MASH commences with a sequence that is at once extremely familiar and yet demands new attention. Helicopters carry mangled men in flight, suspended between heaven and earth, life and death, a sense of narcotised isolation imbued by the hazy photography and the bleakly beautiful, blackly funny ode to suicide on the soundtrack. This opening would be recreated and seen week in and week out by millions of television viewers when the movie was turned into one of the most popular shows of all time. And yet the TV version fudged two crucial aspects – the haunting tone of the visuals and the actual lyrics of the song. This brilliant credit sequence segues in a moment of verbal humour that seems like a lost Bob Newhart or Bob Hope sketch, as Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen) barks out a stream of orders to his pint-sized yet ultra-competent orderly ‘Radar’ O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) who anticipates every single one, whilst another, SSgt. Vollmer (David Arkin), doesn’t catch any. And so, in the first few minutes of MASH, director Robert Altman leads his audience through rapid and disorienting alternations of tone and artistic intent, provoking his audience to wonder, what the hell kind of movie is this? It’s only then, with the mock-heroic concision of an Alexander Pope poem, MASH gives us our first view of antihero Capt. Benjamin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce (Donald Sutherland), spotted emerging from the latrine, whilst the words of Douglas Macarthur flow by in exultant pomposity, followed by an underwhelming yet fittingly stark promise by Dwight Eisenhower.
This audio-visual gag was actually the product of studio pressure on Altman to properly identify the setting after he had done his best to fudge it, for the Korean War, so often described as “the Forgotten War”, provided MASH’s director Robert Altman with a doppelganger for Vietnam that could be offered fearlessly in a commercial cinema context. But Altman still made this work for him, as he condenses four levels of meaning: the obvious disparity between the dishevelled character just exiting the can with the earth-shaking titans; the bald contrast of the high-falutin’ with the grubbily everyday business of being in a warzone; the gallant strains on sound which mock music cues in nearly every straight war movie ever made; and a kind of miniature history lesson is given, offering the movie’s timeframe and historical context, capturing something amusing in the gap between Macarthur and Eisenhower’s rhetorical styles, and exposing the semi-secret suspicion, rarely allowed expression in popular culture before, amongst soldiers former and serving, that all those guys were full of shit.
For a director who eventually became legendary as a radical storyteller and rare kind of cinema artist, Altman served a surprisingly long and thorough apprenticeship in mundane professional labours after he returned from service in WW2. Following years directing short industrial films and documentaries in his home town Kansas City, he made the 1957 teen flick The Delinquents for $60,000, and this brought him to Hollywood, where he made his name as a TV director. Alfred Hitchcock gave Altman a crucial break on his Alfred Hitchcock Presents show, and he gained particular attention for his ground-breaking work on Combat. One of his episodes for Kraft Suspense Theatre was even given theatrical release, retitled Nightmare in Chicago. His two follow-ups, Countdown (1968) and That Cold Day In The Park (1969), were both frustrating experiences for Altman. And yet, someone had the bright idea of hiring him to direct MASH, and somehow, he actually got the job. This was not so much an act of faith in Altman as a last resort, as several other directors had already passed on the script, composed by veteran Ring Lardner Jr and adapted from Richard Hooker’s novel inspired by his experiences in Korea. Although MASH as a film would become an icon of Vietnam-era, anti-establishment, anti-militarist cinema, Hooker was staunchly conservative, and Altman disliked the racist and sexist overtones of the novel, which was considerably altered first by Lardner and then more deeply by Altman with his improvisational approach. Altman began experimenting with a wilfully strange shooting style, encouraging his cast to ad lib, perturbing stars Sutherland and Elliott Gould so much that they campaigned to have him fired.
