M*A*S*H (1970) Robert Altman

In January 1970, I was back from Vietnam only five months or so. A four month stint followed in the states at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and now I was on leave before heading off to Germany to complete my three years of service.  While home, I was catching up with family, friends and movies, lots of movies! While everyone else was working during the day, I spent many hours in Manhattan (I lived in Brooklyn at the time) in the dark of a movie theater or two or three.  One of the films I caught was M*A*S*H.

From the opening scene with choppers carrying the bloody wounded bodies of soldiers, while on the soundtrack came the soft mellow sound of a song with the odd title, “Suicide is Painless,” you quickly realized  you were in for something different.  Here was a satirical, unhinged bloody (for the times), offensive, anti-war comedy.  The film not only mocked military procedures and war but religion takes a bit of a beating too. Like “Dr. Strangelove,” some six years earlier the film laughs at the absurdities of war and the bureaucracy behind it. Egotism, incompetence and piousness all take a shellacking.

The films two anti-heroes are Hawkeye Piece and Trapper John McIntyre played respectively by Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. They are superstar surgeons stationed in a M*A*S*H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit only a few miles from the frontline in Korea. A third surgeon, Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) is also part this tight renegade group. From the beginning the surgeons establish themselves as outside the rules of military behavior. Even when they are not in surgery, they operate on a separate playing field; rank and prodigal are ignored, they speak to everyone on a first name basis. During one surgical operation Duke tells the chaplain, Father Mulcahy, aka Dago Red (Rene Auberjonois), to stop praying over a dead soldier and assist him in saving the life of the patient he is working on saying, “I’m sorry, Dago, but this man is still alive and that other man is dead, and that’s a fact.”

Incompetents is ridiculed no matter what the rank. The three anti-heroes share the same tent with Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), an ineffectual surgeon as well a religious hypocrite. Frank is having an ongoing affair with the head nurse, Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), nicknamed “Hot Lips” after an evening of passion between her and Frank is broadcast, unknowingly to both of them, over the camps’ sound system. The entire camp hears her cry out in passion, “Oh Frank, my lips are hot, kiss my hot lips!”  Earlier, Frank ever the religious charlatan tells Houlihan, “God meant it for us to find each other,” as she passionately whips open her blouse panting, “His will be done!” Religion again takes a tease when the “Painless Pole,” Captain Waldowski (John Shuck) contemplates suicide and Hawkeye and the crew give him a ‘last supper,’ and with the help of Lt. Dish (Jo Ann Plug) a resurrection.

War, religion, the only thing our three anti-heroes value is proficiency in the operating room. When the chips are down, saving the wounded boys from the insanity that engulfs the world is what matters. Even “Hot Lips” Houlihan gets an approving nod of respect later in the film when she demonstrates herself worthy in the operating room despite the fact she has been a  pretentious military clown as Trapper tells her at one point.

Director Robert Altman created a disjointed, episodic film that lacks any kind of plot, yet hits you in the face with the whole absurd idea of war; a timely topic considering when the film was released. Though set in Korea, Vietnam hovers over this film like a low flying vulture. Make no mistake about it; Altman was making a film about the Vietnam War, only the studio would not allow him say so. In 1970, the only major film about the Vietnam War to be released by Hollywood was John Wayne’s simplistic, pro-war dud, “The Green Berets.” The film represented Wayne’s artless approach to affirm what we were doing there was right. He even manages to convert the “dastardly” liberal newspaper reporter, played by David Jansen, to the pro war side by the film’s end. It would take a few years after the end of the Vietnam War before Hollywood would again dare to broach Vietnam as a topic with films like “The Boys of Company C,” “Coming Home,” “The Deer Hunter” and others.

M*A*S*H began its life as a novel written by Dr. Richard Hooker, a former combat surgeon who was stationed in Korea during the war. Produced by Ingo Preminger (Otto’s brother) with a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr., 20th Century Fox agreed to make the film. Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, Bob Rafleson were among the more than a dozen directors who turned down the chance to direct the film or were busy with other projects. Needless to say, Robert Altman was not high on anyone’s list. Prior to this film, Altman’s career was ordinary at best. His previous experience listed TV shows like “Surfside 6,” “Combat,” “Whirlybirds” and “The Roaring Twenties” along with documentaries, most notably, “The James Dean Story” in 1957. In 1968, he made his first fictional feature film, “Countdown” following it up with “That Cold Day in the Park” in 1969. None of this previous work would reflect any particular talent for comedy, or the unique style of filmmaking that would emerge with “M*A*S*H.” Not being on the list of top directors, nor being a known quantity for this type of film did not deter Altman from making his presence known during preproduction. He wanted unknowns and newcomers in the roles. In 1970, Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman all had previously appeared in films, but none yet had the big break out role to stardom. Gould had recently scored a success in 1969 with Paul Mazursky’s “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” but in a co-starring role. Of the many actors in the cast, some were making their film debut and soon would become part of Altman’s unofficial stock company, including Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck and Bud Cort.

