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.