Friday, July 15, 2011

M*A*S*H (1970) Director: Robert Altman/Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, Sally Kellerman

Genre: Classics
In 1970, in the face of the longest and likely craziest war in American history, a major studio in Hollywood bankrolled a movie where anarchy reigned and good guys blew the whistle on the whole charade of blind patriotism and the little turf wars of some generals and back-home politicians who saw war-making as a football game.

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.


  1. A brief clip of Robert Altman discussing the film in 2006.

  2. I have a copy.
    I watched it first at movie theater in São Paulo.
    It's hilarious...
    And also is hilarious the song "Suicide is Painless"...
    I like to remember a secondary character, Corporal 'Radar' O'Reilly, performed by Gary Burghoff, a funny sidekick,,,

  3. I first saw it in 1973 in a re-release at a theater in San Jose, California. I still remember a lot of laughing and surprises from that first viewing.

    The censors trimmed some of the language in the movie to get a "PG" US rating so kids could see it without their parents.

    The song is also memorable I agree.

    Burghoff was the only actor from the film to repeat his role in the movie. It worked out pretty well for him employment-wise.

    Thanks Jose.

  4. You're welcome.
    I'm grateful for this post...
    One I like most from Altman is Brewster McCloud, with Bud Cort, that played a role in M*A*S*H...

  5. You're welcome.
    I'm grateful for this post...
    One I like most from Altman is Brewster McCloud, with Bud Cort, that played a role in M*A*S*H...

  6. One can analyse the movie and the motivation behind it and come to many conclusions. But what is most important is that it's a hell of a good movie!

    The TV series was probably the best spin-off from a film of all time in my opinion as well.

  7. Thanks for this clip Jose.

    I've not seen "Brewster McCloud" oddly enough, although I hope its out on DVD somewhere. I just finished a book on Robert Altman and this eccentric subject was what he chose to do right after "M*A*S*H*", which says a lot about his character in a positive sense. :-)

  8. Yes, Jim, I think that's two great summations you made there!

    I hope those you haven't seen it who wander by will give it a chance if there is a DVD shop or a library which offers it.


  9. Why is it hilarious?
    I thought it sad...

  10. Is it serious when someone sings "That suicide is painless
    It brings on many changes
    and I can take or leave it if I please"?
    What were "many changes" to a suicide person?
    If you can imagine another life, beyond present, what you changed?
    You only stop the play of life and, beyond this point, there's nothing - no life, even if there's something beyond - this "something" isn't life...
    How you can imagine, about suicide, "and I can take or leave it if I please"?
    Is it serious?
    No, it's hilarious, cause you " cannot take or leave it if you please" - beyond death. you cannot come back to where you were ..
    The hilarious point is the non-sense of the character's situation in plot of movie.
    This song bring us the non-sense of choice of death, in a plot about medical corp in war...
    Someone enlisted to save life but is thinking of denial to life, the own death through suicide, when many others are trying to keep its own lives, even under worst conditions...
    The climate of permanent party, with music, jokes, card games, booze, turn the camp into almost like college dorms in sixties...
    I think the song it's hilarious due to that points and another points, but if I try to explain every circumstances, this space will be little...