At the time of its release, M*A*S*H was threaten with an “X” rating but after an appeal to the ratings’ board it was changed to an “R.” The film was a major hit with the then rebellious youth market while more traditional, older audiences found the scenes of blood shooting out of arteries, detached limbs along with the anti-war, mocking religious attitude and vulgarity (M*A*S*H was the first film to use the big “F” word.) shocking.

In 1972, 20th Century Fox came out with a sanitized half hour TV series of the film with kinder, gentler, cuter versions of Hawkeye and Trapper John and the rest of the gang. The only cast member to make the transition from film to TV was Gary Burghoff who played Radar O’Reilly. The series was a huge hit though it lost quite a bit of its bite in the process. Viewers, who first became familiar with MASH (now minus the asterisks) via the TV series, may have found the film version difficult and a bit unruly to adjust to, however it was specifically this rebellious, anarchistic attitude along with the overlapping dialogue and kinetic visual style that made the film so unique.



25 comments on “M*A*S*H (1970) Robert Altman

  1. Page says:

    I could go on about this film for days! Altman directed some incredible films but this one is my favorite of his hands down. (Gosford Park is my 2nd favorite)

    The cast is brilliant and I can probably quote more line than I’m willing to admit. The series is my favorite and I try to tape and re-watch episodes at least once a week. Also the most brilliant cast ever for a series.

    Every time I think of this film the shower scene comes to mind and how insane Kellerman’s character was. Then the scene with the ‘casket’ featuring the movie’s very familiar theme song.

    Thanks for this review. I’ll be humming Suicide Is Painless all day now. : )


    • John Greco says:

      Page – you sound like a real true admirer o Altman. There are so many classic scenes that could mentioned. Authority really takes a beating in this film. Thanks so much!


  2. J.D. says:

    Excellent review of one of Altman’s finest films. The anti-authoritarian duo is something he would revisit again in his films – CALIFORNIA SPLIT, OC & STIGGS, etc. but MASH arguably features the best of ’em all. The comic timing between Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould is something else and I never tire of seeing them tear it up with their irreverence and complete disdain for authority. And to think, early on, they wanted Altman fired for his directorial methods! Good thing they hung in there…


    • John Greco says:

      J.D. – Sutherland and Gould did make a good team and Kellerman is just fantastic as HOT LIPS. OC & STIGGS is one I still need to catch up on. Thanks!


  3. Allen Hefner says:

    Luckily, I was ever in the military, but I imagine a place like a MASH unit would be a little lax on discipline to overcome some of the stress. (Probably not THAT lax!) You may want to watch the Humphrey Bogart film, Battle Circus (1953) for a more serious look at how they really worked.

    I absolutely agree with you that M*A*S*H is a movie that should not be missed. It is in my collection, along with some episodes of the TV show. It is a landmark film that started a style, as well as a whole bunch of careers.

    Great post on a great flick!


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Allan,

      In Vietnam, units were less spit and polish due to the circumstances of wartime than they would be stateside but true not to the extent in the film (LOL). I saw BATTLE CIRCUS many years ago sas a kid but truthfully do not remember much about it and need to see it. Sorry for the delay in response but I have been offline since late last week.


  4. Judy says:

    Fascinating review, John – it’s interesting to hear that you saw this when you came back from Vietnam and I also appreciate all the background and context to the film you have given here. On a shallow note, I’ve seen the film several times because we got a copy of it on VHS free with my family’s first video recorder! I remember a lot of it vividly, but should really see it again, along with more of Altman’s films.

    I came to the film after having seen some of the TV series and did find the movie’s comedy sharper and blacker, as you say here – I remember thinking that Frank’s self-serving religion is satirised more sharply in the film than in the series, where his character tended to end up as a hapless butt of slapstick jokes. I did love the TV series all the same (it’s always been something that I quote constantly in conversation) and my husband bought me a couple of box sets of the early runs, but I found it didn’t quite live up to my memories, although I have a feeling it got better/darker later on. There was a lot more stuff than I’d remembered about Hawkeye and Trapper John trying to make dates with nurses. One problem is that the DVDs have a canned laughter track, which this series never had when originally shown in the UK – it is possible to turn it off, but it is quite fiddly and you have to do it for every episode.


    • John Greco says:

      I was a fan also of the TV show but you bring a good point of Frank Burns being more of a buffoon and the butt of a lot of jokes. FOr a TV sitcom, it was still on a higher level than most TV sitcom (at least the ones in the US). Thanks Judy.


  5. My own father was in Vietnam in 1969-70, and I’ve considered doing a blog using his letters, pictures, and memorabilia.

    As for MASH the movie, it definitely took me by surprise with how bawdy and cynical it was compared to the TV show. However, the TV show was groundbreaking in its own way, despite the fact that television had to be during that time. TV was far glossier than film in the early ’70s; it’s an interesting contrast.

    I’m a huge fan of both Sutherland and Gould. The latter unfairly maligned and a helluva an actor in my minority view.


    • John Greco says:


      As I mentioned to Judy, the TV MASH was certainly at a higher level than most TV sitcoms, though the early 1970’s was pretty ground breaking with ALL IN THE FAMILY and MARY TYLER MOORE. These
      three shows raised the quality level higher than it was and only rarely reached since (Seinfeld for one).

      The blog with about your dad would be an interesting concept.



