ROBERT ALTMAN, M*A*S*H
(1970) 1HR 56 (LD/WS)
THE DIRECTOR: ROBERT ALTMAN (1925-
American director, reknowned as an "artistic rebel,"
born 1925 in conservative mid-western Kansas City, Missouri. Attended
University of Missouri. Saw military service 1943-47 as pilot.
After WW2 works as a director of industrial films in KC. Unsuccessful
attempts to break into Hollywood.
TV and Films
Gets experience as a TV director with
- "Alfred Hitchcok Presents,"
- the western series "Bonanza,"
- and the gritty and realistic series on WW2 called "Combat"
before moving on to movies.
- Success with "M*A*S*H*" (1970)
- "California Split" (1974)
- "Nashville" (1975)
- "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" (1976)
- "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jummy Dean, Jimmy Dean"
- "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" (1988)
- "Vincent and Theo" (1990)
- "The Player" (1992)
- "Short Cuts" (1993)
- "Prêt-à-porter" (1994).
RA's "MASH" was very important in his career. Its
considerable popular success led to a number of other movies.
Spin-off was an even greater success with an eponymous TV series.
Based upon autobiographical novel by Dr H. Richard Hornberger
(aka "Richard Hooker"), M*A*S*H (1968) (Sphere,
In a quote from Foreword Hornberger explains how the young
doctors coped with the stress of war surgery by drinking vast
quantities of alcohol, playing practical jokes one ach other and
engaging in sex as often as they could:
Most of the doctors who worked in Mobile
Army Surgical Hospitals during the Korean War were very young,
perhaps too young, to be doing what they were doing. They performed
the definitive surgery on all the major casualties incurred by
the 8th Army, the Republic of Korea Army, the Commonwealth Division
and other United Nations forces. Helped by blood, antibiotics,
helicopters, the tactical peculiarities of the Korean War and
the youth and accompanying resiliency of their patients, they
achieved the best results up to that time in the history of military
The surgeons in the MASH hospitals were
exposed to extremes of hard work, leisure, tension, boredom,
heat, cold, satisfaction and frustration that most of them had
never faced before. Their reaction, individually and collectively,
was to cope with the situation and get the job done. The various
stresses, however, produced behaviour in many of them that, superficially
at least, seemed inconsistent with their earlier civilian behavior
patterns. A few flipped their lids, but most of them just raised
hell, in a variety of ways and degrees. This is a story of some
of the ways and degrees. It's also a story of some of the work.
The characters in this book are composites
of people I knew, met casually, worked with, or heard about.
No one in the book bears more than a coincidental resemblance
to an actual person.
Meaning of the Title
Taken from the title of Hooker's autobiographical novel about
"Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals" (or the acronym M*A*S*H).
"MASH" suitable title given the many "culinary"
references to "meatball surgery", war as a "meatgrinder".
Donald Sutherland - "Hawkeye"
Pierce (nickname from "The Last of the Mohicans")
Elliott Gould - "Trapper"
Tom Skerritt - "Duke" Forrest
Sally Kellerman - Maj. "Hot Lips"
Robert Duvall - Maj. Frank Burns
Jo Ann Pflug - Lt. Dish
Rene Auberjonois - Father "Dago"
Roger Bowen - Col. Henry Blake
Gary Burghoff - Corporal "Radar"
O'Reilly (who could "see an order coming over the horizon")
David Arkin - Sgt. Major Vollmer
Fred Williamson - "Spearchucker"
Michael Murphy - Me Lay
- Screenplay - Ring Lardner
RA likes to use a number of disconcerting directorial techniques
such as overlapping dialogue (overlapping conversations, largely
incomprehensible PA anouncements, improvised acting, and the use
of telephoto shots (often through windows, thus seeming to peer
intrusively like a voyeur at the action from afar, or shots of
others looking through windows). The film captures very well the
iconoclasm of the 1960s (even though it is nominally set in the
1950s which was a much more socially conservative period - in
this sense the film is anachronistic) with its reference to civil
rights, anti-(Vietnam) war sentiments, drug use and sexual liberation.
The film concerns the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 3 miles
from the front line (38th parallel) during the Korean War, 1951-53.
Irreverent and episodic treatment of life of doctors and nurses
(both conscript and regular army) doing the "meatgrinding"
dirty work of war, patching up the injured, before sending them
on to larger, more permanent hospitals.
Main characters are Dr "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland),
Dr "Trapper" John McIntyre (Elliot Gould), and "Duke"
Forrest the racist southern doctor. HE and TJ are civilian doctors
conscripted into the army. Although they rebel against army authority
and seem to oppose the war, ultimately they refuse to take the
final step of conscientious objection or dessertion (unlike Yossarian
in "Catch 22"). Corp. "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary
Burghoff who starred in the TV series), from Iowa (a mid-western
state not far from Missouri), an uneducated enlisted man who knows
the orders an officer will give before they are given (hence nickname
"Radar"). Col. Henry Blake the incompetent but well-meaning
commanding officer who angers the regular army doctors by his
tolerance of the conscript doctors' flouting of authority and
convention. The regular army is represented by a nurse, Maj. Margaret
"Hotlips" Houlihan, and a doctor Maj. Frank Burns, who
is both incompetent as a doctor and a hypocrite as a rigid Christian.
