MASH is set during the Korean War, but sneaking in the back door of 1970 it was, as anyone capable of smoking a joint could see, really about Vietnam, that grotesque quagmire then going full blast, not just devastating a large part of SE Asia but ripping fresh wounds in the American psyche. Apart from the sincere travesty of The Green Berets, Hollywood didn’t tackle ‘Nam head-on. Instead, movies set in WW2 either commented obliquely on the mess, or simply deflected attention to an earlier fight that made some sense. More than a sideswipe at then-current carnage, MASH, like the same year’s big-scale Catch-22, challenged the military mindset in general, using black comedy to fight fire with ire. I recall trooping in to see it as a draft-destined teenager when it came out, and haw-hawing with my pals over the ribald jokes, while not appreciating the look or style of the movie, or caring much for the cast. *
Five decades (and several wars) later I find hardly any of it amusing, still don’t enjoy the visual artifice, and with a few exceptions don’t warm to the players. That sniff doesn’t make me a fan of military idiocy or wars that shouldn’t be waged, but it puts me in the culture-supervising guardhouse, dog-guilty of not following marching orders from Critic Command to worship at the cynicism-encrusted throne of director Robert Altman.
Seventeen directors turned down the project before outlier Altman was chosen: to his credit he succeeded in imparting his unique style (sorry, Altmanskis, unique doesn’t equal genius) and surprising the suits at 20th, who had their ad-campaign fuses primed to cover the explosion budgets of Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora! Schooled in the TV$ trenches, Altman brought it in like a guerrilla fighter for $3,025,000. By the time the blood-soaked bedsheets had been wrung out, it had grabbed the counterculture by their beads to become the year’s 3rd-biggest hit, grossing $82,900,000 in the States, with another $14,000,000 abroad. At Oscar time, it won for the script, and was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Sally Kellerman) and Film Editing. The irony of the screenplay winning an Oscar for Ring Lardner Jr. is that he claimed “there’s not one word that I wrote on screen”—rule-averse Altman and puzzled cast eviscerating it with improvisation. Lardner had tuned his script off “MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors”, by Richard Hooker, based on his experience as an army surgeon in Korea.
In the main roles are Donald Sutherland (we always like him: he went hip-shooting in Kelly’s Heroes that year), Elliott Gould (the reverse of like, he leaves me frostbitten), Tom Skerritt (shrug motion), Robert Duvall (good, on his way up) and Sally Kellerman (very good, a trouper for enduring abject humiliation). As to tone, style, overlapping dialogue, irreverence, cool v. straight: yes, we get it, thank you. We just don’t like it.
116 minutes, which could have been easily shorn by ten or fifteen if that damned football game didn’t run on forever. Making debuts: John Schuck, Bud Cort, Gary Burghoff, Fred Williamson, Jo Ann Pflug. With Roger Bowen, Rene Auberjonois, Michael Murphy, Indus Arthur, Bobby Troup, Ben Davidson. You get to see Johnny Unitas toke a doobie. Sylvester Stallone was an extra.
* If you’re a MASHite, more power to you, soldier. Granted, it makes perfect sense that it was a hit, given the FU-mood of the day: there are any number of pictures that had the right groove at the right time and everyone went—Easy Rider, Billy Jack, The Exorcist leap to mind: watch later and shake your head at your fellows. Uh, you went, too, right? I saw you.
Those of us unimpressed (obviously trolls for The Matrix) can also hold our schnoz that the success of this movie gave us the insufferably smug (oops, we meant beloved) TV series that ran 12 years, four times longer than the miserable Korean War. Transfer the whole wiseass outfit to Pork Chop Hill.