War. It’s grim. It’s dark. It’s messy. It’s…funny? Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H presented a fresh take on a tried and true genre. Before the new generation of filmmakers came into power, war films were generally a glamorized look at past battles or used to rally support toward the effort (See WWII films in the 40s). The “New Hollywood” changed how war was depicted and appealed to a cynical audience. With Vietnam causing great anger and fatigue to Americans, watching glamorized films only made the anger worse. The public sought a film that voiced their bitterness toward war and gave a more realistic view. Altman’s film struck a chord and went on to spawn one of the most successful television shows in the history of television.
Released in 1970, M*A*S*H was an unexpected hit for 20th Century Fox. With two other “more important” projects to worry about (Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!), Robert Altman was basically left alone to create the film. The screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr. was based on the book, MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, by Richard Hooker. Despite the source material and screenplay, Altman encouraged heavy improvisation from everyone on the set. The end product was so heavily filled with improvisation, that Ring Lardner, Jr. almost asked to have his name removed from the writing credit. Of course, one can imagine winning the Oscar for Writing probably made him change his mind. Part of the unique nature of the film is the fact that many scenes are layered with dialogue. The disjointed and often confused nature of the dialogue, worked in favor of the movie. Altman took great efforts to establish the chaotic feeling that comes with war and working near the front line.
The plot is mostly made up of a series of vignettes or events that occur in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit. It begins with the addition of two new surgeons, Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce and Captain “Duke” Forest; played by Donald Sutherland and Tom Skerritt respectably. From the moment they come about, they bring their humor and chaos to those around them. Soon, the addition of Captain “Trapper” John McIntyre (Elliot Gould), brings another mad man to the group. Messing with nurses, drinking, and generally causing mischief, they also show themselves to be quite
skilled surgeons. We catch little glimpses into their lives through moments of them sunbathing, setting up pranks, and in surgery. At the end of the film, everything comes full circle, as Hawkeye and Duke receive their discharge papers and leave in the same jeep they stole from the beginning of the film.
It is easy to see why this film made the top 100 list. Like many of the movies on the list, you have to put in context the time this movie was released. Despite the setting being the Korean War, the only mention of it is at the very beginning. Altman wanted his audience to unconsciously (and consciously) draw parallels to the current Vietnam War. In addition to the movie being a new voice on war, it was also one of the first to make commentary on the Vietnam War. It also brought a fresh, new perspective to a rapidly changing genre. Like many movies of the time, the set was plagued with issues and personal problems. Robert Altman, a relatively new director to films, was incredibly difficult to work with. A user of drugs and alcohol, he had a very clear vision of the film, but wasn’t always able to communicate it in an efficient way. This created a great amount of tension between him and his leads.
I have seen the television show since I can remember. It was in syndication and often on when I was home sick from school. I wasn’t aware that it was based on a movie until I got older and more conscious of film history. However, I never got around to viewing it until now. What struck me with the film was it’s odd sense of timelessness. I’m not going to go into a “Iraq War” rant, but I think having lived with a war basically occurring half my life, the film captures that feeling of restlessness many people feel. The cynical tone and use of humor to deal with hard situations still feels fresh to the viewer. People connect so fully to this movie because it connects them to what is going on in their worlds. For my parents, it’s remembering the Vietnam War. For me, it’s a way to stay sane when things don’t make sense. The whole movie (tone, feeling, message) is all so beautifully summed up by the song “Suicide is Painless”. The instrumental version is played before the television episodes, but the complete version with lyrics is played in the film. The defeatist message of the song supports the overall tone of the film: you are going to lose anyway, so either have fun or end it now.