Robert Altmanâ€™s M*A*S*H is like a whole bunch of films wrapped up into one. It takes place in a war zone, but itâ€™s not really a war movie. It subtly portrays the brutality of war through the experiences of characters who do not fit war movie archetypes. Calling M*A*S*H the frat brothers at war, would not be far off. However, this is not to discount its intent because as a whole â€“ it works.
In a lot of ways M*A*S*H was the establishment of Robert Altmanâ€™s auterism. He implemented overlapping dialogue, emphasized the filmsâ€™ minor characters to make it feel like an ensemble, and allowed the actors to improvise most of their lines and bits. This is the biggest thing that M*A*S*H deserves to be praised for â€“ it set up Altman for the dynamite career that was ahead of him.
Altman enlists an all-star cast for the film including Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, and Tom Skerritt, among others. In early production Gould and Sutherland felt Altman was out of his element and threatened to quit because the newcomer director was spending too much time on the minor characters and forgetting who the stars were. However, Altman did not change his style and the result is an ensemble genre that has since been often mimicked and rarely mastered.
Despite being released in 1970, M*A*S*H takes place during the Korean War, 20 years earlier. The studio wanted to avoid making any statements about the current conflict, however the political commentary is undeniable. Even though the narration breaks the suspension of disbelief by directly referencing the fact that itâ€™s just a movie, itâ€™s clear that the satire is about the American military in general, not just during Korea. The world in which the characters exist is like a less-strict P.O.W. camp â€“ they may be able to get away with whatever they want, but they have to be there.
The action of the film takes place in a M*A*S*H, which stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Capt. Benjamin â€œHawkeyeâ€ Pierce and Capt. John Francis â€œTrapperâ€ McIntyre are surgeons who were drafted by the Army and essentially forced to work for the war effort. Their one unwritten condition is that they are going to live as they wish while in the service â€“ sleep with nurses, hit golf balls at helicopters, play football, and make life difficult for many of their co-habitants.
Other than that the film does not really have a plot, which is just how Altman likes it. He often said in interviews that the book on which the film is based (and the script as well) is terribly written. Altman believed that the less the film was about a story, the better. He uses scenes and specific images instead of plot to give the film its meaning. Some of the most jarring, yet significant moments are when the scenes transition from Hawkeye and Trapperâ€™s chauvinistic, goofball games to the graphic bloody gore of the operating room. It makes sure that the viewer is not distracted from the fact that war is ugly, disturbing, and gritty.
Altman filmed the movie with dirtied camera lenses to give the world of the characters a grim feel. Dirtiness seeps out of every frame of the film with brown mud splashes, dark green canvas tents, and dimly lit indoor scenes. The unshaven and disheveled looks of the main characters added to the grittiness of the film. Altman made sure to make the setting of the film seem anything but friendly, which further sets out the crazy antics of the central duo.
Speaking of that central duo, Gould and Sutherland easily make one of the best on-screen teams in cinematic history. Most of their lines are improvised and they bounce little one-liners off of each other brilliantly with a chauvinistic zing and rapier wit. Another excellent performance comes from Robert Duvall as the uptight religious man Frank Burns, who Altman uses to contrast Gould and Sutherland as a not-so-subtle critique of the religious right-wing.
My qualms with the film are primarily with the uneven pacing. In a sense itâ€™s this very pacing that defines the film, but it also prohibits it. At times the movie becomes an all-out farce, along the lines of a National Lampoon endeavor, which diminishes a lot of the brilliance. The football game finale has too many groan-inducing attempts at jokes that donâ€™t fit the tone of the film that had been established.
My other issue with the film was the misogynistic attitudes of the protagonists. Throughout the film the male characters are all-out sexual deviants that misuse and abuse women. All of the female characters of the film are treated as foils or props, with no feminine role that validates the placement of women in the Army. In the directorâ€™s commentary for the movie Altman argues that he only did this to reflect the actual male attitudes in the Army at the time. Reflecting that attitude is one thing, but encouraging it is another.
Most directors making their big budget premiere will have an imperfect film, but I will always hold M*A*S*H in high regard because it established Altmanâ€™s fantastic style that contributed to so many masterpieces to follow.