M*A*S*H: When Robert Altman Went To War And Made Us Laugh

Robert Altman really didn’t want to make M*A*S*H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) with a lead actor or one particular plot. This was to be an ensemble, something still new to Altman, as he was relatively new to the filmmaking big league. But the ensemble picture was an accomplished format, one he would feel at home with for years to come. I mean, it’s a tricky business to have so many performers to navigate and instruct, with multiple bouts of conversation occurring simultaneously. Like the very first scene in M*A*S*H, once the opening credits have finished.

A black comedy perhaps only someone like Altman can execute. A kind of doctors and nurses, for the adults, but with such a brash, juvenile tone. Embellishing a grand sense of humour, as well as saying something arbitrary about the futility of a war. There’s stupidity aplenty, through some improvised acting, cunning, funny dialogue, with a rough-edged layer of genuine sensibility.

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Ring Lardner Jr. adapted for the screen the novel by Richard Hooker. Initially written about the Korean war, Altman wanted to reflect the Vietnam war, a very real event then, in 1969. Overly-cautious and somehow missing the point, the studio was playing its cards close to the chest on such sensitive matters. And Altman, who didn’t much like the book, praised the screen adaptation from Lardner Jr., and proceeded.

Whether or not it lands you in the front line, brutality of war, M*A*S*H is going to make you laugh the first time you watch it. And with repeated viewings. In a very early scene when Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) gets in someone else’s jeep and drives off, he is soon tracked down. When asked if he stole a jeep, he turns and points, “No, I didn’t steal it. It’s right there.” And he is off the hook. There’s a charming audacity to the characters Altman fashions here, another motif he would carry into his future, exceptional work.

20th Century Fox had Tora! Tora! Tora! and Patton in production on the war front, at the time M*A*S*H was shooting. The bad apple, then, Altman wanted to stay under the rather limited budget they had, in comparison to Fox’s big budget efforts. Patton, of course, would be the choice of AMPAS for Best Picture. Meanwhile, Lardner Jr. would take Best Adapted screenplay, and in Cannes, Altman would be handed the Palme d’Or.

Fox wanted to remove the the operating scenes when they saw how gory they wereut Altman emphasised the core of the film was to demonstrate the physical harshness of the war. And the mental impact of those out there. That this was not just a bunch of clowns unable to take the whole affair seriously. In fact, Altman tried to avoid the studios as best he could, who clearly didn’t like the picture. Even the armed forces refused the film to be shown on any U.S. military grounds.

To be perfectly honest, the scenes of blood and bodies, and these men and women at work, demonstrated a commitment to the job. In stark contrast to the slapstick nature their social lives afford them. Hawkeye and co are there to transfer their medical skills almost as heroes, even if their extra curricular mentalities remind us of kids in the playground.

That same professionalism slash comedy antics takes a charismatic path when heart surgeon Trapper John McIntyre (Elliot Gould) shows up. As the misfits sip Martinis, Trapper inquiries into the addition of olives. With only dubious expressions in reply, Trapper pulls a jar full of olives from his coat. It’s the spontaneous wit such as this that marks M*A*S*H as a unique player in both comedy and war.

When Sally Kellerman arrives, as the Chief Nurse Houlihan, AKA Hot Lips, she enthusiastically salutes the medical staff as they are up to their elbows in guts. Hot Lips begins a short-lived fling with the volatile Burns (Robert Duvall), before he is forced out. It is then the woman’s turn to be at the brunt of numerous practical jokes. Altman has often been asked why Kellerman is humiliated so openly, and why treat women like that? Altman declared he was not the one throwing the punches, so to speak, but rather the characters. “This is not a hosptial,” cries Hot Lips, “Its an insane asylum!”. Nobody’s arguing with that.

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The collection of comic skits shows why M*A*S*H translated well to television. The suicide scene is brilliantly poised, when one character announces his impending fate, someone else gets dibs on his record player. He’s asked casually how he plans to do it, to which he confesses he came to the group for advise on that. “I’m new to this game”. There’s even a blatant mimicking of The Last Supper painting as a send-off.

Behind the scenes, it was not all laughter. Sutherland and Gould, perturbed that they were lot the stars of this ensemble, scurried to the studio without success to get Altman fired. There was also a pending MPAA rating given the breakthrough of the word “fuck” being uttered in a motion picture. Altman wasn’t busting balls as much as he was really breaking ground.

As the films meets it’s close, the P.A. Announcer, which features throughout, tells us that “Tonight’s movie has been M*A*S*H.”, breaking the fourth wall so subtlety you might not hardly notice. The characters are listed, and the cast too. An ingenious way to transition to the film’s end. It catches you by surprise. The gong signals the end of this comedy act.

A sound used earlier, in perhaps Elliott Gould’s finest moment of the film. Trapper’s response to the hostile head nurse puts her in her place. Like many, or most, of the gags in M*A*S*H, there’s a smart context to the quips and gestures and reactions. Reading it here likely doesn’t do the comedy justice, see for yourself. And watch the whole scene as it is the nurse’s candid punchline, hilariously delivered in a way that spotlights that more pressing issue, that earns that gong. And Gould knows it. Brilliant from Altman, this kid has real potential.

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