What seemed like an outlandish mess from their perspective proved however to be a film composed of rich and peculiar new textures, and it met with colossal success, including a Palme D’Or, as one of the brightest jewels in the crown of the American New Wave. MASH swamped the highly touted Mike Nichols adaptation of Catch-22, which came out weighted down with artiness, where Altman’s film was buoyed by its rudely expressive vivacity. MASH became at once Altman’s most financially successful film, and a template for almost all his future artistry, but also an albatross about his neck, for he never quite recaptured his connection with the popular zeitgeist on a commercial level, whilst the film was transmuted into the enjoyable but far broader, essentially defanged series. Whilst MASH isn’t Altman’s best film, it remains my personal favourite from his oeuvre, and it’s a great comedy that inflects much of the modern genre. Reputed to be the first mainstream film where somebody says “fuck,” MASH gave birth to the kind of bawdy, adult comedy manifest in ‘70s movies as different as Slap-Shot (1977) and National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), and which has been recently revived, if usually lacking MASH’s crucial satirical and self-critical streak. MASH also belongs discernably, if eccentrically, to a solid tradition of serviceman comedy that encompassed the likes of the plays like What Price Glory? and Mister Roberts, the cartoons of Bill Mauldin, the writing of Jaroslav Hasek, Hans Helmut Kirst, David Hackney, and Spike Milligan, and movies like The Big Parade (1926) and No Time For Sergeants (1958). Such works usually emphasised the existential dread of the war zone as a corollary of the often absurd, wryly observed business of life behind the lines, a never-ending stream of indignities, conflicts with the pettiness of authority and the weird and wonderful types so often caught up in nets of drafting, absurd actions caused by boredom and anxiety, and less then noble impulses in the midst of supposedly noble undertakings. Altman delved deeper into the cinema comedy tradition to find the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, and Keaton.
MASH revolves around a simple dynamic: its “heroes” attempt to stave off boredom, frustration, and soul-grinding horror by approaching a terrible job like they’re still in college, having a never-ending kegger, playing crude pranks to pass the time and see off the self-important boobs who try to complicate their lives. Whereas the series turned this into a schematic battle of playful but omnicompetent saints against dimwits and cardboard baddies, Altman keeps his heroes in some perspective, for sometimes they’re delightful rebels, and sometimes they’re just as accomplished in being childish jerks as the people they’re crossing swords with. Indeed, for Altman, this was part of the point, not to present unblemished moral characters far above the muck, but to offer ordinary humans, and that no matter how crude the protagonists become, it’s still paltry in the face of the actual obscenity of the war around them. Hawkeye’s first encounter with authority is an officious and sarcastic black motor pool sergeant who assumes Hawkeye’s an asshole because he’s an officer and immediately proves himself one (“Racist!” is Hawkeye’s muttered rebuke). So when another newly arrived surgeon, Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) thinks Hawkeye’s his driver, as he’s used his captain’s pin to fix his busted luggage zipper. Hawkeye is happy to go along with it and rides off in the jeep, prompting the sergeant to send MPs after to them, except that the sergeant and MPs finish up beating hell out of each-other whilst Hawkeye and Duke ride jauntily off to their war. As they reach the 4077 MASH unit, they’re quickly introduced to its coterie of professional weirdos, including obtuse CO Blake who tries to chide them for their bad conduct. But Blake soon reveals his actual, laissez fare attitude, for when Forrest replies that he and Hawkeye have been boozing all day, Blake congratulates them: “Good – you’ve been working close to the front.” The pair are dropped right in the thick of things, patching together ruined hunks of men for hours on end and stumbling back to their tent to try and relax with their playboy affectations, only to find this stymied more than slightly by their tent mate, Maj. Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), prone to reciting lengthy prayers out loud.
Still perhaps the most surprising aspect of MASH is its outright aggression towards religion, which approaches Buñuel-esque anti-clericism (Altman was perhaps half-remembering a moment from Buñuel’s Viridiana in one key shot), stopping short insofar as Father Patrick ‘Dago Red’ Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois) is presented as a befuddled but decent representative of religion, albeit one who, after he’s pressed into aiding one of Duke’s operations, can never quite settle back into merely spiritual aid. Burns’ religiosity is quickly revealed as hypocritical, with overtones of a smug, smouldering need for superiority. One of the strangest scenes in the film, and the first to really suggest what an uncommon artist was making it, is the moment in which Burns’ prayer is mocked by Hawkeye and Duke, and their playful refrain of “Onward Christian Soldiers” is taken up by the rest of the camp who form into an improvised chorus. Altman’s use of the mesh walls of the tents as a permeable screen, through which he can constantly keep interiors and exteriors in a theatrical dialogue with his remote sound and zoom shots, is particularly vital here. The singers march by in a hazy, ironically spiritual etherealness, alternating with a slow zoom in on Burns’ face in prayer until he opens his eyes with burning wrath all plain, privileging the audience to a glimpse of the powerful egocentric resentment that underlies Burns’ affectations. This emerges more clearly later as one of his patients is dying and he orders a hapless hospital orderly, Pvt. Warren Boone (Bud Cort) to help, and then takes out his frustration once the patient dies. Boone, young and naïve, breaks down in tears, earning Burns the unremitting enmity of the other doctors, on top of the fact that he’s a bad surgeon.
