Despite the huge success of Patton, which won the 1970 Best Picture Oscar and other kudos, the major event of the late 1960s War film cycle was Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H., which was supposedly about the Korean War, but was clearly made in reaction to Vietnam.
Ring Lardner’s Oscar-winning scenario was loosely based on Richard Hookwer’s novel, which Altman used as a basic format for his free-wheeling, improvisational picture.Though boasting several significant innovations, “M.A.S.H.” was made in the vein of service comedies, such as “Mr. Roberts” (1955), “Operation Mad Ball” (1957), and “Wake Me When It’s Over” (1967), but it took the time-honored format to another level, resulting in a lacerating, lunatic satire.
Set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (thus the title), M.A.S.H. is a brilliant anti-War satire with its reduction ad absurdum of the military machine. Thematically, the film’s target was not the enemy, but military bureaucracy. The movie evokes the madness of war in a black comedy fashion.
The story depicts in graphic detail the irreverent behavior of two bright surgeons, Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce (Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland), who can only maintain their sanity and normalcy by playing lunatic games and devising seemingly idiotic schemes.
The gore of the operation room, a metaphor for the slaughter in Vietnam, surpasses all previous images seen in American movies. In the first scene, combat helicopters land, and wounded soldiers are taken off, while the music plays a song called, “Suicide Is Painless.” Throughout, there’s graphic depiction of carnage: buckets of blood, pieces of human bodies, and so on.
Narratively, “M.A.S.H.” juxtaposes the off-duty adventures of the protagonists with their duties as surgeons, which amount to patching up the mutilated bodies of wounded soldiers from the combat zone.
Impudent and bold, M.A.S.H. satirizes the glorification of war, military bureaucracy, social hypocrisy, repressed sexuality, and other old-fashioned norms that have lost their validity. Like other counter-cultural films of the era, it shows distrust and disrespect for any kind of authority–military or civilian–and any type of morality–religious or secular.
For example, when Trapper John struggles to save the life of a wounded communist, the nurse protests, “Doctor, this man is a prisoner of war.” “So are you, nurse,” he quickly replies, “You just don’t know it.”
Breaking a number of taboos, the film makes reference to wild sex, dope-smoking, profane language (off-color remarks), and other obscenities.
However, with all its coolness, lunacy, and sense of the absurd, “M.A.S.H.” is still grounded in a recognizable reality, unlike Mike Nichols’ “Catch 22,” also part of the cycle, which combined realism and surrealism in depicting the madness of war.
On a second viewing the film comes across as uneven, beginning as a brilliant anti-war satire, but then losing is bite and degenerating into horseplay in the last reel. Stylistically, too, the film seems more anarchic than it is.
“M.A.S.H.” was extremely popular at the box-office, grossing over $36 million in domestic rentals (the year’s third most popular film). By contrast, “Catch 22” achieved only moderate success with $12 million.
Shown at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, “M.A.S.H.” went on to win an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (See below).
The few women in this picture are simply objects of use and abuse, reflecting the sexism that prevailed within and without the Army. Sally Kellerman, the only performer to receive a nomination, despite a large number of superlative performances, became a household word in her role as Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan, the uptight Army nurse.
“M.A.S.H” was the kind of entertainment that captured the public imagination in a way that most regular films don’t; it was a media event. In fact, the movie was so successful that it was immediately made into a TV series (starring Alan Alda), which ran for eleven consecutive seasons (and still can be seen in reruns on Cable.
Oscar Nominations: 5
Picture, produced by Ingo Preminger
Screenplay (Adapted): Ring Lardner, Jr.
Supporting Actress: Sally Kellerman
Film Editing: Danford B. Greene
Oscar Awards: 1
The winner of the Best Picture Oscar was “Patton,” which also won Best Director for Franklin J. Schaffner and Best Editing for Hugh S. Fowler.