M*A*S*H* was perhaps not the first movie to let this mangy cat out of the bag, but it was the most successful and the first to totally hit home with a shell-shocked public tired of being lied to about Vietnam. The film grossed 80 million dollars, made more money then the standard World War II films of that same year ("Patton" and "Tora, Tora, Tora") and, along with "Easy Rider" and "The Graduate" , changed the way movies were made in America.
This period wouldn't last long before the space cowboys from far, far away and the Rambo movies would wave the flag without question again. But it left a mark we still see in movies now and again.
It's pretty funny too.
The film was episodic-television and B-feature film director Robert Altman's breakout movie. In this case, to say this is the director's film is literally more true than usual. Although he had a very good script by a former black-listed writer, Ring Lardner, Jr., from a novel by a couple Korean War vets, Altman also had his own ideas about war. He had flown 53 bombing missions as a co-pilot in the South Pacific during World War II and had his share of disillusionment about the costs of war. "M*A*S*H* is movie about insanity," he was quoted as saying. He essentially redesigned Lardner's script so much the writer thought the film was ruined. The studio heads at 20th Century Fox were scared too, until the movie was premiered in San Francisco early in 1970 and they discovered the audience totally got it. They were ahead of the honchos. The film opened in New York, won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year and so on.
Although Robert Altman is famous with cinemaphiles for going against traditional three-act narrative story-telling, the film has some precedent I believe in the Marx Brothers movies of the 1930's. In films like "Duck Soup" (1933), Groucho Marx is some how made President or a country or in "Horse Feathers" he is a college president.
Because of this "happy idea", going back to the plays of Aristophanes, authority is essentially suspended; protocol goes by the wayside; men of high station and stuffed shirts are brought down to size by witty insults they have no comebacks to; grand women of great pretense are shown they are silly people who need to smarten up, leaders in institutions grown moss-backed by their undisputed deference by others are given the boot. Anarchy reigns. The big shots have made a hash of the world through war and depressions; its time to let the competent smart alacks. the Lords of Misrule, in to being human behavior back down to earth. Wine and beer is spilled; merriment is had between the sexes, fools are no longer suffered, people sing into the night and all is merry again
Again, as in those funny films from the dark days of The Great Depression we are presented with a character(s) in a position of authority through some happenstance, like being drafted.
In this case, the "big idea" is that two top-flight surgeons are drafted into the Army Medical Corps. Since the business of "meatball" surgery", patching up soldiers and Marines from ghastly wounds, is booming business, they are nearly indispensable. They do not let this leverage go untested.
The film has its flaws in my view. The famous "naked woman surprised in the shower" scene with Sally Kellerman plays like a misogynist fantasy. The character of "Hot Lips" isn't just put down; she has to be humiliated. Some critics see this as the director commenting on the bad behavior of men in a war zone. Perhaps, but it's a scene that says more to me about the director than any war, Korea or Vietnam, he might be commenting on.
In any case the merriment always ends when the wounded men come from the front lines to be patched up to fight on or go home, half-alive or in a coffin. In that way the film is of a darker hue than anything the Brothers Marx were allowed to get away with. "M*A*S*H* does an excellent job balancing the true cost of war with the facade of bull that tries to cover up those costs in colorful bunting and empty words. War is human folly, and sometimes the only way to show it clearly to "the folks back home" is to make it as zany and as bloody as possible at the same time.