ROBERT ALTMAN, M*A*S*H (1970) 1HR 56 (LD/WS)



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" (1982)
  • "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.


The Novel

Based upon autobiographical novel by Dr H. Richard Hornberger (aka "Richard Hooker"), M*A*S*H (1968) (Sphere, 1970).

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 surgery.

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" John McIntyre
  • Tom Skerritt - "Duke" Forrest
  • Sally Kellerman - Maj. "Hot Lips" Houlihan
  • Robert Duvall - Maj. Frank Burns
  • Jo Ann Pflug - Lt. Dish
  • Rene Auberjonois - Father "Dago" Red
  • 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" Jones
  • 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.


  • 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 wife.
  • 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.