M*A*S*H GIVES A D*A*M*N.
Everyone knows and loves M*A*S*H*, the wonderful TV show that made Alan Alda a star. Most people also know that the series was based on a movie. But an argument could actually be made that the impact of the film is greater than that of the series. After all, some say this was the first major Hollywood motion picture where a character used the word “fuck”. And director Robert Altman’s work, his breakthrough, still stands as a symbol of how Hollywood occasionally undergoes changes. There was a rebellion against the old and MASH was very much part of the guerilla.
Doctors drafted for the Korean War
The film looked dirty and cheap. There were times when it was hard to hear what characters were saying because of the overlapping dialogue. There was a song claiming that suicide is painless. And there was no respect for authority whatsoever – and this in a place that utterly depends on everyone doing what they’re ordered, the military. Then again, the main characters were not career servicemen; they were ordinary doctors who had been drafted at the outbreak of the Korean War. Now they were stuck in a foreign country few people had ever heard of, trying to save the lives of American soldiers who were fighting for something that no one really understood.
These surgeons, “Hawkeye” (Donald Sutherland), “Trapper” John (Elliott Gould) and “Duke” (Tom Skerritt), saw no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to relax with a martini in their tent, or play golf by the helicopter pad, or fool around with every nurse in sight. Those of the surgeons and nurses who were career servicemen despised these antics, but there was nothing anyone could do as long as the colonel in charge of this particular Mobile Army Surgical Hospital agreed with the sentiment that life is too short to waste on protocol.
The whole point of both the film and the TV series is that some debauchery and a sense of childish humor absolutely is necessary in order to stand the intense physical and psychological wartime suffering. Altman insisted on making the scenes in the operating theater as bloody and realistic as possible – martinis or no martinis, no one should be allowed to get the impression that life in Korea was anything but grim for these people.
No need for additional earnestness
Then again, the movie is actually more upbeat than the lion’s share of the TV show. An occasional moment of sobriety between characters might not have hurt the film (it certainly made the series even more memorable), but this is a black comedy and Altman seems to have believed that the bloody setting was enough, that there was no need for additional earnestness. It’s a personal choice and he may have been right.
Following this wild medical unit through a number of peculiar episodes is hugely enjoyable. The film finishes off with a grand football game but the most memorable part may be the episode where John Schuck’s character wants to kill himself and everybody tries to help him do that, resulting in a striking pastiche of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”.
The cast consists of many familiar actors, but they were relative unknowns at the time. Sutherland and Gould are terrific as the irreverent surgeons; Kellerman is equally good as the strict major whose “hot lips” get her into trouble, and Duvall is appropriately rigid as a Bible-thumping officer. Fans of the TV show will also enjoy seeing Gary Burghoff play Radar, the colonel’s right hand, for the first time. For me, the effect of this anti-establishment classic has worn off a bit over the years, but it is nevertheless great, subversive fun.
MASH 1970-U.S. 116 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Ingo Preminger, Leon Ericksen. Directed by Robert Altman. Screenplay: Ring Lardner, Jr. Novel: Richard Hooker. Music: Johnny Mandel. Song: “Suicide Is Painless“ (Johnny Mandel). Cast: Donald Sutherland (Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce), Elliott Gould (“Trapper” John McIntyre), Tom Skerritt (Augustus “Duke” Forrest), Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Jo Ann Pflug.
Trivia: Burt Reynolds was reportedly offered the part of Trapper John. Followed by the TV series *M*A*S*H* (1972-1983).
Oscar: Best Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical). Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Last word: “I read the script, which was by Ring Lardner, Jr., but I didn’t think much of it. As far as I’m concerned, ‘MASH’ is Robert Altman’s vision. I remember when we showed the picture to Lardner at the studio, he came up to me afterward and said, ‘How could you do this to me? There’s not a single word in there that I wrote!’ And he went on to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay! Initially though, Donald Sutherland and I had a problem with Bob, because he was… well, as he once explained to me, ‘I learned how to put it together in chaos; therefore, I create chaos in which to put it together.’ And I just thought, ‘Hey, you’re dealing with experts and professionals here. Tell me what you want, and I’ll do it.'” (Gould, The Hollywood Interview)