest performance.

With MASH and his many of his subsequent films, Altman uses a giant cast of actors who often seem to be improvising or ad-libbing. They all seemed to be on mic; so little pieces of conversations are all over the soundtrack. It makes for the feel of seeing a live play with a large cast. The camera roves around as our point of view, but often we hear people not in view, sometimes creating a “you are there” docudrama feel. The wacky announcements over the camp's loud speakers also help to bridge the gap with the audience, working as a kind of narrator.

Upon its release MASH was often compared to Joseph Heller’s WWII novel Catch-22, but MASH is less concerned with hitting you over the head with its obviously detached point of view towards war and more concerned with its hip brand of cruel comedy. That’s what makes MASH still so unique; it’s a very funny film with some amazing filmmaking technique going on. Its disjointed script actually works better because of its mini-short story style. Ironically MASH lost the Best Picture Oscar to another excellent war film, Patton. Though that film takes a critical look at one of war's big superstars and questions his character, it still holds onto the myth that the military institute is honorable. MASH respects no one; MASH rejects everything and everyone who takes themselves too serous. It’s not a spoof of those WWII movies that made every character a hero; it just turns them on their head and gives them the finger.


MASH won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It was nominated for an additional four Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Sally Kellerman), and Best Film Editing.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 15, 2011 1:34pm
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