This was another, key radical idea driving MASH, the notion that the wilfully undisciplined, individualist heroes are actually better at their jobs than conformist, stiff-necked people who hide within institutions. Burns is soon given support by the arrival of uptight, upright head nurse Maj. Margaret O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), who quickly announces her admiration for Burns to Hawkeye because he’s a “good military surgeon”, upbraids Hawkeye for letting the nurses call him by his nickname, and smudges the grin on his face when she answers his question about where she comes from with, “I like to think of the army as my home!” The side of non-virtuous fecundity is fortunately reinforced by the arrival of a mysterious new chest surgeon, played by Gould, looking and acting like a hippie Groucho Marx, who keeps mum about his origins and produces a jar of olives from under his voluminous fur coat to fill out the homemade martinis Hawkeye and Duke imbibe. Only after one of their exhausting marathon surgeries, as they stumble out into the bleary morning, do the surgeons get caught up in a casual football game, the stranger tossing a long pass to Hawkeye that jogs his memory of a college football game he won thanks to the same pass and he finally recognises ‘Trapper’ John McIntyre. It’s Trapper who tries to wallop Burns after the incident with Boone, and as the medical staff have their rowdy, near-orgiastic interludes between duties, they stoke the ire of Burns and O’Houlihan to the point where they compose an angry letter to Blake’s commanders, an act that proves rather an extended mating dance for the two super-squares. This culminates in a fumbling sex act (“His will be done!”) that becomes public entertainment when Radar sneaks a microphone under their cot, and Margaret gains a permanent new nickname, Hot Lips, from her coital groans echoing out across the camp.
The structure of MASH is essentially a series of chapters, fragmented moments of life over the course of about a year, one reason it loaned itself easily to transformation into a TV series. The main “incidents” of the story include Hot Lips and Burns’ tryst and Burns getting himself a Section Eight discharge after he attacks Hawkeye when he teases him about it; the famously well-hung camp dentist Walt ‘Painless Pole’ Waldowski (John Schuck) deciding to commit suicide when he’s struck by anxieties over latent homosexuality and impotence; a bet over whether Hot Lips is a real blonde demanding and receiving a communal exhibition; Hawkeye’s an ill-fated attempt to save one of the camp’s teenage Korean auxiliaries, Ho-Jon (Kim Atwood) from being drafted; and Trapper and Hawkeye being drafted into performing surgery on a congressman’s GI son in Japan. Amongst the many discursions and radicalisms of Altman’s style, which blended intimately with the tumbling nature of this tale, perhaps the most significant is how the actual narrative, the progressions of character and story, are inverted in focus. Thus themes that would be hammered home by other hands here form merely the background texture: the evolution of Hot Lips; the devolution of Burns; Hawkeye and Trapper learning to stand up for others; the shift of Duke from faint remnant racism as a southern gentleman in the face of army integration, and his later affair with Hot Lips; Dr. Oliver Harmon ‘Spearchucker’ Jones (Fred Williamson) proving himself as both an excellent surgeon and a leader; and of course the entire Korean War itself. Several of the most important moments in MASH can be entirely missed by an inattentive viewer if they aren’t looking in the right place. The foreground action consists of absurd interludes and vignettes built around the the hip, almost anarchic sensibility of its protagonists, who try to turn their own lives into comedy, to cope with the stream of carnage, depicted in gruesome and exacting detail, which they endeavour to repair.
Altman’s shambolic shooting practises, which so disturbed Sutherland and Gould at first, proved to be a kind of immersive, artificially imbued neo-realism which would inflect everything seen on the screen. The MASH camp is rendered a dirty, muddy, teeming space in which the cast amble, slouch, run, or lounge depending on the moment. The set, with iconic details like the sign at its heart pointing directions to every other place in the world, is carefully manipulated as a multileveled stage akin to, but more sophisticated than, the theatrical settings Shakespeare worked with, with Altman’s camera zooming and panning with seemingly lazy interest, picking up on stray details and rambling figures, and then zeroing in a moment of meaning. One of the film’s most singularly brilliant moments encapsulates this quality perfectly, as Altman’s camera drifts in front of the tent in which the characters are gathered for a farewell for Painless, and zooms in. The composition of the scene snaps into focus as the actors arrange themselves into a recreation of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, renaissance precision suddenly resolving out of ambient messiness. The film as a whole and Altman’s career in general sustains the approach inherent in this shot, form and substance coming out of chaos and contradiction. Whilst MASH often seems superficially random, Altman’s extraordinary cinematic epiphanies flow right through it, particularly in the episode of Painless’s “suicide” and his subsequent “cure”. The mockery of ritual and death becomes a moment for magic for the team as they get to turn the twin poles of sex, the root of Painless’ fear and the cause of his resurrection, and death, into a rewrite of Christian resurrection as a pagan phallic ritual. Painless’s apostles are gathered in surgical whites, transmuted into perverse angels, billowing dry ice and intricately arranged lighting endowing the moment with overtones of actual spiritual drama.