  6. Wow….

    I’ve never read an article or review about “MASH” from the perspective of an actual veteran…

    This was a fascinating read!

    By the way…I just announced a blogathon on my site. I’d love for you to participate! Check out my site for the details.


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Nathanael! Glad you liked it. i will stop by your way and check out the blogathon announcement.


  7. The Lady Eve says:

    There was, in the early ’70s, a theater not far from where we lived that showed second run films at the low price of 50¢ – and you could bring your own food. Naturally, the theater was filled – with college and high school students. Naturally, depending on the film, the audience frequently “interacted” with the films. I saw “M*A*S*H” there with friends. And “Catch-22,” and “Johnny Got His Gun.” These films were all considered anti-war films (meaning anti-Vietnam War), tho all were set in different wars: Korea, WWII, WWI.
    How fortunate I was to see M*A*S*H in that setting (didn’t quite realize it then). The movie had a powerful impact on me, but to see the film with that crowd made the experience much more intense.

    The TV series was very different but I thought it had a something of a bite for the first couple of years.

    Wonderful write-up, as always, John. I can only imagine how “M*A*S*H” would affect someone who’d actually “been there” and just gotten back to the U.S.


    • John Greco says:


      JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN was a fasincating and dark film brutal that blew me away at the time. I am not sure what the effect would be today. I read the book around the same today which I found even more powerful. CATCH-22 is probably my favorite novel of all-time. I loved the word play and the sentiment of the story. That theater sounded like a great place to watch those kind of films. The right audience matters!


      • The Lady Eve says:

        John…I read “Johnny Got His Gun” around the same time, too, and remember that it struck me more powerfully. I don’t think I could watch or read either again. After “Apocalypse Now” I couldn’t watch movies about Vietnam for a long time. I didn’t see “Platoon” until long after it went to video. Just couldn’t bear it.
        I have the fondest memories of that theater (wish I could remember the name, it was in Santa Ana, CA, I think). The air was fragrant with burritos and submarine sandwiches! I remember seeing “Play Misty For Me” (the audience all but rioted with joy when Jessica Walter met her end) and “Myra Breckenridge” (!)…many more. Those were the days, my friend.


  8. Sam Juliano says:

    Well John, this remains one of Robert Altman’s most famous films, and among the two or three that everyone would mention immediately in assessing the director’s best and most typical works. I well remember it’s original release back in 1970, and as a teenager saw it on the big screen. The TV series it spawned of course is equally as famous, and many of us can still recite many of the film’s lines. It’s one of the great American satires, and you’ve again done a fabulous job bringing it into focus.

    Hope you and Dorothy are having a great time in the Green Mountain State!


  9. Sam Juliano says:

    Needless to say John, the Vietnam perspective was truly fascinating! Until now I didn’t know or realize you had this in your past.


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam,

      The film still has bite to it and remains one of Altman’s (IMO) best works. It is a film that should be required viewing.

      Dorothy and I got back early today and we had a good time despite the mix of cloudy/rainy/sunny we


  10. R. D. Finch says:

    “Director Robert Altman created a disjointed, episodic film that lacks any kind of plot, yet hits you in the face….” What a great statement that captures the essence of the effect this film had on me (and judging from your post and the comments left by others) just about anyone who ever saw it. You’re absolutely right that the Korean War setting didn’t fool anyone–this movie was clearly about Vietnam. I was so overwhelmed by this movie when I first saw it (in a theater) that I immediately returned a few days late and saw it again, something I rarely do. I still think it’s Altman’s greatest movie. This, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Thieves Like Us,” “Nashville,” “3 Women” (which I saw in its new Criterion release just recently)–for a few years in the 70s, it seemed he could do little wrong. (His one real misstep for me: “The Long Goodbye,” although I know many disagree.) Then he just seemed to lose it until many years later when he returned somewhat to form with “The Player,” “Short Cuts” (my favorite of his late films), “Kansas City” (I know I like this more than most do), and “Gosford Park.” But even these late works didn’t fully recapture the genius of his glory years 1970-77. What a great time for American film the early 70s were, with talents like Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and Malick just emerging. I doubt we’ll see another golden age like that one anytime soon. A great post, one of your best ever, that I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to comment on earlier because I was mentally exhausted from the Movies of 1939 blogathon!


    • John Greco says:


      My own late reply here is due to being out of town and nowhere near a PC! Anyway, thanks fo the kind words. The 70’s was a great time and the directors you name are the reason why. On top of that there were many lesser known filmmakers and films that added to the mix. Altman had a great run in those days and I pretty much agree with your take on his best films though I still have to see KANSAS CITY. Thanks again sir!


  11. John Charet says:

    Great review John 🙂 I have to say that in the end, I am so glad Robert Altman was chosen to direct MASH, because even though it was this film that perfected his trademark use of overlapping dialogue and heavy improvisation among his actors, Altman would expand upon it further with a lot of his following films during the 1970’s. In other words, just look at the maturity displayed in masterworks such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Nashville. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂


  12. […] the original film, religion takes something of a beating, including through Robert Duvall’s Frank Burns,and (to a lesser extent) Rene […]


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