Even though the most ardent Robert Altman fans are likelier to rattle off Nashville or McCabe & Mrs. Miller or even The Long Goodbye as his masterpiece, there is no denying the lasting cultural impact of a comedy like M*A*S*H. In terms of accolades, Altman’s breakthrough Korean War film was nominated for five Oscars, won the 1970 Palme d’Or and ranks at #54 on the AFI’s Top 100 Movies list. In terms of popularity, the movie was by far his best-known work; for every dollar the movie cost, it made back $83, and its incredible success helped green-light a TV series that actually outlasted the (full-scale) Korean War by eight years. In terms of critical and institutional respect, even the notoriously prickly Pauline Kael lauded it as “the best American comedy since sound came in,” and many other critics have since declared it the first seminal work of a decade known for seminal works.
To have never bothered to see a movie as widely lauded as M*A*S*H is a damning enough sin for any avowed movie lover to confess to. Until this week, I was one of those sinners. And in the spirit of full honesty, taking the time to see M*A*S*H is simply one part of my larger, more egregious crime of having seen only a scant selection of Altman’s films. For reasons that I am sure have less to do with the director’s shortcomings than my own, I have always had difficulty embracing the truly strange energy that imbues each of the Altman movies I’ve seen.
I think you know what I mean about his “strange” energy. I mean his overlapping, sometimes incomprehensible dialog. I mean the way he allows his camera to drift along, lingering arbitrarily on certain imagery and making cuts where other filmmakers wouldn’t think to. I also mean the inscrutability of his films’ themes; it’s not always clear what Altman is trying to say at specific points, as the weight of his allegory frequently clashes with the lethargy of his tone.
As I said, this has made getting into Altman’s work somewhat difficult for me. The bizarre rhythm in The Long Goodbye left me (perhaps appropriately) baffled and disoriented, and the overly reserved archness in Gosford Park left me cold. It was not until I saw the complex and riveting McCabe & Mrs. Miller a few months ago, however, that the adjective “Altmanesque” finally ceased to refer to frustrating affectation and finally became a full-fledged sensibility. As an Altman novice, I dare say I finally came to understand what to expect from an Altman film, and I was finally prepared to see more of his work.
But I digress. In retrospect, M*A*S*H really ought to have been the starting point in my process of becoming familiar with Altman. Not only is it an earlier entry in his oeuvre than McCabe, Goodbye and especially Gosford, but this particular story of “the zany antics of our combat surgeons as they cut and stitch their way along the front lines” proves itself to be the ideal template for Altman’s distinctive swagger.
Minimalist in terms of stakes and episodic in structure, the film relies little on plot and instead has us get to know “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and “Trapper John” McIntyre (Elliott Gould) through the random bouts of on-duty mischief that take place during their tour in East Asia. If Hawkeye and his pals in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital Unit aren’t busy flirting with female nurses or “borrowing” jeeps for wanton joyrides, they are exacting revenge on their self-righteous superior officers (Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman) by secretly broadcasting their clandestine sexual encounter over the P.A. When they’ve expended as much fun from that particular zaniness, Hawkeye and McIntyre take advantage of a special medical assignment to Japan so as to indulge themselves a rare round of golf, they “assist” (that is to say they thwart) the unit dentist in attempting suicide and – when there is nothing else to do – they simply enjoy the rays.
M*A*S*H’s use of war as a canvas for what is essentially a genre exercise – that exercise being deceptively straightforward comedy – reminds me a lot of what we saw almost forty years later with the action movie The Hurt Locker. Specifically, I recall how the reluctance of Kathryn Bigelow movie to editorialize explicitly on the Iraq War caught me off-guard initially, as the action set-pieces seemed to have been given far more attention than any potential message. Like Locker, the attitude toward war in M*A*S*H plays out with a similar kind of agnosticism and, considering how the movie was released when our military presence in Vietnam was at a height of unpopularity, it seems at first a rather tame move for any auteur, let alone a New Hollywood director.
But again, like The Hurt Locker, Altman’s point in M*A*S*H is not made through the war zone being depicted; it is instead seen through the characters occupying that space, and how all those “zany antics” we see serve as mechanisms to cope with the terror – and the tedium – of war. As funny as the movie is, and as outlandish as each of its chapters can be, it occasionally (and crucially) peppers in moments of jarring seriousness, almost uniformly seen in the depiction of the 4077th actually providing medical aid to their injured brothers-in-arms. These sparse moments contradict, yet strangely complement, the goofiness shown throughout the rest of M*A*S*H. Through those sequences of earnestness, we begin to see each of the more comedic chapters for what they are: a scrapbook of sorts by a crew of dislocated comrades finding respite in whatever distractive endeavor they can find, no matter how sophomoric.
That strange mixture of seriousness and zaniness, of complement and contradiction, really exemplifies why Altman’s unconventional style – again, an acquired taste for me – seems so perfect here. The almost blithe approach to his filmmaking, all in the midst of the tragedy of something as serious and deadly as war, helps bring an air of context and relevance to each comedic set-piece we see.
Admittedly, Altman’s third film is not a perfectly crafted work. As valuable as his humanistic approach is, it is frequently undercut by how gleefully he depicts the cruel treatment of Sally Kellerman’s “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan character. I would be interested in hearing other interpretations arguing in favor of her treatment, especially given the fact that Kellerman was the only actor in the movie to snag an Oscar nomination. For me, though, Altman’s contemptuous outlook on “Hot Lips” – as well as her cartoonish devolution by the end into a strident, blathering imbecile – hints at a mean-spiritedness and lack of subtlety that I feel runs counter to the film’s message of empathy. Dramatically, the film’s episodic nature and lack of momentum can be trying as well, especially when the final sequence – a high-stakes football game between the 4077th and another Unit – feels as if it’s a part of a completely different movie.
These issues are enough for me to resist labeling this particular cinematic Blind Spot as the masterpiece that so many believe it to be. Yet despite the flaws, what really comes through in M*A*S*H is the enduring promise of an assured, interesting director beginning to find his stride. It gives me not merely ample reason to eagerly fill the many holes in my knowledge of Robert Altman’s filmography, but it even encourages me to look back at those other movies of his that worked less well for me, and to give them a second chance.