Painless lays himself out to die in a coffin with his friends passing by in a premature wake and parade of behavioural comedy. Painless is soon found splayed naked under a sheet surrounded by ghostly mosquito netting and the scene bathed in rosy light from a pair of panties stretched over a light bulb to imbue a low-rent mood of erotic frisson, Painless ready to be called back to life as Hawkeye talks the semi-witting Lt. ‘Dish’ (Jo Ann Plfug) into sleeping with him. Dish is antsy until she lifts the sheet and catches sight of his enormous penis. Next morning sees her flying off to heaven, or someplace, still beaming in ecstasy whilst Painless leaps back into rebuilding jaws. Here it’s not just Altman’s sublime direction and Harold E. Stine’s witty photography that imbues the air of simultaneously sarcastic and yet peculiarly earnest beauty, but Johnny Mandel’s scoring, soaring choirs evoking Hollywood’s most elevated religious epics even as they’re entirely trashed. The whole sequence is as grand a display of Altman’s sinuous genius as any he made. Altman’s realism is often somehow tweaked to gain a dusting of magic, as in a scene in which the hospital’s lights black out, leaving the surgeons to flounder in the dark for a moment before lanterns are lit, and the crew immediately begin singing “When The Lights Come On Again,” or the infernal flames that dance before Burns’ face as he’s taken away to the madhouse. Similarly inspired if darker in tone and effect is Burns and Hot Lips’ tryst: as their sexual tussles echo about the camp, Hot Lips suddenly realises what’s going on and throws Frank out as the strange doppelganger effect of the sound lends an edge of frantic, disturbing nakedness to the moment of seemingly straightforward farce, the electric anxiety of having a moment of passionate privacy become public entertainment communicated precisely.
Altman turned MASH into a vehicle to express not only his feelings on Vietnam but to dramatize his conflict with authority of many stripes, particularly Hollywood nabobs, to the extent where Altman was taking studio memos and tweaking them to use amongst the film’s absurd PA announcements, and also with moviemaking clichés: constant reference is made to cheesy old war movies, via the fumbled recital of corny taglines and laboured hype for the camp's movie screenings announced over the PA, and in moments of outright spoof, often leveraged through Mandel’s scoring. But Altman’s deeper war was with a certain kind of lie that hides behind an agreeable convention, something that it’s easy to inscribe in principled terms and yet which doesn’t entirely hide the stink. In Altman’s eyes here, humankind is fundamentally a body, be it broken by war, intoxicated by ingested substances, or sexually aroused. This exceedingly corporeal sensibility permeates everything: all that denies this reality in MASH is ultimately ridiculed. The cast, primarily of improvisation-steeped actors from San Francisco, most of whom were making their cinema acting debuts, flocking around the stars to form a community that the main characters stand out amongst and yet remain inextricable from, filling out frames with a Hogarthian vista of humanity, chattering, eating, lusting, cheering, jeering, snoozing, playing, teasing, dying. No character seems too small to have meaning for Altman, from Capt. ‘Knocko’ (Tamara Horrocks) who sits trembling with randy excitement as she listens to Burns and Hot Lips shagging, to Capt. Storch (Dawne Damon) who lays claim to Boone, or PFC. Seidman (Ken Prymus) who warbles “Suicide is Painless” at Painless’s wake with increasingly enthused gaiety at odds with the solemn moment. Indeed, it’s partly through this layered communal scope that Altman leavens the overtones of sexism and racism trucked in from Hooker’s novel, and partly remakes it into the first of his panoramic dramas about the American experience, a free-for-all depiction of all the rough and rowdy energy inherent in sticking a bunch of young horny angry people in a small area.