Both are god-fearing Christians, have an excessive regard for
authority, and resent any transgressions of conformity to military
norms. They are the butt of many practical jokes by HE and TJ
to deflate their authority and pomposity. The ineffectual chaplain
Father John Patrick Mulcahy "Dago Red" (Dago because
he is Roman Catholic and Red because he worked as a missionary
in China). The dentist "Painless" Walter Waldofski who
is obessively concerned with his sexual prowess (as a "Don
Juan" figure). Note the Australian doctor with the outrageous
slouch hat and accent. Should remind us of the Australian commitment
to both Korea and Vietnam in support of the Americans.
THINGS TO NOTE
- The success of the TV series on CBS from 1972-1983. Final
movie-length episode one of the most wached TV shows in US history.
- The black humour
- Attitude to authority, army authority in particular - "regular
army clowns". Butt of Hawkeye's and Trapper John's practical
jokes and disrespect are the regular army Dr Major Frank Burns
(Robert Duvall) and nurse "Hotlips" Houlihan. All regular
army officers shown to be self-serving, bigotted, or incompetent.
HE calls them "regular army clowns." HL and FB in turn
call HE and TL "godless buffoons." Not surpisingly,
the US Army and Air Force banned the film from being shown on
base until the producer Preminger threatened legal action. Two
weeks later the ban was lifted but the Armed Forces still regarded
the film as "harmful to the morale of servicemen because
of its treatment of war."
- Attitude to religion. Father "Dago Red" is treated
as completely irrelevant to the needs of the hospital. He is
bumbling and seemingly incompetent. Always reacting to events,
e.g. condemns the trick played on the dentist "Painless"
Waldofski, who is tricked into a fake suicide. Cannot match HE
in argument. Relegated to thankless task of blessing jeeps at
end of film. FB is butt of HE and TJ's antireligious jokes. When
he prays HE and TJ sing "Onward Christian Soldiers."
Wonderful scene of "Painless" W's suicide in which
RA recreates a secular "Last Supper" of Christ with
priest looking on, mimicking famous paintings in western art
of this holy event (breaking bread), seen to best advantage in
WS. HE and TJ pass "Painless" a "black capsule"
(supposedly a suicide pill but actually a sleeping tablet) in
a case which normally would hold a medal for bravery. One of
them (HE) says something which sums up the entire anti-war message
of the movie: "Volunteering for certain death is what we
reserve our highest honours for. This is what being a soldier
is all about." Attack on religion much greater in film that
in successful TV series. Possibly due to reluctance of TV networks
to challenge deep-seated religiousness of American public. Hopeless
figure of "Dago" replaced by much stronger and more
sympathetic figure of Father Mulcahey. He still remains somewhat
bumbling and weird, but essentially well-meaning. Butt of HE's
jokes is FB's hypocracy. He reads the bible but cheats on his
- Radicalism of screenplay writer Ring Lardner - one of the
so-called "Hollywood Ten" of suspected "communists"
who were targeted by the McCarthy investigations and blackbanned
from working in the industry. War against Korea was considered
by conservatives to be a "crusade against communism"
during Cold war period.
- Atttitude to drugs. Again very 1960s. Amphetimines and other
hard drugs. Excesive use of alcohol by doctors as means of escaping
trauma of army hospital at front.
- The PA system is virtually a character in its own right -
represents the voice of army authority, inane, self-contradictory;
announces showing of war films to entertain the doctors and nurses
(WW2 combat movies like "Halls of Montezuma", "Glory
Brigade"); authority of PA undermined when used to broadcast
love-making between Frank Burns and Hot Lips.
- The idea of "suicide" - the theme song "Suicide
is painless", it is what being a soldier is all about. Music
but not words of song used in TV series. Refrain is:
Suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please
and you can do the same thing if you please
- Attitude to sex. Very relaxed/promiscuous behaviour between
doctors and nurses. Even FB and HL: although Christian and conservative,
lust overcomes their scruples. HE and TJ realise that best way
to attack HL is to literally "expose" her in shower
scene. "Painless" chooses suicide rather than face
up to impotence or suspected homosexuality. After his "death"
("Last Supper" scene) he "rises" from the
dead with the assistance of an obliging nurse.
- Attacks on idea of patriotism. Again butt of jokes is mindless
patriotism of FB. (Compare Col. Dax's comment to Gen. Mireau
in Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" where he quotes Johnson:
"Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.")
- Attack on idea of conformity. Refusal of HE and TJ to conform
to army regulations in dress, behaviour and attitudes.
- Role of humour in commenting on war and broader American
society. Humous situation created when autonomous, critical and
irreverent civilians (more at home in the 1960s than the early
1950s) are conscripted and placed in situation of conformity
and authority of the American army.
- RA's treatment of the operating room scenes. Filmed in semi-documentary
style. Horrendous and complicated operations shown to be routine
in war zone.
- Refers to the showing of war films for entertainment in the
hospital. Typical are the patriotic and uncritical combat films
of WW2 which show war as something heroic (John Wayne). Contrasted
with the unheroic reality of present.
- Parody of war and broader American society in football game
in last half of film. As in Weir's "Gallipoli," RA
likens war to sport. Football is an analogue of war. Staff in
MASH unit play football to relax from duty. Visiting general
more interested in football than war. A game is organised between
the MASH unit and the army for the sake of a bet. Parody of American
way of life. General justifies match as spreading "American
values" and American way of life to Korean people. Korean
people see a match full of the vices of contemporary American
society: cheating (use of needles to hobble the opposition),
physical injury, the use of drugs (very 1960s), racism (black
footballer called disparaging name "Spear Chucker"
Jones), gratuitous violence, gambling.
- The closing statement at the end of the film: "God damn
the army" sums up RA's view.