In the second half, the pace and tone change notably as longer mini-stories are offered, with more clearly composed filmmaking. Hawkeye and Trapper’s journey to Japan sees them finally as something like heroes, even as they become even brattier. They snatch a needed break when they’re called away from their frontline duties to operate on the congressman’s son who doesn’t even really need that good a surgeon. But in their desire to get to work quickly, barging through in a whirlwind of comic antics at once obnoxious and revitalizing, barking efficacious orders when push comes to shove, they piss off the officious poltroons of the army hospital, including its head, Col. Merrill (James B. Douglas). The mordant anaesthetist proves to be another of Hawkeye’s old pals, ‘Me Lay’ Marston (Michael Murphy), who tells them he’s “moonlighting down at Dr Yamachi’s New Era Hospital and Whorehouse.” Here the occasional moments of proper pastiche that dot MASH coalesce into its funniest outright spoof, as Merrill has the surgeons chased by MPs into his office, and the two act as if they’ve been caught in a spy movie (“I think it was the girl.” “She was the one in Tangiers!”). Merrill is easily disarmed for the moment as the surgeons have done their job better than his staff, but from Marston they inherit a sickly baby from the whorehouse and decide to operate on him too: Marston tells them they can’t because Merrill never lets “natives” be treated at the hospital. The boys go ahead and when Merrill tries to intervene, they gas him unconscious, and arrange for photos to be taken of him waking up in bed with a prostitute, to make sure he doesn’t give them any more trouble. This episode ends with another of Altman’s great visual coups, as they return to the 4077 still wearing their golf gear, only to be caught up in a new wave of wounded, and are next seen still clad in their jaunty coloured socks as they operate.
MASH’s last phase is preoccupied with a football match that springs out of the attempt by Blake’s superior Gen. Hammond (G. Wood) to investigate Hot Lips’ complaints: when he gets to talking and drinking with Hawkeye, Duke, and Trapper, Hammond becomes interested when the guys complain that Hot Lips won’t let them play football, and he gets them to commit to submitting a team to a league Hammond and other bigwigs are running. Hammond isn’t as buffoonish as Merrill or as zealous as Burns, but he’s quickly characterised as a boorish misogynist and a creep eager for a chance to milk money out of the MASH outfit and win without scruple. Hawkeye’s flash of inspiration for taking on Hammond’s manpower is to obtain a ringer, getting Blake to specifically request Jones’ transfer to the unit, being as he is both a neurosurgeon and a former pro footballer, so he can beat the potential players into shape and give the team an edge. Jones does just that, unofficially, as Blake has pretences to being coach (“What do all these lines mean?” he asks Jones in surveying the plays he’s drawn up). But the actual match proves to be a chaotic, epic contest in which Hammond proves to have brought in his own ringer, an incredibly fast runner who has to be taken out of the game with the artful expedient of injecting him with an anaesthetic that leaves him dazed and thinking he’s in a track meet. The football match finale of MASH is quite simply one of the great comedy set-pieces of all time, a distant descendant of the football matches of the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932), depicted as a whirlwind of brutal body-clashing, resulting in a stream of battered and bloodied men being carried off, a knowing simulacrum of the war.
In between flows an inexhaustible spring of comic vignettes: Kellerman’s performance in particular hits glorious heights as Hot Lips gives herself up to the job of head cheerleader with a manic if clueless enthusiasm that suggests she’s realising a childhood dream (“My god, they shot him!”). Racial drama plays out on the field as Jones coaches another of the black team-members, Judson (Tim Brown) on how to turn the tables on Hammond’s hulking bully #88 (Ben Davidson), which results in #88 chasing Judson around the field, and victory is finally achieved thanks to Vollmer of all people hiding the football under his jersey and dashing to the finish line. All is watched over by reefer smokers on the benches beaming with Buddhist indifference to the circus. The underlying beauty of the climax is in its complex depiction of the MASHers operating as a team, not just on the field but all around it, everyone taking a share of the glory of beating out the bigger guys. In spite of the great differences of attitude, here MASH reveals its similarity to works of John Ford like They Were Expendable (1947), The Long Grey Line (1953), and The Wings of Angels (1957), in all of which a similar dynamic between unruly individualism and group function, fighting spirit and communal amity, manifest in warfare and sporting contest. It’s typical of Altman’s artistry that one of the happiest shots, of the MASHers playing poker after the football game, with Hot Lips now one of the gang and an air of pacific harmony finally upon them all, is also one of its saddest, as they glance over their shoulders at a jeep carrying bodies in bags away. This paves the way for a final, wistfully sad grace note, the lingering stares swapped between Duke and Hot Lips over a hospital table as Hawkeye tells Duke the time has come for them to leave, Duke imagining his homecoming as a joyous charge into the arms of his family, whilst Hot Lips glares at him in anguish. The final irony of MASH is that for all the effort expended in trying to forget where they are, these characters may never feel so alive again.
That is all.